How to Create an Effective Branded PPC Campaign
Mar 30, 2023 Affiliate Managers, AgenciesUnless you are completely new to PPC, it is tough to get the big gains that we once saw. As a marketing tactic, PPC has been mature for years and few “easy wins” still remain. Many categories are dominated by large players (e.g., Amazon), long-tail keywords have become expensive, and the most advanced marketers have complex technology and expensive agencies on their side. Especially with first-page CPC bids on the rise, advertisers are tempted to look for any opportunity possible to reduce costs, and sometimes branded campaigns end up getting the ax. But this is the wrong move. We review massive amounts of data for branded searches. We’ve verified that competition for branded keywords is on the rise. If brands and their agencies do nothing, the result is higher CPCs, lower average rankings, and even advertisers and partners unknowingly working against each other. Running an effective brand-bidding strategy focused on revenue growth and protection can drive leads effectively, while preventing competitors from encroaching on your territory. Key observations we’ve made while sifting through brand-bidding data include:
- Consumers love branded searches. The volume of branded searches is quite impressive. Using the Google Ads Keyword Planner, for example, we saw that in December 2020 alone, there were over 8 million US searches for “the north face” and 606K US searches for “north face jackets.”
- Brand bidding protects a majority of brand search traffic. Advertisers receive a large portion of their traffic from branded searches. One of our clients, a well-known travel brand, shared that by sponsoring their brand terms they were able to capture two-thirds of the paid search clicks generated by those branded keywords. In other words, if this client were not to sponsor its brand, then it would be giving up 66% of the clicks on its brand terms to competitors.
- Clicks decrease rapidly with more competition. Our data shows that brand owners can lose 50% of their click potential as competition increases.
- CPCs increase significantly with more competition. We also see that CPCs can jump more than 60% when competitors vie for the top three spots.
- Affiliate competitors distort metrics. Affiliates can throw off bid automation and conversion metrics by 20% or more.
What’s the history of brand bidding?The history of PPC is a short but intense journey. Looking back, we have noticed five distinct cycles in PPC optimization, each with an increasing degree of difficulty, and new PPC users tend to recreate this journey as they progress in sophistication. As you read through these five cycles of development below, ask yourself where you think you currently are — and where you’d like to be. Cycle 1: Keyword Lists This initial optimization tactic was focused on the breadth of your keyword list. It was relatively easy because everything was new. Keywords were cheap! When pay-per-click was introduced, quality, decent-volume keywords could be purchased for five cents or less. Even five years later, a search marketer who bid more than a few dollars on a click would be laughed at. With bid prices so low, search marketers were happy to experiment with the new channel. It was a learning environment, and competition remained low for years. Gains in revenue were tremendous as a result. Cycle 2: Analytics After building an exhaustive keyword list, marketers focused on their performance analytics for PPC optimization. They studied CTRs, conversion rates, CPCs and anything else they could monitor, then tweaked their strategies ever so subtly. The addition of advanced analytics enabled PPC gains to remain considerable. Cycle 3: Bid Automation After analytics, advances in technology made it easier to automate many of the huge data chores associated with optimization. In particular, the automation of bids let advertisers change their costs in real time to reflect changes in product costs or consumer demand. Millions of PPC bids could be controlled by bid automation systems, and the quality of the data inputs (the analytics) became even more vital to PPC optimization. This new technology helped usher in the next cycle in PPC optimization. Cycle 4: Pruning After gains from analytics and automation were exhausted, the seasoned marketer took an even closer look at their campaigns for available refinements in performance. Engines were constantly rolling out new optimization features for advertisers, and the popular ones were negative match, search queries, and other cost analysis tools. They used these to prune out the big cost drivers that didn’t deliver the performance. Another huge leap of gains happened in cost optimization. Cycle 5: Relevancy The most recent cycle in PPC optimization occurred when marketers optimized their campaigns against the new arena of Quality Scores and search engine mandates for relevance. The engines value greater relevancy at all costs and have rewarded those marketers that complied with cheaper CPCs. Brand Bidding As The Next Cycle Fast forward to the present day, and marketers are looking for the next tool or technique to generate large gains from PPC performance. The Search Monitor believes that brand bidding is the next cycle in PPC optimization.
