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Jul 27, 2005
Case Study

How to Improve Search Marketing ROI: Real-Life Tactics From Charles Schwab's CyberTrader Marketers

SUMMARY: If you're running search campaigns in an incredibly competitive niche, this is the Case Study for you. Discover how marketers for CyberTrader reach wealthy 40-65-year-old men online -- and how they convert them into trial customers. Includes practical tactics for:

- Avoiding bidding wars
- Making your search ad copy "clickworthy"
- Revamping your home page to raise conversions.

Includes before-and-after home page redesign screenshots and sample SEM competitive data reports you'll be jealous of.
"We jokingly say we're not looking for a needle in a haystack -- we're looking for a golden needle in a haystack," quips Trey Robinson, Director of Sales and Marketing for CyberTrader.

This wholly-owned subsidiary of Charles Schwab markets software, data and tools to the very top 1%-2% of individual stock market investors, generally wealthy men aged 40-65 who execute at least two trades a day for their personal portfolio.

It's an incredibly competitive niche. Big competitors such as Ameritrade and Fidelity have deep marketing pockets to reach it.

Robinson tested every type of media -- from radio to banner ads -- he could think of to reach this niche with a reasonable ROI. The tests that failed ROI-wise were ... paid search campaigns.

But, CyberTrader's competitors were all over the search engines -- obviously spending like crazy. Were they wasting money or had they figured out a formula for success that eluded Robinson's team? Could he turn his search marketing results around, while avoiding the bidding wars escalating in his niche?

Robinson immediately ceased his search ad campaign -- why throw good money after bad? Then he and his team embarked on a careful five-step program, systematically revamping each step of the search marketing process for (hopefully) better results:

Step #1. Analyze current site conversion patterns

Before you can fix your ROI for campaigns, you must examine your conversion process data to figure out what's not working on your landing page or site.

First Robinson's team spelled out the conversion goal. They only cared about traffic that either registered for a sample 21-day trial or completed a formal new account application. The activities of tire-kickers who never converted didn't matter.

Next, the team examined the site's analytics data to determine how visitors who ultimately converted had behaved on their way down the conversion path, in particular: -> What pages did they look at? Which did they ignore? -> How many times did they visit the site prior to converting? -> How long did the conversion take? Minutes? Months?

Step #2. Revamp the conversion process to lift potential ROI

Naturally the next step was to revamp the landing page for search-driven traffic to maximize the potential conversions. In this case, the landing page was the site's home page.

(Note: We normally strongly recommend against this as a worst practice, however CyberTrader had a few extenuating circumstances. These included testing alternate landing pages with not-great results; spending 70% of overall budget on offline ad campaigns so the home page was ipso facto a landing page; plus, the fact that aside from a tiny link for current client entry, home page real estate was 100% devoted to converting new visitors rather than serving many audiences.)

Tested site revamps included: moving best-conversion-path content further forward and adding many more pages of new content similar in nature to the best-conversion-path content so repeat visitors would have plenty of information to delve into.

Plus, the team revamped the automated email process so that new trial sign-ups got a series of conversion messages with timing and copy geared toward them. (Link to samples of both Web redesign before-and-after and email campaigns below.)

Step #3. Intensive keyword research

One of the best ways to avoid PPC bidding wars is by placing ads under a lot of super-niche (aka "rinky-dink") search terms your competitors haven't invested in yet. But, most everyone uses the same tools provided by search engines to discover new terms.

Instead, CyberTrader commissioned a report that used technology to scrape textual content (i.e., lists of words) off of the top competitor and news sites their target demographic frequented. Words were analyzed and ranked... and voila, they had a list of more than 1,000 keywords already used by the marketplace. "We have over 150 charting terms alone," says Robinson. "It's much more effective than sitting around a table trying to come up with search terms on our own. We're not hyperactive traders ourselves so we don't know what terms they really use in search."

Step #4. Search engine optimization (SEO)

Before you start paying for ads in search engines, first optimize your site so you get more traffic from organic listings. Aside from the services of an optimization expert, SEO is free (you're not paying a dime for clicks to the search engines no matter how much more traffic you get).

Plus, sometimes it can take three-six months for results to really kick in properly (depending on your site) so you want to get SEO started as soon as possible.

The SEO-basics Robinson's team performed included:

- Adding a link to a site map from the home page so search bots could discover more internal site pages easily.

- Rewriting page title tags from blandly informative to keyword rich marketing tools. Most important: not wasting critical keyword space reiterating the site/brand name in every single tag.

