This summer, the National Hockey League took a cheap shot. No, they didn’t redesign the league’s uniforms or put a team back in Winnipeg. Rather, they took control of overseeing the league’s websites. Since the domains had previously been run by each franchise, naturally the move has some team marketers feeling left out in the cold.
As it turns out, a friend of a friend—we’ll call him “Puck”—happens to run the website for one of these teams. Recently, he posted a game recap and included a photo of a fight that occurred during the match-up. Later that evening, he got a call from the NHL. Corporate wanted him to take down the image because the league doesn’t want to promote fighting—they want their brand to stand for good, clean fun. But Puck held his ground. He argued that this is his local market, and that he knows his audience better than corporate does. Hell, his audience likes the fighting aspect. After all, the team is known for its toughness, and this image helps promote their brand. Puck’s position? Unless corporate forces his hand, the photo stays.
Similar corporate vs. franchise battles happen every day in the search engine results, where the two face-off against one another for visibility and visitors. But it doesn’t always have to be such a battle. In fact, clarity can do much to improve the relationship and reduce conflict about search marketing initiatives. Knowing some key elements—such as who owns what content, who has permission to change it, what the consistent message should be across multiple channels, and where consumers are driven—can help determine whether the corporate and franchise search relationship is cooperative or cannibalistic.
Following are some tips to help corporate and franchises have an aligned search strategy:
Determine ownership. Understanding where control resides is a crucial first step to avoiding corporate/franchise clashes about your search marketing initiatives. Most often, organizations will divvy up control in one of two ways. They will permit franchises to run their own websites, but will maintain control by overseeing them—as in Puck’s case. Or, they will run the company domain and incorporate pages for its franchises.
While either scenario works, the first option, separate websites, actually allows your brand to occupy more page real estate in the search results. For example, an insurance agent should have their own dedicated page in an “agents” section on the corporate domain, but they should also be given the opportunity to run their own website for the marketing initiatives they see fit. An insurance agent may not want to send a prospective customer to the corporate site, as they could lose the customer to a different agent in a more convenient location.
Maintain communication. Regular communication between corporate and its franchises is key to having an aligned search strategy—its importance cannot be overstated. Corporate should maintain open communication with its franchisees and demonstrate how its ownership and/or guidance can make things easier for them, and how it can actually improve the efficacy of franchise marketing efforts. For example, when it comes to sales and marketing, franchise owners do it all, so they may not have the time needed to execute the many intricacies of search marketing. Given that, corporate would be wise to provide franchisees with search friendly web marketing guidelines and search fundamentals training. Doing so could help reduce concerns over franchisees’ use of questionable search marketing tactics that could land corporate in the penalty box.
For example, multiple vanity websites used for marketing purposes can cause unnecessary competition in paid search, and could get you penalized in organic search. At best, even if the content is unique across these multiple sites, you’ll be dividing where inbound links (and value from those links) are distributed. This will put a drag on your visibility. Other tactics such as buying and selling links, can potentially affect search engine rankings, and clearly, corporate would not want the main domain to take a hit because of the actions of a franchise.
In addition, if a franchise has the ability to change content on the main domain, there should be some form of approval process in place to make sure any changes are consistent with brand messaging before they go live. This is an important consideration given that different messaging between corporate and franchises in the search results may confuse a potential consumer, and result in neither of the sites getting clicked on. Make sure everybody is on the same page—literally. Special offers and deals should be the same whether they are on the corporate domain or franchise site. If they don’t match, a customer might think more research will uncover another lower-priced option.
Segment campaign elements. Taking the time to segment campaign elements will do much to help develop an aligned search strategy between corporate and its franchises. To begin, assuming there is both corporate and franchise representation, a decision needs to be made about who gets to target which keywords. Keep in mind that how you divvy up keywords for paid search will have budget implications. Overall, corporate should own all major branded keyword phrases, and franchises should not be bidding on general branded terms, as they tend to be less qualified and more expensive. Terms with geographic modifiers such as ‘Boston hotel’ should be open to franchises to bid on in conjunction with corporate. More specific keywords such as ‘Boston airport hotel’ should be left to the franchises to bid on without corporate competition.
In addition, attempt to segment by search intent. A user searching on a very general term is at the beginning of the purchasing process and should be directed to the corporate site for informational purposes. One searching on a term further down the sales funnel, e.g., ‘Boston Sheraton Copley Square’, should be directed to either the franchise’s property page on the corporate domain or to the franchise’s own website. By assigning specific bidding responsibilities for corporate and franchises, you will ensure a more targeted and cost-efficient paid search strategy.
Also, participation in social media outlets should be assigned. Responding to online reviews and ratings should be covered by the franchise, as they are often attributable to a specific hotel. Review and testimonial content should live on franchise sites, as this can help remove some exposure for the overall brand if there is repeated negativity. Top-tier social networking sites like MySpace should be a corporate marketing function. Engaging with the community on smaller, locally-targeted sites like Yelp should be handled by the franchise. In addition to influencing prospective customers when content skews in either a positive or negative direction, social media sites can rank when there is enough content on a given keyword phrase.
Overall, the relationship between corporate and its franchises can be complicated—and at times, even contentious. Clearly, achieving an aligned search strategy between the two is not without its challenges. However, embracing the above tips should help. Alternatively, you can always battle it out on the boards.
P.S. In case you were wondering—the photo stayed. Final score: Puck 1, NHL 0.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.