Why You Should Cut Back Search Marketing In a Recession

I recently commented on an article written in Media Post’s Search Insider blog titled “What Does A Recession Mean For Your Search Program?”

My commentary took the perspective that search marketing is somewhat recession-proof (obviously I have a vested interest in this).  My plan was to write a blog post adding to that perspective. 

But, as I sat here thinking about what to write, I posed the question to myself – What are some factors that would PREVENT a company from using search marketing (as a tool) in a recession?

4 Reasons To Cut Back Your Search Marketing Budget

1) All Boats Sink in a Recession – The most obvious reason is that in a recession all advertising and marketing budgets suffer.  So, it makes sense to cut back in the area of search engine marketing as well.

2) Search Marketing is Still an Experiment – Many marketers still do not understand the value of search marketing, so they are either not spending in this area yet, or they just started to experiment and the returns are not there yet to show senior management that this is a worthwhile vehicle.

3) More Dollars Chasing Less Volume of Queries – The article where I posted the comment points to the following; “noted blogger Henry Blodget pointed out that … slowing query volume impacts the ability to hit ROI… [and if there is slowing search query volume in a recession], then search won’t be recession-proof after all. Because even if your ROI is good, if the search volume dries up, then advertising dollars will follow…”. 

So, potentially with Pay Per Click advertising there could be higher bids with less search volume to share and profits will be diminished.

4) I Can’t See the ROI – Marketers who have not yet figured out how to track the profitability of search engine marketing will not have adequate information to make a decision in favor of the medium.  I’d argue that most e-commerce companies DO track ROI very tightly. 

Tracking ROI is more of an issue with B2B marketers who are generating leads, have long sales cycles, and do not have a process for associating search engine traffic with qualified leads and sales.

Other than these reasons, I can’t see why marketers would cut back on search.

But those are significant hurdles, to be sure.

Issues With My Analysis of the Search Insider Article 

  • One problem with my analysis and commentary on the article in Search Insider is that the article is really focusing on the ramifications for the publicly traded stocks of GOOG, YHOO, & MSFT.    
  • In addition, the article focuses primarily on Pay Per Click (PPC), and does not really address Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
  • And, while not stated explicitly, the concerns about diminishing returns appear to be much more focused on e-tailers than on B2B companies.

What is far more interesting to me is, should our clients, or other companies, spend less on the entire breadth of search engine marketing? 

Marketing and Advertising Media You Might Cut Back & How Each Relates To Search

Well, if you are re-allocating spending, where else would you put your marketing dollars?

TV – Not a bad investment if you are a household brand, or appeal to a large consumer segment.  Television ads for Dell, IBM, Apple, etc. definitely stimulate demand and build brand.  And I can’t seem to get the Freecreditreport.com jingles out of my head! 

Relationship to Search:

Research has been conducted that shows that television advertising increases search volume “as it relates to company name, product or service name, or slogan that appears in the messaging of that offline channel.”

But, for small and medium-sized business, and even for large industrial and manufacturing companies, TV is not where you put your dollars.  Search is much more effective at grabbing prospects right at the time they are beginning the buying process.

Radio – Great for local businesses and national companies with strong local presences.  If it is already working for you, why give it up? 

Relationship to Search:

Radio advertising creates additional search queries for your brand, or potential misspellings of your brand, and can start the process of a prospect researching online all of the options available to them. 

As your radio ads begin to generate buzz, and the inevitable online research by consumers/prospects, you should have a search presence in order to reinforce that you are an industry leader for those people who are looking at all of the alternatives to your services. 

Use PPC as a vehicle for measuring how much increased search volume there is for your brand when you run radio ads.  Bid on your brand name as part of any PPC campaign and you can track trends in your company’s brand awareness.

Print -Personally, I would think this is one of the first places you would cut back on advertising (sorry magazines and trade journals!). 

Relationship to Search:

Print advertising is just not as measurable as search marketing.

Dollars invested in a “pull” medium such as search (you are pulling them in just as they are standing at your door) are more effective than advertising in a “push” medium such as print (you are pushing your message at them and hoping they see it).

Direct Mail -If you are a sophisticated user of direct mail, and religiously follow RFM (Recency, Frequency, and Monetary Value), and use heavy analytics to segment, personalize, and test offers, then why stop using this as a tool?  I wouldn’t.  Maybe I’d cut back on a mailing or two, or wait on experimental mailings until the economy picks up a bit. 