What are brand and brand-plus keywords?Let’s start with some definitions. A brand keyword (a.k.a. branded keyword or brand term) is the keyword used to search for a company name. A recognizable example is “Macy’s.” Note that brand keywords can include obvious misspellings, such as “Macys” or “Masy’s.” A brand-plus keyword, meanwhile, refers to a keyword phrase that includes the brand term plus a qualifying phrase. An example would be “Adidas running shoe.” There are many variations, such as:
- Brand + product name: “Adidas Flux”
- Brand + review: “Adidas Ultra Boost review”
- Brand + coupon: “Adidas coupon”
- Brand + sale: “Adidas sale” or “Adidas discount”
- Brand long tail: “Adidas men’s Springblade running shoe size 13”
- Brand + website: “www Adidas” or “Adidas website”
Brand keywords represent an immense amount of search traffic, but a minority of that traffic is organic traffic.A 2020 study by Bing on automotive ads found that advertisers earned 2.1x more total clicks when they serve a paid ad for their brand versus relying on organic search listings alone. Why? When a shopper searched for an OEM brand and that brand’s ad was not present on the search results page, 59% of clicks were not picked up by their organic pages. That meant that the brand captured just 41% of brand clicks when relying on organic search listings alone, while competitors captured 29% of those clicks on their brand name (21% of which came from paid ads). However, when they served paid ads on brand searches, OEMs captured 86% of total clicks (78% from paid ads and an additional 8% from organic listings). Perhaps more critically, branded ads significantly reduced the amount of traffic captured by competitors, from 29% to just 8% of total clicks for OEM brand terms. (Source: Microsoft internal data, May – July 2020, U.S. Bing only) Something to keep in mind: Some consumers use search engines as a replacement for the browser address bar. A common behavior is to type the website address into the Google search box. Brand bidding allows you to capture these clicks and their high click-through rates.
Branded search campaigns allow brands to deliver a more compelling experience that drives higher conversion rates.When a customer clicks through to your landing page from a branded search, you have more control over their experience with your brand. With organic searches, you do not have control over where they land—Google makes this determination for you. With paid ads, you decide where users go. With a dedicated landing page experience and more control, you can better convert paid traffic on your branded search terms. Running an ad on your branded keywords lets you control the landing page experience much more easily than you can with your organic listings. Optimized landing pages, especially with continuous A/B testing, convert at higher rates than non-relevant landing pages. In addition, studies have shown that branded keyword phrases are 5x more likely to convert visitors into leads, and paid conversion rates can be upwards of 4x higher than organic conversion rates. Simply put, it’s better for conversions to have a paid ad representing you than relying on your organic listing.
