Offline Conversions: How To Get SEM Credit!

Search marketers are pretty good at claiming credit for online sales, and they’re getting better at measuring phone sales as well. However, there’s a huge amount of activity in brick-and-mortar stores, in terms of walk-in sales in the offline world, which is not properly attributed to online search. How can we get some of the well-deserved credit when our online campaigns contribute directly to offline sales?

Keeping tabs on conversions in a strictly online environment is pretty straightforward. The waters get muddy when companies want to understand how online search affects offline conversions. This article won’t attempt to solve all attribution problems, but will highlight some metrics and provide a few tips for you to get a better gauge on people who search online (through either paid or organic channels) and make purchases offline.

Is proper attribution important?

The simple answer is yes! Offline retail sales continue to dwarf online retail sales. U.S online retail sales currently make up about 5% of all retail transactions. Other markets have fallen behind projections made earlier this century: in the UK, online sales continue to lag at 3.5% of total retail sales.

At the same time, search is rapidly becoming the most important driver of online sales. According to Forrester Research’s annual Shop.org report, retailers estimated that 35% of their sales were motivated by internet search. Online activity is a huge driver of offline conversions. Without improved measurement, though, too many retailers are just guessing at the exact impact of search in the offline world. Of course, conversion figures vary by industry category so it’s a good idea to get to know your industry.

Relevant metrics & tactics

In this section, I’ll list some relevant metrics with tips on how to use them to gauge offline conversions. In many cases, it’s difficult to close the loop and link search activity to actual sales (for more information see my last article, Paid Search – Tips on Closing the Loop). The following data can provide insight and help paint a better overall picture offline conversions than if you didn’t refer to the data.

Order online & pick-up offline. To get a good idea of offline activity, a good place to look at is at your order-online-and-pick-up-in-store-data. This requires the retailer to have a specific program of this nature. This is a good place to start as the data is precise (other metrics will be unable to provide exact numbers) and will specifically tell you how many people searched online and then purchased in a brick-and-mortar store.

Store locator page. This one usually applies to larger brands with multiple offline locations. People who want to visit a particular store tend to seek information on store locator pages. As you know, for pages to be effective, they should provide relevant store information like “find a store near you,” store hours, directions, phone numbers, etc. and should be easily found on your site.

Time spent on site. In general, the longer someone spends on your site, the more likely they’re interested in your product or service. We’re currently working with a large company that sells consumer electronics. In this category, we know a large majority of online searches result in offline transactions. The website is well-suited to the “research online, buy offline” crowd, with deep information about the product lines. We know if someone searches for camera information for more than 15 minutes that they’re interested in cameras. Let’s not sugar-coat things, though. As online marketers, we would prefer to close the loop definitively; we would prefer that the prospect bought online. Websites that are “too good” at driving people to physical stores don’t do the online marketing department any favors. Conversion improvement efforts are warranted so the customer is spending more than just time online.

Contests, loyalty programs, and membership in clubs can be a decent alternative to an actual transaction. In that case, at least you’ve gained a permission-based asset. But again, that pales in comparison with a sale, which generates cash to defray the marketing costs and creates a permission asset.

Queries with geographic qualifiers. Some queries containing geographic qualifiers indicate offline purchase intent. For example, if someone is searching for the query “dentist in West Vancouver” they’re more than likely looking for a dentist appointment in a particular geographic location. The type of insight you get will depend on your industry category and may not be as relevant in other categories so be careful when examining terms.

Local search. On a similar note, many times local paid search campaigns (targeted to a specific area) are designed to drive offline purchases. For example, if the term “dentist in West Vancouver” was targeted to West Vancouver and was designed to drive traffic, it is probably driving a high proportion of your phone appointments or walk in traffic. Some Yellow Pages advertisers use dedicated phone numbers for their campaigns. Are you doing the same on the search side? If not, you’re not keeping track of the campaign’s impact. But in terms of walk-in traffic, only post-purchase surveys and other imperfect means will help you get a sense of the campaign’s impact (see below).

Promo codes. To track offline conversion, create a coupon or other search specific promotion that’s only redeemable in the store (if appropriate). Customers can write down or print special codes that they can redeem in-store.

Focus groups and post purchase surveys. Run a focus group to get a better idea of how your buyers shop. Also, after people make purchases online, ask for their feedback regarding a post purchase survey to get more information on buying behavior and offline impact.

Many of these measurement methods are rough guides rather than precise and predictable. To borrow a phrase from Avinash Kaushik, marketing shouldn’t be a faith-based initiative. But to track offline activity generated by online search, you will need a tiny bit of faith to continue your campaigns once you have some decent proof of their effectiveness as compared with other marketing methods.

If you stitch the above suggestions and tactics together, you can get a good idea of how your search marketing efforts contributed to offline conversions. Good luck!

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column

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About The Author: was recently voted the 2013 Most influential SEM. She is the Vice President of Online Marketing Strategy at Page Zero Media where she focuses on search engine marketing strategy, landing page optimization (LPO) and conversion rate optimization (CRO).

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