Relationship to Search:

If you currently use direct mail effectively, then search marketing (at least PPC) is likely to already be a part of your marketing mix.  You would only cut back on spending on PPC  if search queries do dry up and cause bids to rise to a level of causing a negative ROI.  

As a direct marketer, investing in SEO is not an area where you should not cut back.  As a sophisticated user of PPC, you already know that search engine visits drive business.  Achieving high, organic (“free”), search rankings is a long-term investment that pays large dividends going forward, and can allow you to reduce PPC spending.

Trade Shows – Participating in trade shows is probably a must for most B2B marketers.  At least the big industry shows where you have to be seen in order to be taken seriously. 

Perhaps you would cut back on a few of the tertiary trade shows, and/or reduce the space you rent, or wait to invest in new booth enhancements. 

Relationship to Search:

Consider promoting your participation in a trade show via PPC. 

Bid on the name of the show (i.e. your keywords for this campaign/ad group), create targeted ad copy to grab the searcher’s interest, direct them to a landing page which encourages them to set an appointment with you at the trade show, and make sure that you follow up with these prospects (before and after the show). 

Outbound Calls -If it’s working for you already, don’t cut back.  This is often a great way to generate leads for B2B.  If done right

In many industries (services especially), hiring an outside lead generation firm, or adding in-house staff, is definitely a worthwhile consideration.

Relationship to Search:

In a recession, when you are looking to cut back in certain media, why use a “push” medium when you can use a “pull” medium such as search? 

Investing in search will bring you in contact with people who are actively researching your products and services. 

White Papers & Thought Leadership Pieces -There is definitely value to creating white papers and thought leadership pieces.  Of course, the white paper needs to be highly informative, and the thought leadership piece should truly highlight that you are an expert in your field (Jonathan Kantor, aka The White Paper Pundit, has some nice material on white papers, including Why White Papers Aren’t BS). 

In a down market, you might consider spending a bit less on hiring an outside firm or contractor to write papers. 

Relationship to Search:

As with many of the other media listed above, there are fantastic synergies between this medium and search marketing.   

a) You can use this content to attract in-bound links to your Web site, a critical piece of SEO,

b) The content itself, whether in abstract form or in its entirety, can bring search engine visitors to your site,

c) You can use PPC to promote white papers and generate leads by asking for users to provide contact information in exchange for the valuable information,

d) Thought leadership pieces can be authored specifically for use on another Web site (blog or industry publication) in return for author credit and a link,

e) You can use the material as opportunities to reach out to bloggers and editors by asking them what their take is on the material (which can generate links and an online dialogue).

PR – Can’t cut back on PR.  Well, you can if your agency is not getting you enough exposure and/or is not telling you who they are pitching and when! 

Companies, especially mid-market companies, may cut back on how much they are spending here.  Especially if the ROI is not being measured. 

But, of all the “push” marketing methods, this seems like one that should still be a part of the mix.  At least in some form.  Getting quoted in the media is one of the most powerful ways to establish your authority and expertise. 

Relationship to Search

The actual press releases themselves are a very nice complement to SEO.  

Optimized press releases can be found in relevant online searches (if you take the time to word them correctly for target keywords), and over time they can help build link popularity. 

If the cost of traditional PR release/publishing services is too high for your budget, there are many “tier-2” online services that are more cost-effective and can be valuable in achieving your SEO goals.

I’m sure I left out other important media, or did an injustice to one or all of the traditional media I discussed above.

For those of you who made it this far into the article (thank you 🙂 ), and are interested in additional ideas about ways to tie off-line media buys into your online marketing efforts, Jake Matthews at 10e20 recently published a nice piece about this, with graphics of some specific examples he has found.


In trying to figure out why companies would cut back on search engine marketing, my conclusion is that you might cut back on everything, which would mean cutting back on search as well, or you might not have proof that it is working for you.

Other than that, why wouldn’t you spend at least some of your marketing and advertising dollars on targeting prospects at exactly the moment they are looking for you (or your competitors)? 

Even if you cut back on Pay Per Click advertising in the short term, there is a very compelling reason to invest in SEO (actually, there are many, many reasons).  But why invest in SEO in a down market?

As I said in the comment I left on the Search Insider article:

SEO is definitely something I would equate to investing. You spend your money now to see returns later. And see returns that can have significant longevity. While SEO is not exactly like buying securities in a down market, it may be equivalent to purchasing real estate or building commercial office space on spec in a down market. If you have the cash now, you can take advantage of laying the groundwork for the inevitable upturn in the market.

I’d love your thoughts on this topic.

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