BrandVerity
 

Picking up where we left off last week, when we discussed the path a consumer may take from Googling your name to clicking on a lead generation site’s ad and ultimately landing on your competitor’s website, this week’s Lead Generation Question revolves around another method that lead gen sites use to drive customers: pay-per-call.

So what are Pay-Per-Call Sites and how do they work?

Pay-per-call lead gen sites work very similarly to standard lead gen sites, with one essential difference: the lead gen company is paid for each phone call rather than filled-out web form. Otherwise, they are very similar. Let’s take pay-per-call lead gen site targeting Liberty Mutual as an example.

A search for “liberty mutual” on Google Mobile returned the following ad:


Liberty Mutual Pay-per-call

As we saw last week with Farmers, the ad is clearly insinuating that, should the consumer click on the ad, they will be taken to a site with Liberty Mutual Auto Insurance quotes.

In this case, that assumption is somewhat true. The landing page does mention Liberty Mutual several times–but, likely to Liberty Mutual’s chagrin, it also offers to compare Liberty Mutual’s prices to 25+ other insurers.


FastQuote Landing Page

Entering your zip code will take you through the same set of steps that any standard online lead generation site would.

Clicking on the phone number, on the other hand, will call the phone number, or, if you’ve navigated here via a desktop computer or tablet, will open FaceTime or Skype. Calling the number will connect the consumer to an affiliate or an automated call center that asks a variety of questions in order to pre-qualify the lead. Upon answering the questions, the system will redirect the consumer to an insurance provider–not necessarily Liberty Mutual.

Another version of this same technique is for the lead gen site to add a call extension to the ad itself, as seen in this example:


Liberty Mutual Call Extension

If the consumer clicks on this ad–which would only run on mobile search–she will not be sent to a landing page at all, instead, she will be immediately connected, via phone, to a lead gen call center. The system will proceed as above: upon answering a series of questions, the consumer will be redirected to an insurance provider, possibly Liberty Mutual, but just as likely someone else. This kind of ad should be even more concerning for brands, as the consumer may not even realize that she was not calling Liberty Mutual directly.

Is there a difference between these sites and standard lead gen sites?

Not really, the difference lies in convenience. For a consumer, it may be much more convenient to use a pay-per-call site if she is searching for insurance on her phone. These kinds of sites know that and therefore largely target mobile search, though they do pop up with some regularity on desktop searches.

The issues remain the same as in standard webform lead gen: diverted direct traffic, potential loss of brand loyalty, and concerns that your leads can be sold to your competitors. The tangled web of automated phone systems also makes it even harder to track where these leads come from and who they’ve gone through before they get to you.

What can I do about it?

The standard response: monitor. In general, you can learn a lot by asking potential partners how they handle compliance and other brand issues before you start working with them. You should also probably do some basic monitoring of who is bidding on your brand terms in order to avoid purchasing leads from sites who do. If enough brands push back against some of the obscurity in the industry, there may be the potential for more widespread change.

Are you targeted by pay-per-call lead gen? Ideas on how to manage these relationship? Leave a comment below or contact us at BrandVerity!

Last week we started our Lead Gen Series with a post outlining the basic structure of lead generation sites and some of the potential issues in that model. This week we move on to a more specific issue: brand bidding by lead gen sites. At BrandVerity we see a lot of lead gen sites bidding on companies’ brand terms. Interestingly, despite bidding on brand terms and often using those same brand terms in their ad copy, these lead generation sites don’t necessarily promote those same brands on their landing pages. This practice should raise some very serious concerns for companies that partner with lead gen sites.

Want an example? We’ve got one.

On this SERP, a search for “farmers insurance” produced the following results:


Farmers-Example

The top search ad is for a “FarmersAuto” Free Quote and the display URL reads farmersauto.Insurancestep.com/Quote. The ad text and URL suggests that the consumer will be taken to a Farmers quote.

Guess what? It doesn’t. This is the page that loads when the ad is clicked:


InsuranceStep-Landing-Page

No mention of Farmers, but there is Flo, the Progressive lady, smiling happily at Farmers’ potential customer.

