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Why don’t more marketers use keyword research?

I recently had the privilege to sit in on FIR B2B episode 45: a podcast by Paul Gillin and David Strom. When my wife heard it, she said they sound like the “Click and Clack of tech.” Needless to say, it was a lot of fun. I had a few belly laughs and we also covered some serious topics.

The main point of the talk was about building brands using the methods Mike and I promote in our book: Outside-In Marketing: Using Big Data to Guide Your Content Marketing. A brief description: you build digital experiences using the words and phrases of your target audience. When they inevitably find your content, condition the conversation towards your brand.

Over the course of the podcast, David wondered out loud why more marketers don’t consult keyword data when writing and editing content. I said it was because of the cultural stigma of authenticity, which was the subject of my last post “The Challenge of Authenticity.” But there is a deeper reason I want to delve into here: it is a hard problem involving big data.

All kinds of data living together

Marketers are notorious for not liking math. But I suspect that this is rapidly descending into the realm of myth. If you look at the number of MarTech tools on the market today—more than 4000 and counting—it is clear that being able to measure and improve marketing activity is a required skill for marketers.

A concise diagram of MarTech platforms as of January 2015 by Scott Brinker. Hint: there are more now.

The problem is not with marketers, but the data itself. Even the tech people are confounded by the sheer variety of data they need to integrate to take full advantage of keyword data in marketing activities. Any individual can do keyword research with readily available tools such as Google’s Keyword Planner or Trends. If every marketer in a company used these tools to build content for related products or services, they would naturally produce duplicate content. So the first step in any keyword research program is to build a central database of keywords and develop governance around them. Some marketers don’t use keywords in their work because their companies don’t have keyword governance, and they are afraid of internal competition.

Suppose you have such a system, how do you know that the words these tools return are relevant to the products you are trying to market through content? The answer is, you probably don’t. Most people take their best guess, build content based on these guesses, and adjust their content and related parts of their keyword databases over time. The data they use to make these adjustments are the key performance indicators for their businesses:

  • Paid search effectiveness (cost per response, response volume)
  • Organic search effectiveness (ranking, referrals minus bounces)
  • Engagement effectiveness (clicks minus bounces)
  • Conversion effectiveness (downloads minus abandonment)

If you’ve ever run paid search campaigns, you know the difference between the words you start your campaigns with and those you end your campaign with. You optimize your word list by process of elimination: the words that don’t perform get eliminated or excluded from the campaign and you reinvest that money into the words that are left. 800-word bulk sheets that get paired down to 50-word campaigns over the course of a month are quite common. This should give you a sense of how many false positives Google gives you in the Keyword Planner.

The same process that you can do rather quickly with paid search can be replicated with organic search. It just takes longer, and requires more integration with data from your web analytics system. But the process is well worth it. As the database of keywords gets refined, everyone in your company will have access to the lessons learned from everyone else. In this way, the keyword database becomes a strategic asset for your whole marketing organization.

The keyword database gets even more intelligent if you can connect it to your social listening platform, your persona database, your product taxonomy, your marketing campaign calendar, and your CRM system. Each of these systems has unique data models. Building a universal translator for all these different systems is a huge challenge. It’s not like trying to map one taxonomy to another. You have to build logic, flow charts, translation machines, and all kinds of big data analytics capabilities into the system.

Think of the end-to-end workflow between these different systems. If a marketer, call her Joan, starts with keyword research, she needs to understand how the keywords she finds relate to the personas she is trying to target with her content. Suppose the personas for her company are stored in a database and mapped to their buyer journeys.

For each step in the journey, keywords indicate what topics need to addressed to satisfy the persona’s information needs. In this way, keywords become a tagging system that governs what content is needed. When Joan audits the existing content, she can discover what content is working and what is not, where the gaps are and apparent duplicates, etc. Though Google is a good proxy for effective content, she also needs to use web analytics system to audit the content.

When Joan finds the most valuable next action (optimizing existing content or creating new), she needs to understand what products or services the information need relates to and how to help the persona take the logical next step toward purchase of that product or service. This requires a product or service database, preferable tagged with known marketing attributes, such as existing campaigns and financial performance.

The last and most difficult integration is the CRM system. At a certain point, Joan will collect leads for the sales department to follow up on. In order for the sales people to close the deals, they need to know the whole customer journey for each one of the leads. Every customer journey will have keywords, persona information, digital analytics, and product or service data, with related products or services listed for cross sell or up sell.

The system would be all less complicated without the keywords. But it would be so much less effective. Convincing marketers to embrace this complexity is a big challenge.

This, in a nutshell, is why more marketers don’t use keywords prior to building content. It’s also why there are 4000 plus MarTech platforms and very few of them work together. There is no end-to-end MarTech platform that integrates keyword data with the rest of the marketing stack. Companies have to do this integration themselves. Marketers, and the systems they use, have to learn to customize the keyword research they get from search engines for their businesses.

That is a hard problem, especially for marketers. We explain how we are solving the problem at IBM in our book.

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Discussion

  1. Avatar Bill Hunt

    James – I really hope you get some great feedback on this article and maybe people will wake up to the gold mine of opportunity they can yield of they just took time to look at the data. May some will even give a reason why they don’t manage keywords or none of these tools have a repository for leveraging this treasure trove in them.

    Reading articles like this almost brings me to tears thinking about the waste that goes on because companies do not leverage this data. As you repeat over and over in your book this is the collective needs and wants of your customers you just have to collect the data and listen. As you show people there is no better proxy for the content needs than to listen to what people are asking for in social media or searching for on the web and getting a bit crazy with this thought…. you own web site search.

    As you know with DataPrizm I have built one of these tools that collects, segments and allows you to interact with these words just to reduce the wasted time of having to organize them time and time again. The sad thing – I sometimes cannot give it away and the most common reason… it forces people to have to think and I find most marketers do not want to do that. They have to actually listen to what the consumer wants instead of what they are trying to shove down their throats to satisfy some silly campaign goal that has no basis in reality.

    IBM has always been on the forefront of this and I am glad you continue to drive the message home to people … when I was there in late ’98 and early 2000 under my desk was a server that stored this data. We could see what model Thinkpads had a new problem, that 21 different stakeholders were all trying to buy the phrase “RFID” as it had “high search volume” even though they sold printers and had nothing to do with the broader category.

    I would really love to hear from your readers why they don’t have keyword management at the top of their list and why so many of these tools from Social Listening to CRM Triggers use words and personas as triggers yet none of them even have an easy import function to bring in keywords that the search teams have agonized over to optimize for paid and organic search…. such a waste.

    1. Avatar James Mathewson

      Thanks so much Bill,

      You have always been in the inner circle of experts on this topic. I share your passion for the crying need to transform organizations towards a more intelligent approach to marketing. The more data we gather on the challenge, the more obvious it is that teams waste millions and millions of dollars buying the wrong words for the wrong experiences, and leave billions of dollars of organic opportunity on the table. Agencies seem all too happy to let them waste the money because the commission structure rewards waste and resists transformation.

      Still, I feel we are on the cusp of a revolution in the way media is bought and optimized using big data. Your tool and the one I have built within IBM are at the bleeding edge of that revolution.

      Let’s keep the discussion going. Always a pleasure.

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