As a veteran marketing professional, I’m not easily impressed by marketing tools and techniques. But my first,
What It Is
SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and it’s a relatively new tool for marketing products and services. Google started the first SEM venue, AdWords, on October 23, 2000 (1). Few were paying attention and nobody could foresee that in a short 19 years (at the time of this writing), Adwords would burgeon into the $60 billion colossi it is today.
In my defense, when AdWords was introduced, I was selling products that didn’t benefit much from SEM. SEM works best when prospects are actively looking for answers to purchasing questions. At the time, I was marketing specialized products to a small fraternity of customers. All our customers knew us well and the general consensus was that strong customer service and lots of “steak and whiskey” were our preferred marketing tools. Later, in 2014, I moved to a human tissue services company and SEM was even more irrelevant. There were only two companies offering human cardiac tissue and every cardiac surgeon and hospital knew who they were.
Putting SEM to Work
But in my third year at the tissue services company, we acquired a company in Texas that manufactured a mechanical heart valve. Shortly after the acquisition, we spent in excess of $100K in marketing research to discover how to steal market share from our competitors. The study revealed that something like 94% of cardiac surgeons didn’t see any difference in mechanical heart valves. The implant procedure was basically the same no matter whose valve the surgeon used. All mechanical valves were FDA-approved, and patient outcomes were roughly the same. How then were we to differentiate our valve from our competitors if surgeons didn’t care what valve they used?
Our valve did have one overwhelming advantage over our competitors. After any mechanical heart valve is implanted, the patient must take blood thinner daily for the rest of their life to prevent blood clots and stroke. The principal drug approved to thin the blood after mechanical valve implant is Warfarin. Warfarin, as patients soon discovered, used the same active ingredient as rat poison. Needless to say, no patient wanted to take it.
Our mechanical heart valve, however, was made from materials so slippery, that it required on average half the blood thinner as it’s the closest competitor. This was a significant advantage to the patient. But cardiac surgeons didn’t really care because ongoing blood maintenance was the responsibility of the cardiologist and ultimately the patient.
Should You Be Using SEO?
The two key questions as to whether or not to employ SEM are …
- Does the customer have a choice of products/solutions?
- Will the customer bother to investigate his/her purchase in order to make an informed decision?
If the answer to both these questions is “yes,” SEM is a very cost-effective way to inform your customer and “convert” interest into a sale.
Regarding a heart valve operation, almost all prospective patients (and/or patient advocates – loved ones, parents, children, etc.) researched the options on the internet before making a final valve decision. Furthermore, the same expensive marketing study mentioned above indicated that because surgeons didn’t perceive any difference in mechanical heart valves, something like 92% said if the patient had a valve preference, the surgeon would honor that preference.
As the answers to both SEM questions above were “yes,” our marketing team decided to go directly to the patient with an SEM campaign to inform them of the advantages of our valve.
The first step in the SEM process was to interview patients and product managers to determine what keywords and phrases prospective patients would be typing into search engines. We compiled an initial list of about twenty words and phrases and set up a Google AdWord campaign. We determined an initial budget of $1,500 per month would be sufficient to determine if the campaign was worth pursuing. Simultaneously, we began developing the landing site and content assets.
Creating a Conversion Path
The goal of SEM is to create a path for the prospective customer to follow. This path leads them from curiosity to conversion. When the customer investigates the product or service by typing search terms into a search engine like Google or Bing, your paid ad appears above the “organic” search results. If carefully designed, the ad then stimulates interest with a provocative question or statement. If the customer clicks on your ad, they find themselves on a “landing site” specifically developed to answer the question or speak to the statement of your ad. This content takes the form of articles, images, videos, FAQs, etc. The content provides the information the customer needs to make an informed decision. Finally, you “convert” the sale via calls to action (CTAs). These CTAs can take the form of a “product finder” (in our case a surgeon finder), a shopping cart, or by the customer sending contact information via a custom form or phone call. Finally, you analyze your results via the Adwords analysis platform and Google Analytics. Armed with this analysis, you can modify keywords, modify demographic targets, modify
Cheap But Not Easy
Good SEM campaigns are a lot of work because they require a lot of pieces. The trick is to put yourself in the customer’s position, asking “What would the customer want to know in order to make an informed decision?” A comprehensive campaign requires good content that speaks to those needs. Video is king. Expect potential customers to be impatient. A concise, pointed video, explaining your product or service is much better than volumes of text. Also, if a customer can’t convert online, make sure to give them a “takeaway” to carry with them to the place of purchase.
When our landing site was finished, we activated the AdWord campaign. We defined our “conversion” as a download of our brochure (to take to the surgeon), a call to a surgeon on the surgeon finder, or direct contact with us via phone or email. Within days of activating the campaign, we had our first conversions. Within weeks we were converting up to three patients a day. In the first year of the campaign, we stole 8% market share from our competitors.
The King of ROI
The whole experience amounted to an epiphany for me. I knew many were using SEM and generating great results. But until this campaign, I didn’t realize the extent of the cost-effectiveness. Instead of “shotgunning” display ads at general markets and hoping that someone in your target market sees them, SEM allows for specific, targeted, “impressions”. That is to say that only those in your target market see the ad. Adwords only charges for “clicks” and because you determine your ad budget up front, you’re never surprised by the monthly charges. You determine how much you’ll pay for a click, then how many clicks you’re willing to pay for monthly (total monthly budget). But here’s the best part, and the “Holy Grail” of advertising. Finally, you can calculate the ROI or your campaign by dividing the value of your conversions by your total ad spend – beautiful!