Much like the examples in our previous post, when you proceed by clicking “Get Free Quotes”, you’ll be taken to a form that opens in a new window. This form asks for a variety of personal information:


InsuranceStep-Form

Again, no sign of Farmers, but Flo is back and now we see the Esurance logo below her on the left.

Filling in the required information gives us the following page of affiliate links:


InsuranceStep-Affiliate-Links

Farmers does (finally!) make an appearance here, but as the fifth option on the page. That isn’t prime placement to begin with—and it’s especially poor considering that this customer got here by specifically searching for Farmers by name.

Hmm… This seems like a problem for Farmers, doesn’t it?

Yeah, we think so. And the problem is multi-faceted. The same core question is there: specifically, how much do you really want to pay for a lead that all your closest competitors get as well? But, on top of that, the issue of brand bidding makes matters substantially worse. Unlike in reseller brand bidding, where the ads mostly lead to dedicated landing pages promoting the product in question, in these cases lead generation sites are using your brand’s keywords to promote your competitors. And even if that customer ultimately gets to you through the same lead generation site, you’re paying for a customer who was attempting to find your brand in the first place—a customer who would otherwise be coming to you directly.

In this way, the potential downside for you and your brand is very similar to that of working with unscrupulous affiliates. Your direct traffic is being diverted over to lead generation forms such that you end up paying unnecessarily for your own leads. At the same time, from a branding perspective, this kind of bidding by lead gen sites can undermine your brand. Instead of staying atop the customer’s mind, you are being presented as interchangeable with your competitors.

So, what can be done about this?

To prevent these issues, one approach is to audit the networks and/or publishers you work with. Ask them pointed questions about how the handle compliance and issues like this, and if they have any process or technology in place to manage it. Another option is to put the ball in your own court and carefully monitor who is bidding on your brand terms. Ultimately, you can make the choice not to buy leads from sites that are bidding on your terms, providing landing pages that direct consumers to your competitors, or otherwise diluting your company’s brand loyalty. By ensuring that you work only with trustworthy partners, you can get more value for what you spend on leads and protect your brand’s reputation.

How common is brand bidding by lead gen sites?

We’ve actually just released a study that includes information on this exact topic. Curious about whether this is happening in your industry? Download your copy of our report on the State of Branded Keywords here.

How do you choose which lead gen sites to work with? Do you monitor their bidding behavior or do you trust your relationships with publisher networks? Leave a comment below or contact us at BrandVerity!

Evergreen-Cover-Q3-2014

Did you know that every time a potential customer searches for your brand on Google, there’s about about a 1 in 3 chance they’ll see an ad, using your trademark, that was placed by another advertiser?

That’s just one thing we learned monitoring the paid search results of the core branded keywords of over 250 popular, consumer-facing brands from 10 different industry categories across 5 US search engines. Our first report on The State of Branded Keywords in Paid Search details what we found during Q3 of 2014.

We’ll release an updated report every quarter, closely monitoring brands in the Clothing & Apparel, Consumer Electronics, Consumer Finance, Education, Home Services, Insurance, Internet & Telecom, Online Retail, Software, Web & Technology, and Hotel industries.

Some points of interest in the report:

  • The ratio of ads placed by brands to ads placed by competing advertisers who used those brands’ trademarks. On some search engines, competing advertisers outnumber the brands by far
  • How often those competing advertisers appeared on searches for core branded terms in each industry—on Google, Google Mobile, Bing, Yahoo, and AOL
  • The most common advertisers (other than the brands themselves) who appeared in each industry category
  • Suggestions for how brands can take action on various types of trademark bidding

The report is available as a free download on our site. We hope this report and the updates to follow will provide valuable insights for brands into what advertisements appear on search engines when potential customers search for their brand!

Do you find this report useful? What information would you like to see about brand and trademark bidding in the future? As always, please comment below or contact us with any questions or feedback.

Lead Gen Questions (Part 1): What Am I Paying For?

A few weeks ago we wrapped up our Resellers blog series–a group of posts that exposed some of the potential downsides of working with resellers. While, for many branded companies, working with resellers is a requisite and fruitful part of their business strategy, the act of relinquishing total control over marketing and sales can negatively impact both the bottom line and the brand’s reputation. Again and again that series of posts stressed the need to know exactly who is selling your brand, how they are selling your brand, and where they are selling your brand. Only through a combination of working with trusted partners, careful monitoring, and clear agreements with resellers can both sides truly benefit.