Every branded campaign starts by assembling a list of keywords incorporating your brand name.With the why now out of the way, it’s time to discuss the best practices for how to implement brand bidding campaigns. As with any PPC campaign, brand bidding begins with effective keyword development. There are plenty of primers on keyword selection and keyword research tools on the web if you need to review the basics. These definitely apply to brand campaigns, too. To start, find the relevant brand and brand-plus keywords by reviewing your existing campaigns and analytics for generic terms that drive the best traffic, then add your brand terms in front of them. For example:
- Brand + product name: “Burton snowboard”
- Brand + review: “Burton Snowboard review”
- Brand + discount: “Burton discount”
- Brand + sale: “Burton sale”
- Brand long tail: “used Burton Process Flying V Snowboard 2016 157W”
- Brand + website: “www.Burton,” “Burton.com” or “Burton website”
It’s important to keep a close eye on your competitors’ ads, and be ready to fight back if they use your brand terms.Competitors using your brand terms are there to steal your clicks and piggy-back on your good name. Competitors can cause you to lose clicks and increase the cost-per-click of your brand terms. Worst yet, they can overtake you in rank, pushing you down the page. Your number one goal is to remove as many competitors as you can. The search engines will help you with this exercise. Start by familiarizing yourself with the engines’ trademark policies. Then, be vigilant in monitoring your brand terms. If you find a competitor who is using your name in their ad copy title or text, be relentless in reporting them to the search engine in question (more on this later). Note that search engines typically allow ads to use a competitor’s brand name in an ad’s display URL. Search engines have compliance departments that are set up to review trademark infringement complaints. If they find that an ad infringes on their policies, they will take the ad down immediately. If the ad does not infringe, the search engine will allow the ad to continue to run. If the latter happens, don’t take it personally. Don’t worry about getting penalized for reporting competitors’ ads. Search engines recognize the necessity of businesses taking steps to protect their brands, and so expect such complaints. However, you may find yourself having to initiate many such complaints. If you can automate the reporting process, you should. If your take-down attempts end up failing, it is most likely because the competitor is not using your brand name in its ad copy. (Or a competitor may adjust their ad copy, removing the term from the copy, but still running ads against your branded keywords.) By not using your name, the competitor’s ads are likely not very relevant to the search term, which will cause their quality score to decline and their CPC to increase. Their costs will balloon as a result, which is what you want, since it allows you to more easily outbid them. In fact, you may be able to outrank them despite having lower bids, if your ad scores are significantly higher. Bear in mind, they may opt to ignore their plunging return-on-ad-spend (ROAS) and continue bidding on your brand terms. It can be frustrating, but let them spend the money. Advertising budgets are finite. If they’re exhausting their budget on poorly optimized campaigns targeting your brand, that’s less money they are spending elsewhere. You can also cause them additional pain by cranking up the heat with partner arrangements.
There are a few best practices you should follow with your brand campaigns to ensure the best possible performance.In addition to the standard best practices for ad copy and landing pages, like title-matching your keyword, here are other best practices for brand bidding:
- Official Site. Consider using “official site” in your ad copy. An ad title like “Burton Official Site” can draw clicks away from wanna-be competitors and significantly increase your CTR.
- Landing Pages. Make sure the contents of your landing page matches the expectations of your would-be customers. Nobody likes clicking on an ad for blankets and getting a page for shoes, or even worse, seeing the dreaded 404 error page.
- Ad Extensions. Be sure to use ad extensions, specifically site links. Site links will make your ad BIGGER! Big ads take up more room, which pushes competitors down on the page. You can also add business phone numbers, third-party reviews (if you sell products), and display a local address if you have retail locations. We also encourage you to use call-out extensions to add offers, brand slogans, or “official reseller” status.
- Offers. In a recent analysis of offers run in skin care ads, we found that 34% of ads mentioned free shipping, 29% mentioned a sale, 22% included claims, and 13% offered free product. Highlighting offers like these can make your ad more enticing and potentially increase clicks as a result.
You don’t want your competitors bidding on your brand terms—but you may want to bid on your competitors’ terms.Yes, we’re hypocrites. We literally just talked about how to most effectively stop competitors from bidding on your terms. But, when done right, brand bidding on competitor terms can be very effective. This practice is known as “piggy-backing.” Who can benefit from piggy-backing? Just about everyone. Small, lesser-known brands can use piggy-backing to ride the coattails of a bigger competitor and gain exposure. On the other hand, if you are a big brand with a better product than your competitor, you can use this tactic to tell the marketplace about what makes your product superior. In order to piggy-back effectively, you will need to follow these rules:
- Ad Copy. Do not use the brand in the title or description of your ad, or you will get your ad taken down.
- Comparisons. Make sure that your ad is focused on comparing yourself to the competitor’s product or brand in a legal, non-derogatory way.
