Maximizing ROI: The Wrong Game

How could anyone oppose ROI maximization? Don’t all advertisers want better ROI?

Well, no.

Volume and efficiency are always at tension and how that tension is balanced is highly revealing.

There are two fundamental approaches to this problem:

  • Spend the budget and “maximize the ROI.”
  • Hit the efficiency target and maximize the budget within that constraint.

We have always believed that the ROI target should take precedence. Let’s say Acme has a budget of $100,000 and an ROI target of 4 to 1. The first approach: Spend the $100K and maximize the ROI.

Scenario 1: Spending $100K leads to significantly lower than 4 to 1 ROI:

Does it make sense to keep spending when the ROI turns south? The law of diminishing marginal returns tells us that next dollar of additional advertising wisely spent will always return less than the previous dollar. When we hit the point that the next dollar returns less than the target efficiency, or less than break even, why would we keep spending? If the returns are poor it’s like feeding money into a shredder simply because the goal was to “get rid of” some fixed amount of money.

Scenario 2: Spending $100K leads to significantly higher than 4 to 1 ROI:

Does it make sense to stop spending money if the ROI is great? When the delay between investment and return is long or uncertain, budgets are essential. For advertisers taking direct sales the paid search returns happen before the media expense is billed, so the cash flow argument doesn’t carry much weight. And, when the returns are cash rather than leads, there isn’t even uncertainty as to the value of those returns.

It’s like having a commissioned sales force but telling them to go home when they’ve hit some salary cap. If the commission rates make sense, why would anyone apply the brakes?

“Maximizing ROI” implies exactly this kind of budget first mentality.

When client prospects approach us with budgets that are inconsistent with their ROI objectives we tell them that up front. Imagine a company selling all varieties of bungee cords and hoping to spend $250K a month at a 5 to 1 ROI. We’d tell them that given the market opportunity we can only do one or the other, and would recommend pursuing the 5 to 1 ROI as far as the market will allow.

Most other agencies would say: “Those are aggressive goals, but we’re up for the challenge. We’ll spend the budget and see what we can do about the ROI.” Next month, the discussion will center on how they can “maximize the ROI” while still spending like a drunken sailor. That’s good for the agency’s revenue, and good for the engines, but I’m not sure it’s in the advertiser’s best interest.

Maximizing ROI isn’t necessarily even the most profitable approach. By definition ROI is a ratio. A 5 to 1 ratio seems better than a 4 to 1, but looks can be deceiving. Let’s say the advertiser has 40 points of margin on a sale. On $10K in advertising the advertiser generates $50K in sales. $50K in sales yields $20K in margin, less the advertising means $10K in marketing income. Cool.

But if the additional aggressiveness of a 4 to 1 target gets them significantly higher on the page and hence more top line, the extra volume may generate more marketing income. Depending on the bidding landscape, perhaps $20K in advertising well-spent generates $80K. That 4 to 1 ratio, generates $32K in margin and $12K in marking income. A smaller ratio, but more money, and as every banker knows, you don’t put percentages in the bank.

According to the square root rule, profit is maximized when the ratio of margin generated to advertising spend is 2 to 1. In practice we find running that lean cuts the top line too much for dollar maximization. Instead, we’ve found that a ratio of margin to advertising of 1.4 – 1.7 tends to maximize marketing income.

The “spend the budget first” mentality does make sense in some contexts. When the return on investment is uncertain (brand building) or delayed (lead generation), budgeting is wise. Too often, though, budgets are used simply because they are customary.

For this channel, any company with measured, immediate ROI goals should place those goals first and let the ad spend rise and fall with the market opportunities.

Language matters in paid search. The language agencies use in describing themselves can reveal a great deal. “We’ll maximize your ROI” screams: “We think about spending your budget first and hitting your efficiency targets last.”

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Scientist of RKG, a technology and service leader in paid search, SEO, performance display, social media, and the science of online marketing. He also writes for the RKG Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @georgemichie1.

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  • alanmitchell

    Hi George,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head – ROI and spend are two opposing forces and are therefore impossible to achive together. As you point out, it’s better to aim for the ROI first and see what volume the market dictates.

    One scenario I can think of which might oppose targeting ROI first, is when spend is very low and the client’s fixed costs are high, such as salaries, rent, licencing etc. In that case, it may be better to aim for a certain revenue and see what ROI can be achieved, just to keep sales coming in. After all, there is little point going to great effort and expense to hire a PPC agency if they are only spending $100 on clicks because of an unrealistic ROI target.


  • George Michie

    Good point, Alan.

    Developing brand awareness and a customer base is expensive and very few businesses make a profit out of the gate.

    That said, spending money inefficiently can’t be a long-term strategy. Google’s self-management tools have come a long way for the small advertisers and need to continue to evolve. Whether hiring an agency or dedicating employee time, if the program can’t be cost-effective including the management costs, it can’t sustain.

  • haugenbrian

    George, this was a really good post. Thanks for reminding us that gross margin dollars are a separate consideration from hitting a ratio target. I also think it’s interesting that many marketers love to talk about ROI without even knowing what it is. It seems to me that a common misconception is that ROI = total profit dollars, which of course it doesn’t. I’ve got a blog post that expands on that idea here:

    Thanks again,


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