This next series of blog posts will look at another type of partnership that also requires a combination of trust, oversight, and cooperation in order to ensure positive outcomes: lead generation publishers. In contrast to resellers, however, lead gen sites rarely have direct or long-term agreements with brands. There is generally less oversight and transparency into how they produce leads.

These posts will cover some of the ways that lead gen sites work, how they’re driving traffic, and attempt to trace what happens between the time a customer enters a keyword into a search engine and the moment when the lead gen site sells that information to a brand. As we’ve noted many times before, when working with partners–be they resellers, affiliates, or lead gen sites–what you don’t know can hurt you. From the bottom line to legal compliance to brand dilution, when your brand, trademarks, and logos are in someone else’s hands there’s at least as good of a chance for harm as for mutual benefit.


So, what are Lead Gen Sites?

The Internet Advertising Bureau’s annual Advertising Revenue Report defines the process of lead generation as follows:

Fees paid by advertisers to online companies that refer qualified potential customers (e.g., auto dealers which pay a fee in exchange for receiving a qualified purchase inquiry online) or provide consumer information (demographic, contact, behavioral) where the consumer opts in to being contacted by a marketer (email, postal, telephone, fax).

In short, lead gen sites collect information from customers, usually via an online form, and then sell that consumer information to companies. The IAB considers any site that collects information (rather than simply a click) to count as lead gen, opening the category not only to applications, such as for auto insurance or a mortgage, but also to surveys and contests. In the same document, the IAB asserts that lead gen revenues comprised 4% of FY 2013 advertising revenues–or about $1.75 billion. That’s $1.75 billion paid last year by brands to these sites.


So, what are you paying for?

Let’s start by looking at the most basic example. I’m looking for car insurance so I go type “car insurance” into Google. Here’s my results page:


car insurance SERP

You see lots of branded sites both in the organic and paid results, but also, in the right-hand column of search ads, you see a lead generation site: US Auto Insurance Now.

Clicking through the ad leads us to the following landing page that asks for some information about whether you’re already insured and your zip code.


US Auto Insurance Now Landing Page

Filling in that information (or entering your zip code in the original ad) will lead you to this form, asking for information regarding your car.


US Auto Form

Following pages will ask for personal information about the driver–name, age, marital status, past accidents, anything relevant to their insurability–as well as their email address, street address, and phone number. That information will then be available for sale to partnered insurance companies. How those rates work depend on the publisher network. Increasingly, networks are offering varied types of dynamic pricing and bidding on leads.

Once that information is obtained, many—even most—of these publishers will then show a page of affiliate links:


US Auto Aff Links

Clicking through those links will take the user to a brand’s page through an affiliate link. Their zip code will often already be entered, but they will need to reenter all of their personal identifying information.

In this site’s case, I also received a page of affiliate links immediately after entering my zip code. The webform appeared in a new browser tab and a page identical to the one above appeared in the original tab. The site ensures that even if you don’t make it all the way through their info form, you will at the very least be served a page of affiliate links.

Upon filling out the form, I immediately received three email offers from PEMCO, State Farm, and Geico.


So, what’s the big deal?

In this case, US Auto Insurance Now is doing exactly what one expects a lead gen publisher to do: pull in customers who know they need car insurance but don’t know exactly what provider they plan to go with, collect that customer’s information, and then sell that information to insurance brands who want it.

That said, there are a couple red flags that arise right away: how much is a lead really worth when that customer has been inundated with affiliate links before your email hits her inbox? How much is it worth when your closest competitors receive the same information at the same time?

A question also comes up about the relationship of local agents to national insurance brands. In the case of US Auto Insurance, they are a publisher within the AdHarmonics network. AdHarmonics markets itself as providing targeted leads to local agents—but they also provide affiliate links to national brands’ sites. Is there a way to be sure customers aren’t receiving mixed messages: one from a local agent and one from the national brand?

The situation gets even more complicated once brand bidding and a variety of other less scrupulous marketing techniques come into play. We’ll start looking at those next week. In the meantime: any questions about how lead gen works? Do you work with any of these kinds of sites? We’d love your thoughts on the worth and the quality of leads brought in through these channels. Leave a comment below or contact us!

