Back in November 2010, I wrote about the importance of, and what to include in a brief when looking to appoint a search agency. Whilst much of the advice remains the same, an awful lot has changed in the last couple of years, which in turn impacts how a retailer needs to brief prospective agencies.
Firstly, search has continued to evolve. It is far from the stand-alone discipline it perhaps once was. Social media, content strategy and online PR are now all critical components of a successful natural search strategy (also known as organic search or SEO).
Furthermore, retailers are operating in a complex multichannel environment where increasingly savvy customers expect a consistent and seamless experience as they move between different channels, such as desktop PC, mobile, store and catalogue.
The winners will ultimately be those who can effectively integrate their search, social media, content and online PR strategies, whilst also ensuring that their online and offline operations work in unison.
As such, when multichannel retailers are looking to source a search agency they need to provide access to information, which on the surface, may appear irrelevant. However, in the context of an evolving search landscape and multichannel environment, such information is integral to the delivery of an effective search strategy.
Why is a brief important?
Ultimately, developing a brief is to the benefit of both parties. The agency can build a strong understanding of the business, which leads to the most appropriate solution being presented. The retailer benefits for the very same reason; a solution is developed which is most appropriate to their objectives, internal resource and budget, whilst being aligned to other marketing channels.
What should be included in a search marketing brief?
With the above in mind, multichannel retailers should include the following information in a search marketing brief. Please note; it is not unusual for an NDA to be signed at pitch stage bearing in mind the sensitive nature of some of the information required
It is useful for the agency to understand the context of why you are looking to engage them. This starts with an understanding of where you’ve come from before we explore where you want to go. Therefore, this section should include a brief history of the business, recent market trends, how the company has performed and the challenges you are facing (both internal and external).
There should be a particular emphasis on your most profitable and popular product lines. For the purposes of forecasting be open to sharing average order values and margins, as well as an overview of your product strategy i.e. innovations, new launches and so on.
The agency will be looking to assess potential keyword targets (based on the product lines you have cited above). This will involve identifying your competition in search results, as well as researching other marketing activity they are undertaking. It is worth noting that often your competition in search results is very different to your competition across other channels. A small retailer selling black dresses, for example, may find themselves competing in search results with major players, such as Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, which in turn may make related keyword targets unrealistic.
Describe your target audience (sex, age, geography, for example), whilst also outlining what your insight is based on. For example, have you got an active database of customers where you have conducted surveys or focus groups? Ultimately, if an agency is going to help you acquire more customers they need to have an acute understanding of who you are trying to reach.
Also consider why this audience should listen to you. Why are you better than the competition? For example, do you position yourself on price, quality or service? Drawing out your USPs and key benefits will be critical to shaping a content-driven, search strategy to increase customer acquisition.
Your commercial objectives
I cannot stress enough the importance of sharing your overriding commercial objectives, ideally for the next 2 – 3 years. If an agency is to deliver an effective search strategy they need to understand the context of how it is expected to contribute to overall business goals.
At Leapfrogg, we work on the premise that objectives should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound) and based on reliable market data.
At this stage, you should also explain your wider business and marketing plans. Reiterating the point that search does not operate in a silo, it is important that the agency understands what other marketing channels you will be investing in to meet your objectives and in turn, how search might support them, for example new store openings and your mobile strategy.
Current activity and performance
To develop a top line strategy and tactical plan at pitch stage, the agency need to understand the investment you have already made in the channels under discussion, as well as having access to data via tools such as Google Analytics.
Therefore, an overview of the tactics that you are currently employing or have employed in recent months, such as natural search, paid search, social media, content and so on, will be useful. This is a chance to outline other partners or agencies that you employ and that your search agency will be expected to work alongside, for example web developers and offline PR.
Understanding your in-house resource is also essential in the spirit of developing a collaborative partnership with an agency. You should not be looking to ‘outsource’ your search marketing in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, you should seek to partner with your agency, sharing roles and responsibilities where applicable. As such, the agency needs to understand the skill, experience and desire of in-house staff to work on certain aspects of the strategy and tactical execution.
Timescales and budget
All too often, time and resource is wasted during the pitch process (on both sides) because important matters such as timescales for moving ahead and budget are not discussed openly and honestly upfront. An agency will invest many hours, perhaps days, in putting together a proposal. Therefore, to avoid time being wasted, which also includes your time in sourcing and supplying information, it is helpful to know when you intend to start the project, whether you are in contract with an existing agency and any notice clauses.
When it comes to budgets, avoid a situation where you give no indication of what you have to play with. Have in mind a budget and be prepared to share it so that the agency can shape a solution that is appropriate. Essentially, ensure there is a correlation between your commercial objectives and the amount of budget you are prepared to invest in meeting them.
Finally, outline the stages you will be working through in making a decision; how many agencies are you inviting to pitch, who will be involved and who will make the ultimate decision, as well as any particular conditions an agency has to meet. This might include specific sector experience or preferred payment models, for example.
Without establishing a brief you run the risk of making a potentially costly decision when it comes to your search strategy. The briefing process should involve intense questioning by the agency and a willingness on the part of the retailer to share required information.
Anything less than this and you are likely to fall into the trap of buying an off-the-shelf, packaged solution…the polar opposite of a search strategy that is aligned to your business objectives and in tune with your wider retail strategy. The latter can only be achieved with a properly defined brief.
Yes, the process takes time but in the long-run will ultimately deliver far greater returns.