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In traditional media, you might place radio ads, billboard ads, print ads and do promotional events. At the end of the day, at best you track the increase in sales and claim it all was a success. Maybe the billboards were worthless, maybe the promotions were driving all of the increase. Maybe you test removing each one to over time find out what works. More likely, you pat yourself on the back for the sales increase and continue with all of the advertising.

This is the dilemma that drove retailing pioneer John Wanamaker to famously quip “I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted … I just don’t know which half.”

Enter search engine marketing promising that enigmatic trait in advertising: accountability. Suddenly we were able to promise advertisers the unique ability (the closest in traditional media would be direct marketing) to track every dollar that was spent and exactly what it generated in revenue. While this proved to be a major factor in the meteoric growth of search engine marketing, it was a double-edged sword. Suddenly, search marketers were held to a higher standard of accountability than traditional advertising.

To a certain extent this is just fine, and the results spoke for themselves. However, as the market has become more competitive and advertisers more sophisticated, we needed to identify those benefits that search marketing brings that are not tracked directly to online sales. The first step was tying in phone call tracking to our search marketing efforts, so we can show exactly the number of calls in addition to leads or sales that were generated in a specified period of time. Basically, a unique phone number shows up on the client’s website if they came from an ad that we generated, and we track all of these calls.

Beyond online sales, leads and the phone calls, things get a little more vague. Specifically, there was the belief that the search engine marketing we were doing were impacting off-line — and therefore un-trackable — sales. But with little ability to provide these numbers, we are forced to rely on overall trends and logic, which is a departure from the accountability that made search marketing work.

This dilemma is why we love studies like the one released this week by Yahoo and comScore as reported by SearchEngineLand, which essentially support the claim that search advertising has a strong influence on generating off-line sales. It is definitely worth a read, but the take-away is that users that were exposed to search engine advertising spent considerably more off-line than those that didn’t. So those dollars spend on search actually do even more good than the ROI numbers would indicate. The amount of course will vary widely across verticals, but clearly any business with an off-line component is seeing results in search that inherently will skew lower than the actual total benefit of search advertising.


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