As both a dancer and a devoted wearer of Adriano Goldschmied (AG) jeans, I was intrigued by the company’s newest social media campaign on Tumblr, the latest in a series of companies using dancers as models. The campaign includes images of dancers taken by famed dance photographer Dane Shitugi of The Ballerina Project and asks Tumblr users to share their own images with the hashtag #whatmovesme. Director of global communications, Johnathan Crocker, hoped the campaign would provide a “viral component” to the brand’s marketing initiatives.

But, while AG is paying a lot of attention to their social media marketing and branding, are they paying an equal amount of attention to how paid search results impact their brand? This blog post–the final in our reseller series, at least for the moment–will look at the issue of Product Listing Ads by resellers, taking AG jeans as the example.

Case Study: AG Jeans and PLAs

Like many of the brands discussed throughout this series, AG Jeans seems to do the majority of their sales through other retailers. As a privately-held company, they do not release a great deal of information regarding their business operations, but between the small number of direct retail locations–12 in the US and 1 in Japan–and the large number of resellers with whom they work (including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, and Piperlime), it seems fair to assert that the majority of their business comes through those channels. Also, those nationwide retailers provide a key growth channel for the brand in markets in which they do not have their own branded retail locations.

But what about online? AG does operate an online store and their own search ads appear consistently in the top spot on Google followed by authorized and reputable resellers.


AG-PLAs-and-Search-ads

The above screenshot should look pretty familiar to anyone who’s been reading this series, but with a new addition–a set of Product Listing Ads (PLAs) above the side search results.

So what do those PLAs mean for AG?

PLAs, which feature a photo of an item, a price, and a link to a reseller, have become an important marketing tool for resellers and brands alike. Google’s recent upgrade to “Shopping Campaigns” has brought increased attention to this kind of advertisement.

As you can see in the screenshot, none of the PLAs that appear for “Adriano Goldschmied” are for AG’s own site. That is a consistent statistic we found when running PLA Monitoring for the brand. In fact, agjeans.com only accounted for only 2.8% of the PLAs on its branded keywords during our monitoring period. And, when they did appear, the results often looked something like this:


AG-2

What these screenshots show is that when ads for agjeans.com do appear (these were both on searches for “jeans AG”) they often show up next to other advertisers listing their products for a significantly lower price–something that Google oh-so-helpfully points out. It seems a fair assumption that a consumer would click through to Nordstrom’s site rather than to AG’s.

What’s also interesting is that over the same time span, AG’s own site always held the top search ad spot on Google, suggesting that while they run a very effective AdWords campaign, they have not put nearly the same effort into their Shopping campaign.

The reason for that could be completely logical. PLAs, in general, have a higher clickthrough rate than text ads, resulting in many retailers directing the majority of their paid search budget to them. The best results, however, for PLAs are generally for non-branded traffic. As non-branded keywords return better results on PLAs, and branded keywords return better results on text ads, AG might be making the conscious choice to direct their attention to standard text ads rather than PLAs.

That said, only having options to purchase from resellers when a consumer is specifically looking for their products seems like a missed opportunity. They’ll very likely lose out on the direct sale and, while in general the advertisers bidding on AG’s terms are legitimate high-end retailers, they lose control of the customer experience. While it’s great that a customer in Chicago can walk into an Anthropologie or go to the Nordstrom’s website to purchase AG jeans, AG should be concerned about whether that consumer is building loyalty towards the brand or towards the retailer. The fact that their resellers sometimes advertise much lower prices than AG’s own site in those ads only adds insult to injury.

As a brand, AG has a dedicated customer base which they’re actively working to engage online in other ways, so why not through PLAs as well?

Well, why not?

In addition to the reasons stated above, the answer might be at least somewhat related to the ways that PLA campaigns work and are run. Google’s Shopping Campaign platform–while providing more tools for advertisers than their old PLA Campaign system–provides less clarity for advertisers about where and when their PLAs appear than the standard AdWords platform. It’s quite possible that AG doesn’t really know what’s going on with its PLAs–and certainly doesn’t know that its resellers are advertising much lower prices right next to their own advertisements.