- Changing all images with text (such as images used for page headlines) to a HTML text plus image combo so search engines could read the words. (Bots can't read words that are presented as graphics.)

Step #5. (Re)Test paid search ads

The team then re-entered the PPC search ad world, gingerly. Instead of launching flat-out campaigns, they just tested 120 terms for 30 days, watching extended 30-day conversion activity for resulting visitors (not just immediate click-to-conversion).

Then they slowly ratcheted up the campaign, testing and optimizing more and more keywords. One member of the team watched results throughout each day. Robinson then received twice-weekly results and recommendations reports for further activity. Key tests included:

o Optimizing PPC ad copy -- The team tracked ad copy across CyberTrader's top competitors so they could tweak copy to stand out in the crowd on the screen. They tested both very factual copy and brand-slogan copy such as "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight." (Link to sample competitive copy report below.)

o Testing daypart and weekpart -- Some marketers have had tremendous success tweaking campaigns based on time of day and day of week (in particular weekday versus weekend).

o Rejiggering grouped terms -- To save on labor, the team clumped many of the "rinky-dink" terms into groups of similar terms for campaigns, however they discovered sometimes one particular term in the group outperforms others. Reconfiguring groups to get more views for the terms with the best ROI was critical.

o Analyzing bidpoints -- The team used their own and a search engine provided bid estimator tools to determine the amount that would give the most clicks for the least money. Each term was different, and that best bidpoint was itself a moving target. On average, bidpoints needed to be adjusted about every 10 days.

o Watching the competition -- As dieting sites have discovered to their chagrin, if one competitor suddenly goes crazy, bidding insane amounts per click for internal political reasons, it can throw everyone else's budgets out of whack. CyberTrader's team continually reviewed the competition's bid prices for keyterms. (Link to sample competitive report below.)

During the first month of site tweaks, CyberTrader's site conversions rose by more than 20% and cost per conversion declined more than 13%. Further tweaks helped individual critical pages double their conversion rates.

The team discovered the average conversion to trial required 4-5 site visits over a seven-day period. So, the increased wealth of content for these visitors was critical for success. The email campaign then kicked in, carrying the leads down a nurturing path for the next 30 days.

Robinson was most surprised to learn a large group of purchasers never would raise their hands for a trial before "pulling the trigger." They preferred to remain anonymous, at a hands-off distance surfing the site (and presumably competitors') for days or even weeks prior to making a final decision and converting with a formal application.

If the team had simply been measuring immediate visitor click-to-conversion rates, they would have never found this group nor been able to add pages to the site that appealed to them.

"We decided to expose content for that anonymous visitor that we'd never done before. It's almost a manual's worth of data on how CyberTrader works and what you can do in each window of the software. A lot of competitors may be afraid of overwhelming visitors, but this is a very profitable segment and they will convert."

Robinson is currently so happy with paid search ROI that he's adjusted his online marketing budget so search gets a "much higher" part. "It's not the highest for raw numbers of conversions, but it is the most cost-effective."

By tweaking how various "rinky-dink" terms were grouped into ad groups so the higher ROI performers were displayed more frequently by the engines, the team increased conversions from 2.9% to 3.5% in just 30 days. Key: Robinson notes if you rely on the search engine to choose which terms get displayed more, they'll invariably pick the term that gets the highest clicks ... not the highest ROI. So you have to manage this yourself.

Day-parting and week-parting tests didn't make a bit of difference. Weekend visitors tended to spend much more time on the site before they converted, but they ultimately converted at the same rate as weekday visitors. (Note: This isn't true for all sites.)

On the other hand, Robinson does believe in day-parting for email campaigns. He prefers to mail to the house list at 5:30 p.m. ET weekdays, right after the markets close.

The copywriting test using the slogan "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight" increased related click conversions by 15%, proving that tweaking copy in search ads really does pay off. Robinson notes one reason why it worked so well was the fact that he was using the same slogan across multiple media campaigns, so prospects would have seen it many times in many media before they tripped over it in search.

So, yes cross-media branding campaigns can help search results significantly.

This is one of many reasons that while Robinson is moving banner ad funds into search, he's not ready to move offline funds into search. TV, radio and some print will continue as 70% of total budget for the time being.

Useful links related to this article

Before-and-after screenshots, sample emails, and (fabulous) sample competitive search marketing reports:

SEMphonic, the search marketing technology provider that CyberTrader relied on for help with each step of the process:


See Also:

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