As with any successful project, clear definitions of the overall strategy and the tactics necessary to achieve that strategy are essential. Given the nature of pay-per-click search marketing (i.e.: ideally you would put a dollar in, and get two dollars out) and how easily your ad spend can escalate out of control, clear strategies and tactics will become the impetus of your search marketing campaign.

Before I go any further, it would be prudent to digress in order to define the linguistic distinction between strategies and tactics, and how they will be applied throughout this article. I feel that this distinction could, obviously, be used outside of pay-per-click, and I encourage readers to reflect on other ways that this distinction may be applied throughout perceptions in their organization.

As others are often quite more able to articulate concepts better than I, I will be referring to a paper written by Toby Hecht, founder of The Aji Network, called, believe it or not, "Strategies and Tactics: Ultimate and Interim Situations."

Hecht states:

"Tactics are the actions we can take in some specific situation to produce a different specific situation ... Almost all situations we care about require us to perform tactics to produce many interim situations that we do not care about in order to produce the ultimate situation for the sake of which we have acted...

"As we act to produce increasingly valuable ultimate situations, we also invent an interpretation of the tactics we will need in order to produce the sequence of interim situations we have specified. This narrative is called a strategy."

Ultimately, a strategy becomes a series of tactics and the order in which they are executed so as to fulfill an ultimately valuable outcome.

Defining Strategies for Pay-Per-Click

Applying this distinction to pay-per-click, one might define their strategy as over the next three months, increase brand awareness to 100,000 impressions per month at a cost of under $10,000.00, or over the next 6 months, increase ROI above 400% at a minimum ad spend of $10,000.00 per month and increasing to a maximum ad spend of $50,000.00 per month.

Each of these strategies represents the two most common strategies we encounter in the search marketing industry. However, the interesting thing is that we rarely hear people define their strategies as such. Often, they lack boundaries in their assessments of their goals, such as saying "I want to increase my ROI." And that's great, but begs the following questions; by how much do you want to increase it? We can increase your ROI with an ad spend of $50.00 per month, but will that still be valuable to you? How much do you want to earn before defining the campaign a success and how much do you need to spend to reach that goal? What sort of time frame and urgency should this strategy be executed in order to be valuable to your organization?

That said, important considerations in defining your pay-per-click strategy might include the following:

  • What sort of time frame should you execute your strategy in order for the campaign to be valuable to you and your organization?
  • What budget requirements and/or restrictions should be imposed in order for the campaign to be valuable to you and your organization?
  • What is your business objective with this campaign? Branding or ROI? A combination of the two? Perhaps it's to increase conversions, with conversions being anything from the sale of a product to someone signing up on your message board.

All of these are very strong considerations and definitions that must be well thought out before ever considering what sort of tactics you will be implementing towards your strategic goal.

Defining Tactics for Accomplishing Strategic Pay-Per-Click Goals

Applying a distinction of what a tactic is for pay-per-click, understanding the concept of strategies, one then begins to see that every step of the campaign execution then directly relates to the campaign strategy. With a strategy revolving around ROI, web analytics and accurate ROI measurement becomes an essential tactic. With a strategy revolving around branding and impressions, a tactic of bidding on highly searched key phrases might be employed.

Understanding that tactics must both be aligned with your strategy, and that the order in which tactics are executed are just as important as the tactics themselves in achieving your strategic goals, the next step in executing your pay-per-click search marketing campaign is to define those tactics and their order of execution.

Branding Tactics for Pay-Per-Click

The strategy here is exposure to your market. You're not necessarily measuring clicks, you're measuring how many times your message is seen and interpreted by your target-audience. Increasing ad impressions, with consideration for bid position, becomes an important part of your strategy.

For this, we distinguish these key phrases that will generally increase visibility in your market as "research" terms. These key phrases, or key words, are usually searched in greater frequencies, but identify that the searcher is not yet ready to purchase. They are at the beginning stages of the buy-cycle and are collecting information about the product category in which they are interested. Terms that might fall under this category for a music store might be "cd," "music store," or "dance music" etc. Terms such as these display the range of "research" terms that one might bid on in order to increase their brand awareness. Thus, a tactic of bidding on research-centric terms will likely be employed.

Because the strategy is to increase impressions while still sending your brand message, using campaign negative keywords becomes increasingly important. For example, your music store may not want its ad to be displayed when someone searches for "cd duplication" or "cd printing." This being the case, a tactic of effectively researching to implement negative keywords in your campaigns would likely be used.

One final tactic for increasing branding and exposure through pay-per-click search marketing with a restrained budget, and there are many, many others, is write your ad copy in a manner that receives minimal click-through rate (reducing cost), while still remaining competitive enough to continue being "visible" by searchers. In doing so, you effectively maintain price consciousness, maintain visibility, and are able to continue positioning yourself visibly within your market.

ROI Tactics for Pay-Per-Click

With an ROI (Return on Investment) or ROAS (Return on Ad Spend)-based pay-per-click search marketing strategy, click price and your margins become the driving force in your tactical campaign decisions.

Relating to the buy-cycle, executing this strategy employs tactics of bidding on key phrases that fall under what we classify as "Buy" terms. Continuing with the music store example, you might consider bidding on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot enhanced," an amazing album by the alt-country/folk rock band Wilco. A searcher at this point is well aware of the product they wish to acquire, and they even know that they want the enhanced version of this album.

With a tactic being to find "Buy" phrases, one quickly finds that these kinds of key phrases are searched much less frequently than "Research" key phrases. With an ROI-based strategy keyword research becomes much more acute, and at a depth far greater than a branding-based strategy. Here, you will likely have many more keywords, they will generally cost less per click, they will generally be less competitive, but, ironically enough, they will convert at a much higher rate. We can see, through a new feature that I've seen no previous coverage, on, that the enhanced CD converts at 12%, an amazing conversion rate in any industry that will surely assist in an ROI-based pay-per-click search marketing strategy.

Finally, as with a branding-based strategy, ad copy tactics may be used to greatly impact the execution of your strategy. However, the difference here comes in the manner of writing ad copy to both increase click-through rate, while also encouraging the purchase of your products. While this distinction may appear to be obvious, this tactic is rarely seen executed well, or measured against for improved performance.

Rethinking Your Pay-Per-Click Strategies and Tactics

I hope that this article has proven to be powerful in reshaping the distinctions you make in your current and future pay-per-click search marketing campaigns, and that these distinctions prove to be valuable to your pay-per-click search marketing strategies.

In the next article, we'll be going into great detail of how to effectively measure the tactical progress of your search marketing strategies. After all, if you're not assessing and measuring the proper metrics for your strategy, you'll never know if your tactics are effective.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
October 31, 2005

Ben Wills is Director of Search Marketing for Fortune Interactive, an interactive marketing firm specializing in search engine marketing and web log (blog) marketing. Ben has spoken at several conferences including Search Engine Strategies and AD:Tech on topics ranging from setting up web servers for reducing search engine impediments, to effectively executing pay-per-click search marketing campaigns. Handling everything from start-up businesses to Fortune 500 companies, Ben has encountered and solved a wide range of search engine marketing issues. You can reach Ben at

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