While PLAs are not the highest priority for a brand like Adriano Goldschmied, keeping track of what their retailers are doing with their brand and brand name can only be in their best interest as one part of a comprehensive marketing plan. Since launching BrandVerity’s Product Listing Ad Monitoring service, we’ve begun to learn a lot more about these issues and would be happy to discuss how our service might help you and your brand.

Do you have any insight into how brands should manage PLAs? Questions about our PLA tool? Let us know in the comments below or contact us at BrandVerity!

Our post on GoPro and Greentoe began to discuss the potential impact of affiliate marketing on partner bidding.  Today’s blog is going to look at an apparel brand, Converse, and the ways that affiliates of its partner retailers can play a role in partner bidding. Again, everything in this post is going to be entirely “legal” as far as a search engine is concerned; our question is whether this kind of marketing might be harmful for a brand and, if so, what the brand can do about it.

For the most part, throughout this series, the partner bidding we have looked at has been by retailers with whom a brand has a contractual relationship. Today, we’re going to look at partner bidding by affiliates–but not affiliates of the brand, affiliates of a retailer that sells the brand’s product. In other words, there are two degrees of separation between the brand and the advertiser: the brand sells to a reseller who in turn works with affiliates. Those affiliates may then bid on the brand’s terms in order to sell the product through the reseller’s website. Sound complicated? We’ll walk you through it below, using “Converse” as an example.

Case Study: Converse

A search on Bing for “converse” produced the following SERP:


Converse-1

The top search ad is for Shopping County with the encouraging ad copy that “J.M” claims, “I can’t believe I ever shopped for Converse All Stars elsewhere” (similarly, another “customer,” named W.T., also couldn’t believe she had ever shopped for Hunter rain boots elsewhere, per a search I was doing the other day in preparation for a Seattle fall!). Hunter-BootsShopping County describes itself as a review site for online shopping sites, acting as a “personal online shopping guru” and grading sites on everything from their web design to their credibility.

Of course, the ad that Shopping County is running on the “converse” keyword doesn’t bill themselves as a review site at all, but rather as a “Converse All Stars Outlet.” A customer who clicks through the link will find themselves on the following landing page:


Shopping_County_3

While it is Converse-specific, it is neither an outlet store, nor a review site. Rather, it’s a landing page to redirect a customer through an affiliate link.

Scrolling down the page reveals a few other items of potential concern to Converse. First, this description of “Our Brand:” Shopping-County-2

While the same copy can be found on a variety of sites around the web that sell Converse, the phrasing implies that Shopping County is directly related to the brand.

Second, farther down the page, Shopping County embeds a host of affiliate links which direct the customer to various retailers’ main landing pages. Many of these retailers do not sell Converse. Not only is this site offering a misleading ad, but it’s also potentially diverting a sale to a competing manufacturer.

Can Converse Do Anything?

The issue here is complicated, as Shopping County—although an affiliate—is not an affiliate of Converse. Thus, by most search engine policies and by the terms of Shopping County’s agreements with the retailers it works with, the site is operating within bounds. They do in fact advertise the company they claim to and they don’t bid on the trademarked terms of their marketing partners. Under Google’s Trademark Policy, this is definitely fair game, as they specify that as long as “The product or services [are] the primary focus of the ad’s landing page” and that landing page “clearly provide[s] a way to purchase the product or services,” the site may use the trademark in the ad copy.

What Converse can potentially do is rework their agreements with resellers. They may be able to extend those agreements to cover affiliates so that this kind of affiliate bidding won’t continue.

Thoughts on what Converse should do here? Let us know in the comments below or contact us directly at BrandVerity!

For many brands, the primary, even sole, concern when it comes to working with a reseller is whether they drive sales effectively. We think, however, that brands should pay almost equal attention to the experience a customer has at a partner website. While working with retailers can be advantageous for a brand, the very real downside is that you have little control over what kind of experience your consumer might have once they reach your partner’s site. The range of negative experiences a consumer might have is vast–from misleading copy to poor customer service or slow delivery times–and these negative feelings may end up reflecting back on you and your brand, rather than on the retailer. Should this happen, the positives about working with a reseller are largely undercut.