- Display URL. Use their brand in your display URL. This will make your ad relevant, protecting your Quality Score (e.g., mydomain.com/yourbrand-vs-theirbrand).
- Landing Page. Make sure the landing page is targeted to the comparison that you espouse in your ad. It must thoughtfully and accurately compare your features and benefits. If you can, find a third party who has done the comparison for you.
By carefully coordinating with affiliates and other partners on brand bidding, you can cut your costs and drive leads.First of all, identify your potential partners:
- Affiliates. Affiliates are partners who send visitors to the brand holder’s website through a referral link. Online retailers commonly work with partners in this way through affiliate networks such as Rakuten or Commission Junction. Examples include coupon code websites, bloggers, or review sites.
- Resellers. “Resellers' ' is just a fancy term for affiliates who refer leads instead of direct purchases. The leads captured by the reseller are sent to the brand holder for conversion. We often see resellers operating in finance, insurance, and telecom. An interesting nuance to this type of relationship is that the reseller will usually have authorization to use the brand in its URL, for example: “www.verizonfiosbundles.com” or “www.buyverizon.com.”
- Partners. Travel services (such as hotels) work through online travel agencies like Priceline or Expedia.
- Franchisees or Dealers. A franchisee (or dealer) relationship is a brick-and-mortar concept commonly found in automotive or education, where there is a physical, in- market store. In these arrangements, the dealer has certain marketing rights restricted to a geographic boundary.
- Online Retailers. We don’t usually think of retailers as “partners” or “affiliates,” but in fact they are if the brand holder is a manufacturer. Manufacturers sell through retailers and can benefit from the page ownership strategies discussed here.
- Identify a group of affiliates that you will allow to bid on your brand.
- In your contracts, clearly spell out that no affiliate can rank above you in branded PPC.
- Ensure affiliates have more relevant ad copy than your competitors by helping them to describe your products and services in depth in their ads and landing pages.
- As you refine the program, consider whether you should remove brand-bidding rights from all but your best three affiliates. This helps make sure your CPCs don’t get out of control.
- Controlling the first page of results
- Pushing out competitors
- Lowering CPC costs
- Driving more visits
- Improving ROAS
- Growing revenue
Implementing a cohesive partner brand bidding strategy with trusted partners is key to dominating the competition.Let’s start with an important definition. Partner brand bidding means that you allow some of your partners to bid on your brand name or brand-plus phrases—as discussed above—to control the page real estate. For partner bidding to work, you need to run a tight ship. Your tactics must include four key elements:
Tactic #1: Media StrategyBefore you can implement a partner strategy, you need to define your media strategy. This, in turn, will help you formulate your program rules. Questions to address include: Do you want to brand bid alongside partners? If you have an active and aggressive SEM strategy, you will be bidding heavily on all brand variations. You will want your partners at your side, with you in first position and your partners blocking the ranks directly below you from competitors. Some companies have hundreds of affiliates but may only allow PPC brand bidding for their best three or four partners (super-affiliates). Do you want to use partners to offset PPC ad spend? If you are looking to scale back your ad spend on PPC (maybe you had a budget cut), you can use your partners to fill in the gaps. In this case, you might want to anoint a few special super-affiliates and encourage them through incentives to maintain the top ranks. Or you may want to adopt a very loose brand-plus bidding policy and allow all of your affiliates to have access. If you find yourself in this boat, remember, you still need to bid on your own name. Do not give that up! What about offering incentives like co-op ad money? Perhaps you could control the search results pages better as a manufacturer by offering co-op ad dollars.
Tactic #2: Legal AgreementOnce you have defined your media strategy, it’s time to meet with your legal team and put the plan into writing. You will need a well-defined legal agreement that specifically explains the rules of the engagement, notice procedures and enforcement (i.e., you lose your payout, or hasta la vista, baby, you’re kicked out of the program!). The areas where restrictions can apply include:
- Allowed and prohibited keywords. Be specific and/or define classes of keywords.
