How Some Financial Brands May Be Shredding Search Marketing Money

Begin your thinking about Pay-Per-Click marketing and Search Engine Optimization with 'if' and 'why,' not 'how much to spend.' Savvy bank and credit union practitioners strike a balance between spending and what they will gain from increasing traffic. And they always consider web-based promotion in the context of every other aspect of their marketing program.

Many smaller banks and credit unions that haven’t tried search engine optimization (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM) should try listening to the voice of the customer before they spend any time or money on either family of web tools.

In advising that, search expert Wil Reynolds isn’t using marketingspeak. He means “voice of the customer” quite literally — as in, asking the branch staff what they’ve been hearing from people when they come in.

“Doing SEO and SEM correctly costs money, one way or another, so getting them right is critical. But knowing whether your institution should even be bothering is a prerequisite.”

“If they’re hearing consumers say things like, ‘I was looking at your services online’ or ‘I found you online,’ that is an indication of what could be working,” says Reynolds, Founder and Director of Digital Strategy at Seer Interactive. “And ask people how they happened to pick your institution. When they tell you, ‘I was searching for this’ or ‘I was searching for that,’ then find out if your institution’s website shows up in a Google search for any of those words.”

It’s simple and hands on, and he says it works.

SEO and SEM, which is also called pay-per-click marketing, or PPC, are all about bringing traffic —the right kind of traffic — to your institution’s website. Doing these disciplines correctly costs money, one way or another, so getting them right is critical. But knowing whether your institution should even be bothering about SEO and SEM is a prerequisite.

SEO entails a variety of techniques for increasing traffic through “organic search.” Essentially, this means taking steps to make it easier for Google and other search engines to find your site’s content, “judge” it to be valuable, and to match it to the search terms that people use to find material on the web. SEM, often referred to broadly as “paid search,” entails marketers bidding for keywords to appear in the paid listings at the top of search results. The winners, judged according to their bids and other factors, appear. If a searcher clicks on a paid link, the site’s owners must pay for that.

For most institutions, marketing budgets will always be like a lifeboat — not everything can fit aboard. Marketers in this position have to be smarter about their choices, Reynolds says, than their counterparts at megabanks who can drop huge sums on multiple techniques. This can foster a more careful approach, he explains, which, in the end, may be better.

For Some Institutions, Cost of SEO/SEM isn’t Warranted

Reynolds, who spoke at The Financial Brand Forum on these themes, says that during the Las Vegas event he got into a conversation with an attending marketer at a casino table.

“Financial marketers need to ask themselves how people are searching for their institution, online — or even if they’re searching at all.”
— Wil Reynolds, Seer Interactive

As the dice rolled, “she told me that her credit union is based in the middle of Oklahoma and that it chiefly works with farmers,” says Reynolds. The marketer told him that she spends a good portion of her time promoting the credit union at rodeos and carnivals. She said that she doesn’t spend much time online for her job.

“That was pretty eye-opening for me,” says Reynolds. “It emphasized that financial marketers need to ask themselves how people are searching for their institution, online — or even if they’re searching at all.” For some institutions, says Reynolds, their universe is so small that there may not be enough people searching online to make it worthwhile paying someone to produce content to make the site rank significantly on Google.

Conversations with visitors in the branch can be a start. But before the institution spends money on focus groups, which might run $10,000 to $20,000, Reynolds advises that there are free tools that can help. Especially useful, he says, is Google Trends. This enables marketers to see what searches are ranking highly in the U.S. or in part of a state, or internationally. Marketers can input specific searches and see how high interest is in those subjects.

“One of the great things about Google Trends is that you can see trends by city or state, so you can look at whether people are actually searching for credit of a particular kind in your markets,” says Reynolds. “If they are, then you have to see where you are currently showing up in their searches. On the other hand, you might find that no one is searching for your institution that way.”

Checking things out like this first can save the institution money. Reynolds says there are vendors who will happily consume marketing budgets seeking an audience that just isn’t out there.

There’s another reason to consider carefully if and what to promote with SEO and SEM. Reynolds says financial providers must frankly decide if what they want to promote is competitive.

