Search Vs. Advertising Vs. Public Relations

Public Relations Sep 20, 2006

Over the last few days, our top referrers flip-flopped from natural Google hits leading to referrals from John Battelle’s Search Blog leading. We watch this like a hawk, because with the HitTail domain only four months old, we have a rather clear view of where our traffic is coming from. And in the early days (June-July), it was almost exclusively word-of-mouth, in the form of bloggers. But when you looked at which websites sent the most referrals, Google was in the clear lead after only 2 months.

That’s why it was with great interest that we watched John’s blog pull out into the lead, pulling in front of the second-runner-up, which was Google AdSense clicks, which technically aren’t clicks from a single source website, but the entire AdSense network. So, our top 3 referrers a week ago looked like:

  1. Google natural search hits (organic)
  2. Google AdSense Network click-throughs (advertising)
  3. The CNET Blog, Alpha (public relations / word of mouth)

After John wrote about us, it became:

  1. John Battelle’s Search Blog (public relations / word of mouth)
  2. Google natural search hits (organic)
  3. Google AdSense Network click-throughs (advertising)

Now Connors Communications is a public relations firm and HitTail is a long tail keyword tool. The one thing we don’t provide as a professional service is advertising (though we provide strategic counsel). So to have a literal neck-to-neck race in a new endeavor this early in the race is symbolic, and probably of interest to the entire marketing world, which is what prompted me to do this post.

In all fairness, Advertising which slipped to position #3 can be pumped up simply by paying more, especially on the AdSense network with bloggers being HitTail’s target audience. So, it’s not fair to say that Advertising is least effective. We just are not paying much. It may be time to re-balance. Anyone with mutual funds split between different risk-level funds can see the relationship between financial diversification and diversification in the marketing mix. It’s just healthier and can carry you through rough waters.

And rarely do you have the marketing numbers so clearly laid out in front of you that you could almost program automatic rebalancing in the marketing mix as you can with an investment portfolio. But here at Connors, we’re considering doing exactly that. Should it be 1/3 organic, 1/3 word of mouth and 1/3 advertising? Depends on your budget. If you can afford it, make advertising set the bar and go for a 2/3 advertising, 1/6 organic, 1/6 word of mouth.

Advertising is the clearest deal in marketing. You put X-dollars in and get Y-circulation out. While there are strategic components to advertising, no doubt, it’s a high stakes game, and a completely different discipline than the organic side of marketing, where the deals are not so clear. In both public relations and natural search (the organic side of marketing), there’s no X-dollars in/Y-circulation out formula. It’s fueled on pure strategy, creativity, and brilliant tactical execution. It costs a lot less, but the rewards can be much greater.

HitTail for instance, has been covered in CNET, Business Week, John Battelle’s Search Blog and all over the Internet in forums and small business blogs. This exposure in terms of marketing dollars was out of the question for HitTail. Of course, the thing you’re trying to promote needs to be sufficiently buzz-worthy raw material for organic marketing to work. Otherwise, self-fueling momentum (a required characteristic of organic marketing) can never set in.

You simply can’t be your own biggest advocate forever. Eventually, you have to hand the torch over to your users, a certain portion of whom should be crazy-in-love with what you do. You can see this most clearly in Apple Macintosh zealots. But you can also see it starting to occur with HitTailers, who increasingly use terms like “the holy grail” of marketing, or “the next big thing”. While we absolutely love this advocacy, we’re the first to point out the healthy marketing mix referred to above.

OK, so Google organic search started #1 and slipped to #2 behind Search Blog. But what about the rest of the referrers?

The answer is that everything else added together is 2.1 times greater than the top 3 referrers added together. In other words, our top 3 referrers are 1/3 natural search, 1/3 paid ads and 1/3 non-paid link from the media. And collectively, they account for 1/3 of the overall referring sources to the HitTail website. And that 2/3 “everything else” component is mostly word-of-mouth, such as smaller blogs, social bookmarks like del.icio.us, with a smattering of second-tier search. Now, I don’t consider Yahoo! second tier, but after only 4 months, HitTail isn’t really driving natural search traffic in Yahoo anywhere near the level it does in Google.

Here are the lessons I believe should be taken away to people looking at ways to drive more potentially qualified traffic to their site.

  1. If you have the money, paid advertising can drive the most traffic in the shortest period of time. You get what you pay for.
  2. Also in the short-term, word of mouth (collectively) can be a bigger driver of traffic than natural search by a factor of 2/3.
  3. Natural search is however actually effective in the short term. Google alone accounted for as much traffic as a CNET article for the same time period. Conversely, CNET drove as much traffic as all of Google.
  4. The largest and lowest-cost driver of traffic seems to be coverage by thought leaders in your space who have a regular readership, such as John Battelle’s search blog.

All of these are short-term take-aways, because 4 months is NOTHING in the scheme of things. As I’ve seen with the sites where the HitTail methodologies are developed, it’s not unusual for natural search (from Google alone) to account for 80% of all traffic. It’s just that this takes a long, slow build on the order of a year or more.

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