- Allowed and prohibited ad copy. You can refer to an external policy document that changes from time to time in order to give yourself flexibility with wording and offers.
- Page rank. If you are bidding alongside partners, you will need to define page rank rules. Examples include: never above you, or your brand is always first on keywords x, y and z.
Tactic #3: Ad MonitoringWith the strategy and legal out of the way, it’s important to remember that your plan to corner the market is only as good as your enforcement. Best practices here include: Use ad monitoring software. Search ads on each page refresh and vary based on the location of the searcher. It is nearly impossible (and boring) to monitor them manually. Make sure you find a vendor who can check ads several times a day and across multiple locations. If you are hyper geo-sensitive, as you should be in industries such as telecom or automotive, your vendor will need to provide city and maybe even ZIP-code-level monitoring. Review summaries, not the details. We are often asked by clients for alerts to be sent each time a violation is found. Before you request something similar, consider this: If we were to monitor 30 brand-plus terms across 100 geographic territories, that would equate to 3,000 checks at a time. Do you want 30, 300 or 3,000 alerts to review? Instead, we recommend looking at the summaries. If the percentage of territories with violations becomes considerable, then it’s time to take action. One caveat for you: If you are in a regulated industry with ad copy sensitivity, then every violation counts and needs to be considered.
Tactic #4: Compliance enforcementThe manner in which you will enforce your policies should be neatly detailed in your legal agreement. Remember to be kind to your super-affiliates with fair notices and consequences, and act swiftly against those that are not your super-affiliates, as they are just mucking up your plan, and this will help to demonstrate to super-affiliates that there are benefits to achieving and maintaining their status as such. Implementing a partner brand bidding strategy requires time and effort, plus some common sense when it comes to enforcement. It’s important to remember that partners are taking on the cost and risk of promoting your product. In most cases, they will appreciate receiving clearly defined brand PPC bidding rules. Since the search engine algorithms are (and will remain) black boxes whose costs are based on vague concepts such as relevancy and quality scores, it’s important to control whatever you can.
What are some effective strategies for minimizing competition when running branded PPC campaigns?If you have a brand worth protecting, competitors are already bidding on your brand name. Some bid directly on your name, while others will bid on obvious derivatives, such as when Marketo bids on phrases like “Pardot drip marketing” (and vice versa). Many large brands have competitors bidding on every available ad position for every imaginable brand and brand-plus keyword. The question is, what can you do to deal with competitors brazenly showing up in searches for your name? Your best options include:
- Complain. If the competitor is using your name in the ad copy, then file a complaint with the search engine in question. We address this in more detail below.
- Own more real estate. You can take over more of the page real estate by working with partners, as described above.
- Be better than them. Being better means that you earn a top Quality Score, and the competitor does not. This in turn means that you pay a reasonable CPC, while the competitors pay more! If the ROAS isn’t there, the competitor(s) will stop brand bidding because it isn’t worth it. Further optimize your brand bidding efforts by using techniques such as remarketing, ad copy development, offer development, and landing page development.
If competitors refuse to stop abusing trademarked brand terms in their PPC campaigns, what are your legal options?Once you detect unwelcome competition, what can you do about it from a legal standpoint? We won’t bore you with case law here, but you should be aware of a few basic principles and how the law views brand bidding:
- Trademark registration. To maximize your enforcement rights with regard to your brand name and slogans, you must register your trademarks with the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office).
- Brand confusion protection. The main purpose of a trademark is to uniquely identify your product. It serves to prevent another business from promoting a product in a manner that is confusingly similar to your branded product. In order to win a case involving brand bidding, you’ll need to show that your competitor’s ad is likely to confuse consumers. This single concept is really tough to prove and is why brand enforcement using the law and courts is very, very difficult — more on that in a moment.
- Fair use. This term signifies that your registered marks can be used in special circumstances by advertisers such as resellers, news outlets, reviewers, or product comparisons.