Case Study: GoPro

While doing research for this series of blog posts, I set up some BrandVerity monitoring on terms related to popular camera brand, GoPro, and found evidence of exactly this kind of potentially harmful partner bidding. A new retailer website in the current Y Combinator S14 class, Greentoe, is seeking to become something like the Priceline for retail. According to their How it Works page and this TechCrunch article, Greentoe allows a consumer to state the price they are willing to pay for an item and then the company shops that price to a variety of anonymous resellers. If one of those resellers bites, the consumer can get the item for a dramatically lower rate. For the most part, Greentoe is starting out with high-cost, specialist consumer products, dividing their product categories into “Photo,” “Home Theater,” “Baby,” “Appliances,” and “Musical Instruments.” That puts GoPro right in their wheelhouse.

What I found was that during the last two weeks of July, Greentoe aggressively bid on keywords including “gopro,” “gopro.com,” “gopro dealers,” and “gopro coupon.” Often, their search ad would appear in the first or second position on both Google and Bing, either beating out GoPro’s own ad or appearing directly below it.


GoPro_SERP-edit

In the above image, someone is using Google to direct herself to gopro.com (by the way, that’s another blog post entirely—how are brands impacted when someone uses Google as a navigation?) but finds GoPro as well as a retail partner offering 22% off, “Don’t Ever Pay Retail Again”!

Potential Impact on GoPro

This situation is bad for GoPro for a variety of reasons. First, not only have they potentially lost a direct sale, but they’re being severely undercut by their partner. It’s likely that a consumer, even one searching for the GoPro website, will click on Greentoe’s link as well–who could resist such a good deal?! Should the consumer make a purchase there, GoPro will end up losing a direct sale. In this case, the retail partner is potentially cutting into GoPro’s margins without adding any real value.

Second, Greentoe’s website is hardly as glossy and high-end looking as GoPro’s own and its interface, wherein one needs to type a numerical offer and then a pendulum swings to show the likelihood one’s offer being accepted, is clunky.


GoProGreentoe

Add to that the wait time between making an offer and having that offer accepted (Greentoe does not disclose how long that may take), and the added friction for the consumer may thwart a sale entirely.

Greentoe-MeterFinally, Greentoe is itself an affiliate of a few other retailers, including Amazon, Walmart, and Bestbuy. While GoPro itself would not end up paying those affiliate fees, should someone navigate through Greentoe to any of those sites, GoPro will lose out on the direct sale. Greentoe does not offer a link back to GoPro’s own site.

Options for the Brand

The biggest question here, of course, is what can GoPro do about a site like Greentoe? As far as we can tell, Greentoe itself is not a licensed retailer of GoPro products, instead they are a third party site that a) operates as an affiliate of licensed resellers and b) works with licensed resellers to anonymously lower prices for consumers, presumably then getting a cut of the sale. Assuming that is indeed the case, then GoPro itself has little recourse to keep Greentoe out of its search results or require them to change their marketing tactics. One option might be to require that authorized retailers not work with third party sites like Greentoe. Another might be to encourage partner bidding by retailers with whom GoPro has a better, more mutually beneficial relationship.

If there’s one thing this study has proven, it is that it is very much to a brand’s advantage, even if they work with retail partners, to know who exactly is bidding on their keywords, how effective those bids are, and what the content of those ads is. They also would be served by keeping an eye on the landing pages of those ads. For GoPro, the ability to monitor Greentoe’s actions is the only way to take any kind of action against them and protect their brand.

Greentoe does seem to have stopped bidding on GoPro’s terms as of August 2. While we don’t know if that’s because GoPro stepped in or Greentoe simply changed their strategy, we definitely think that GoPro should be pleased. However, as we stopped monitoring Greentoe’s activity shortly thereafter, we don’t currently know if they have resumed the activity.

Thoughts on this kind of new retail site? Questions about the relationship between retail partners and brands? Leave a comment below or contact us at BrandVerity!

handshake

Credit: Flickr

It’s no secret that we’ve been focusing a lot on the topic of partner bidding this month at BrandVerity. Posts so far have discussed important issues such as when partners should or should not be allowed to bid on your brand terms, the dangers of partner bidding, as well as the potential confusion and friction that partners can create.

