Is your current search engine marketing (SEM) strategy missing out on a major component of the B2B sales funnel? If we break the funnel down into three main phases – Awareness, Evaluation and Decision – each of these phases corresponds with a distinct SEM strategy.
Trouble is, most folks blaze right past a major part of the SEM strategy for the Awareness phase – category search – and head straight to branded search terms and compete terms. Failing to integrate category search into your SEM strategy is a huge oversight that makes it more difficult to engage with prospects at the earliest part of the sales funnel.
Increasingly, the Awareness phase is also the part of the sales funnel where businesses wield the greatest ability to influence sales outcomes by setting expectations. Consequently, overlooking category search puts your business at a distinct disadvantage from day one.
Why the B2B Buying Cycle Matters for Smart SEM
It’s no secret that today’s B2B buying cycle is longer than ever, making continued engagement from day one both an absolute necessity and an expensive undertaking. In the last five years, the average sales cycle has grown 22 percent longer, typically with three or more decision makers participating in the buying process.
According to Kelsey Snyder and Pashmeena Hilal, the authors of Google’s Changing Face of Digital Marketing, “Influence and decision making are happening earlier on the purchasing path, even prior to brand awareness.” On average, B2B purchasing influencers conduct 12 searches prior to visiting a specific brand’s site. Nearly three out of four B2B influencers start their research with a generic category search, not a brand search.
In fact, by the time B2B influencers are conducting a category search, Snyder and Hilal argue that these influencers are well on their way to making a final decision about being a B2B vendor. Failing to invest in category search cuts your business out from a critical position of influence.
The “4 Cs” of Search & the B2B Sales Funnel: Category, Content, Company and Compete
When it comes to selecting the right keywords for B2B SEM, not all terms are created equal. Different terms appeal to different audiences, depending on where they are in the sales funnel. Start with the four Cs of search terms: company, category, compete and content. “Company” is an obvious one; these are the brand keywords or brand terms someone uses when searching for your business. Since these terms are highly specific, the folks using them are generally further down your sales pipeline; they might already be customers or have engaged previously with your business. You’ll find them in the Evaluation and Decision stages of the sales funnel. The same goes for “compete” terms; these are the search terms B2B influencers use when they’re weighing their options and preparing to make a final decision.
“Content” refers to the keywords people use when searching for specific content like a white paper that relates to a common industry problem. These prospects are at the top of your sales funnel in the Awareness phase; they’re still in the early stages of exploration. “Category” terms are part of this phase, too. They’re the terms B2B influencers use when searching for information related to a product or service you offer. These influencers may not know your brand even exists; they’re simply gathering information. Here’s the thing: too many B2B companies pour all their energy into creating fantastic content like white papers and eBooks, forgetting that they need to invest in category search, too.
Confused about the difference between category and content search? While these two search categories are similar – they’re both targeting decision makers at the very top of the sales funnel – different terms will appeal to category versus content searchers. A category searcher is quite literally at step one in the B2B sales cycle: they’re using keywords to find general information about a problem. They may not even know a solution exists! Content searchers are slightly more advanced; they’ve got a general idea about their solution needs so they’ve started the search for relevant material to help them understand the solution options.
For example, let’s say you’re searching for information on SEM marketing strategy. A category search ad might read “SEM Marketing Strategy 101” while a content search ad might read “Complete Guide SEM Marketing: Download Now.”
How to Maximize B2B Category Search ROI
Investing in category search positions your business to shape a B2B influencer’s expectations from day one. To maximize ROI, identify where you can be part of the conversation as early as possible. This starts with selecting the right long-tail keyword phrases.
AdWords Keyword tool is a good starting point for category search terms. Create a keyword spreadsheet and prioritize. In addition to search volume and cost, include ranking difficulty (e.g., lots of volume but too hard to rank for) and opportunity (e.g., does Google provide an ‘instant search answer’ in the results that negates the need for anyone to click through?).
Avoid linking your category display ads directly to a services / pricing page, which can seem like too much of a hard sell too early in the sales process. Instead, link content that provides foundational knowledge. For example, if your business provides SEM marketing strategy, link to a landing page that includes a brief overview of the SEM landscape and why it matters for businesses. (You could further differentiate landing pages with B2B, B2C, small v. enterprise, etc.). Do include a link to a relevant white paper or webinar so they can further their knowledge and engagement with your business.
While it's easy to get caught up in content marketing and bidding on branded search terms, don't overlook the power of category search to propel your business to the front of the pack with B2B decision makers. Are you considering category search? Let us know in the comments.