- The law and brand bidding. Numerous lawsuits have been brought by brand owners against ad sellers (Google and Bing) and ad buyers (competitors). The main finding has been that these lawsuits have gone virtually nowhere as a group. Unfortunately, we still don’t know where the law stands.
- Trademark owners RARELY win cases against the ad buyers. Why? The burden of proof is too high. Trademark owners have to show that their competitor confused a consumer with their ad. To do that, it appears that the court wants the competitor to blatantly rip off your product description and have a web address and landing page that are similar to yours. Otherwise, they believe that consumers are too smart to be fooled. If no one gets fooled, you lose these lawsuits.
- Trademark owners NEVER win cases against the engines/ad sellers. This painful reality exists because all cases have either been dismissed or settled out of court, so there have been no court judgments. Courts have never expressed a negative opinion about brand bidding, and in some cases have clearly endorsed the practice.
Search Engine ComplaintsFiling a complaint with Google or Bing is the recommended option because it’s cheap (free to file) and easy, especially if you use an ad monitoring platform to automatically detect and file the complaints on your behalf. Before you get too excited, however, there are some limitations:
- Protected items: Only registered trademarks are protected.
- Allowed items: Generally, each engine deals with trademark infringement as follows:
- Brand bidding: Allowed. Anyone can bid on your name, as shown when we discussed best practices, managing partners, and reducing competition.
- Ad copy use: Not allowed (with a few exceptions). However, fair use rules allow resellers, affiliates, reviewers, and news outlets to use your name in ad copy.
- Destination URL use: Allowed. Competitors can use your name as a sub-domain or sub-page. In the best practices section, we even suggested that you do this to your competitors. Note that while the engines allow this, it does not mean that the law allows it. The more confusingly similar a URL is to the brand holder’s, the stronger the brand holder’s case becomes from a legal standpoint.
Pacts & AgreementsAnother method to enforce protection is with agreements. Agreements give you stronger and more reliable legal recourse than just complaining to the engines alone. Competitive pacts: Some industries have gotten together, and competitors have formed written pacts where they have specifically agreed not to brand bid. These written agreements list in detail the allowed and prohibited activity, as well as enforcement proceedings should they be violated, which typically come with a financial price tag. Affiliate agreements: If you have affiliates or partners, your affiliate agreement should detail the allowed and disallowed brand bidding activity, along with notice rules and financial ramifications for any violations. The swiftness and harshness of your action should match the conduct, which includes:
- Direct linkers. This harmful advertising practice is when affiliate marketers assume the identity of the represented merchant in paid ads. It should be dealt with swiftly, since someone is hijacking your brand outright. Actions should include financial withholding and termination of the relationship.
- Unauthorized affiliates. Affiliates who brand bid without authorization are mucking up your strategies. Actions should include notice with cure periods, financial ramifications, and eventual termination if the behavior is repetitive and material.
- Authorized affiliates. Super-affiliates (as discussed in the reducing brand bidding competition topic) should be handled more gently, with kinder notices that build upon themselves and provide cure periods. Financial repercussions and termination should only be used as last resorts.
LawsuitsA lawsuit based on trademark infringement should be your last resort. Trademark lawsuits are expensive and challenging to win (as noted earlier). The caveat is if you have a pact or agreement that prohibits brand bidding, and you have proof of the advertising activity through date/time stamped screen shots, then you have a stronger chance for victory. The enforcement component to a successful brand bidding strategy is well within the reach of any marketer or agency. Enforcement is attainable with a foundation of always-on ad monitoring, coupled with complaints to the search engines (who do listen!), strong agreements to clarify what’s permissible within your industry and with partners, and (as a last resort) lawsuits. If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve gained enough knowledge to take the first steps towards effectively protecting your brand, while also bidding effectively on others. But having effective tools is also critical when it comes to succeeding in the hyper-competitive world of PPC brand campaigns. If you’re ready to take the next step, schedule a demo with The Search Monitor.