Search Marketing – outsource or not to outsource?

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Search marketing has, and continues to be, one of the key elements of any digital strategy. However, there is seemingly a trend of companies looking to tighten their wallets, to seek out cheaper suppliers and to squeeze the commissions of their existing agencies. Companies are looking for value for money and not just results.

The debate rages on – as a brand, should you bring your search marketing efforts in-house? Many companies are wrestling with the decision right now, particularly in light of the current economic downturn, which has resulted in them keeping a watchful eye on budgets versus ROI. It’s not all about managing to an endless sales budget but about identifying the best way to manage costs while providing the greatest reach to secure new customers. While many search agencies are mourning the lower commission demands and the loss of business to budget and performance competitors, companies are also thinking about managing search internally.

Bringing search in-house is an attractive proposition for many big spending clients. Spend on search advertising is still very heavily weighted towards high management fees or a percentage of spend metric, So, surely, cutting out the middleman and advertising directly with the search engines is the way to go?

For many brands, conducting search marketing in-house certainly has its benefits by helping to reduce the account management fees. However, managing search marketing in-house means campaigns have to be set up and structured, on each independent engine, then key-worded, maintained, optimised and grown. This can take up a considerable amount of time and resource, and there is no guarantee you will make the most out of your search budget. Whereas a specialist search agency already has templates, technologies, strategies, relationships and the right people in place to reduce time spent managing the uploading of keywords titles and descriptors, and using the valuable time to optimise performance.

Search technology has moved on over the last few years with multiple tools available to help improve workflow and high-volume keyword management. However, these tolls can be terribly expensive, especially if the use of these tools is for the management of one search campaign, whereas specialist agencies are using these tools day in, day out for a number of varying clients, and always seeking out ways to improve processes and procedures to maximise ROI.

Dedicated search marketing agencies get paid to manage each account effectively (or lose their reputation). These companies can also recommend advice on alterations to sites, to make them more search-engine friendly or offer solutions to enable clients to get the most from their campaigns, such as combining various ad formats to achieve a broader audience reach. So, what is the correct way to go?

Cheaper agency relationships are an option – and not just relationships that focus on reducing the commissions paid to agencies but a change to the whole structure and approach. If your agency is the expert in search marketing, then challenge them to put their money where their mouth is, and work to a CPA (cost per acquisition) model by only paying them for delivering a sale or lead. This will clearly cause a few concerns for those search agencies who have built their offering around management fees and percentage of spend models, as it forces them to readdress their whole approach. But for other agencies, it will provide a challenge, a desire and a drive to demonstrate exactly what can be delivered through this method. Working to a CPA metric, the winner is the client, who has absolute control of their ROI, and the agency – if they can manage the rollout of a search strategy in a cost-effective and profitable manner.

Companies believe they can hire the right people, to develop successful search campaigns. If you can find the right people, provide them with the right training and technology, and retain them. You have a great advantage of a search expert who will truly understand your business and will be solely focused on your campaign alone. Outsourcing your search marketing activity, at the right price, is a great way to save time, effort and costs to free up time to concentrate on core business activities. Or consider a hybrid model of in-house and agency management, as several companies have adopted.

Determine your acquisition targets, and then whether you choose to manage this in-house, with an agency or on a hybrid model of agency and in-house management, it is up to you. The question you simply have to ask yourself is – am I achieving the best possible reach and volume to help me achieve my objectives, whilst effectively managing my ROI? If the answer is no, then reassess the opportunities available and turn the answer into yes.