Take deposits. If an institution’s rate on a particular account is anemic compared to what else is being offered online, “you can waste a whole lot of money going after these things and never see the results you want. You have to be honest with yourself. Remember, people can see everything on the web,” Reynolds says.

The decision regarding where to spend money in search promotion can’t be an isolated one either. Reynolds says a financial institution must balance the cost of obtaining traffic versus what it will gain from the portion of traffic that turns into sales or ongoing relationships. Some pay-per-click terms available may be very competitive and go for $20 or even more per click — and you pay whether you sell or not. Some may be quite inexpensive — a dollar or so.

The cost must be assessed in light of the potential gain.

“Understanding the lifetime value of a consumer really helps you to back into a model that you can understand,” says Reynolds. “Be able to say, ‘Here’s how much I put out, and here’s what I’ve gotten back as a result’.”

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Good Things Can Come from Being Smaller and More Agile

There is a tendency to think that very large providers have a lock on SEO and SEM because they have very deep pockets. Actually, Reynolds says he gives their efforts a C+ at best.

“I would look instead at companies like Ally Bank and Simple,” says Reynolds. “These pure online players tend to be much more into testing their ad copy over and over again, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Some of the bigger, more established banks are a little bit stuck in the Stone Age. They don’t test as often, in his experience, and they aren’t as nimble.

“When you can’t throw millions of dollars at a problem, that constraint can produce a lot of innovation.”
— Wil Reynolds, Seer Interactive

“They’ll find SEO and SEM insights, but they can’t act on them quickly because they have 15 different divisions, who are all competing with each other for budget. So they stagnate,” says Reynolds. By contrast, “smaller groups tend to do some really interesting stuff, and they can execute really fast.”

Community banks and credit unions may not have the budgets and skills of the Allys and Simples of the business, however, so they need to find an angle.

“Don’t make your ad copy sound like Wells Fargo’s and just list your rates” when they aren’t competitive, says Reynolds. “Play to your strengths.” If “community” is the strength, then say it in the marketing and emphasize it when working on SEO and in picking SEM terms to bid on.

“When you can’t throw millions of dollars at a problem, that constraint can produce a lot of innovation,” says Reynolds. “People who don’t have huge budgets like that have got to figure out a way to use a scalpel, figure out where the big guys are asleep at the wheel, and then figure out where they can beat them.”

Turning on a Dime is a Critical Online Skill

Two things can work toward nimbleness for smaller financial brands. One is awareness of what’s going on in the world and what’s going on on the web. The other is partnering with SEO/SEM consultants who can respond quickly when their client’s chief marketing officer raises a question.

Reynolds suggests this example. A Presidential candidate proposes legislation dealing with student loan forgiveness. That is going to flood the news organs of the web and will create a stiff headwind for, say, a student loan refinancing effort that’s being promoted by a lender.

A savvy marketer will read that news and contact their vendor. They will ask if it wouldn’t make sense to carve out the word “forgiveness” so the lender’s pages dealing with student loans don’t get a bunch of paid-for clicks that have absolutely no potential for turning into business.

Reynolds actually favors leading with SEM. There is a tendency to think of SEO as “free,” but that’s simplistic. Reynolds points out that staff time spent on it isn’t free, and time and money spent on paying content providers to generate content can be costly. Choosing some SEM terms carefully for a limited buy can sharpen an effort, or even save an institution from going down a road with SEO content that won’t pull, or won’t pull the right kind of traffic.

Think of the Totality of Your Marketing

In a similar vein, marketers need to consider what else they are doing with their budgets. Web marketing shouldn’t be viewed in a silo, but in concert with other efforts.

Case in point: Banking institutions remain one of the biggest users, to this day, of outdoor advertising. For some locales and some kinds of consumers, billboards remain quite effective for certain kinds of messages, Reynolds notes.

Budgets are finite, so who gets pie and who doesn’t, and what the size of their slice will be, varies among institutions. However, Reynolds suggests thinking of the web and other media as being supportive of each other.

“The billboard’s going to make people know who you are. That may lead some people to search for your brand online. And you may want to run something on YouTube and Facebook to synch up with that billboard,” says Reynolds. A great deal of targeting can be done in other media now.

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