To this point, our posts have primarily highlighted reseller issues in online retail. But partner bidding affects brands in many industries beyond that. So, to expand the discussion, we decided to highlight the hospitality/travel industry as well. For insights into how these issues affect that industry, we turned to attorney Greg Duff—hospitality industry expert and founder of the Hospitality, Travel and Tourism group at Garvey Schubert Barer.

Remember, these are opinions and insights only—you should always speak to your attorney for advice about your specific legal matters. Without further introduction, here are BrandVerity’s questions and Greg’s responses:


When it comes to hotels’ agreements with Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), is there anything that hotel brands should be more conscious of?

GD: Just about every OTA agreement (and most distribution agreements generally) contain a few key terms that hotels should review and consider carefully. First, what affiliates or third party partners of the OTA may the OTA use for distributing the rates and inventory made available by the hotel? Relatedly, what control, if any, does the hotel have over these affiliates or third party partners, particularly when an affiliate or partner is using the rates and inventory in violation of the agreement? We are seeing a number of traditional static rate wholesalers making rooms (with discounted packaged rates) available on consumer channels on a standalone basis, which is causing a lot of concern.

Second, what commitments is the hotel being asked to make with regard to parity—rate party, availability parity, loyalty program parity, keyword parity, etc.? Third, what, if any, contractual limitations is the OTA willing to consider regarding use of the hotel’s trademarks as keywords on search engines? Will the OTA limit its use of the hotel’s trademarks? Better yet, will the OTA consider use of negative keywords? Fourth, how and by whom are room taxes being calculated, collected and remitted? Is the hotel able to collect (either from the OTA or guest upon checkout) the taxes it needs to satisfy its state or local tax obligations? Will the OTA provide indemnity protection should the OTA take an aggressive stance on taxes?

When getting ready to re-negotiate its terms with an OTA, what should a hotel brand have prepared?

GD: The response largely depends on the relative sizes of the hotel and OTA (and relatedly, the bargaining positions of each). Smaller OTAs are often willing to work with hotels on each of the items noted above and other items as well. Larger OTAs are often unwilling to provide much of any relief. Hotels need to have reasonable expectations going into any OTA discussion and must be able to identify those issues or items that are “must haves” (e.g. connectivity, payment, etc.) vs. “nice to haves.”

In paid search, what should brand-conscious hotel brands do to restrict the use of their brand terms?

GD: The best strategy (though often hard to obtain with the larger OTAs) is to use a combination of keyword restrictions (identify those hotel trademarks or service marks that the OTA cannot use for SEO/SEM purposes) and negative keywords (those few trademarks or service marks that the OTA must purchase on a negative, phrase match basis). Remember, that absent some contractual agreement on this issue, trademark law often affords OTAs broad discretion in purchasing and using a hotel’s trademarks and service marks for SEO/SEM purposes.

How can a hotel brand ensure that its agreements are both A) followed and B) enforceable (if not followed)?

GD: Once the agreement is signed, the real work begins. Our clients use a combination of approaches to monitoring OTAs’ performance under the distribution agreement. Some clients don’t monitor at all and simply rely on someone bringing an issue to their attention. Other client have dedicated employees who monitor compliance—both on rates and keyword provisions. Others use services like BrandVerity to automate the process.

What’s the next marketing channel that hotel brands should be watching?

GD: Great question. The answer to this question varies from week to week as channels come and go. Tingo is one of the more interesting ones that we’ve come across recently. I expect to see a lot of development in the group travel segment in the future, with platforms like Groupize and others gaining traction.

For many brands, sales through retail partners vastly outnumber their direct sales, making partner bidding an essential part of a marketing and sales plan. But is there a point at which that kind of symbiotic relationship turns toward the negative? This post will walk through what positive partner bidding might look like for a brand like this, using Villeroy & Boch, a brand that manufactures fine china, as an example. It will also give a couple of examples of when a brand might want to step in and curtail its partners’ search advertising.

Case Study: Villeroy & Boch

Like many of the brands discussed in this series, Villeroy & Boch sells more product through its retail partners than directly off their website or own retail locations. According to their 2013 Annual Report, their products are available at 5,800 points of sale internationally, including their own website, 155 self-branded stores, 60 factory outlets, and 570 consignment stores run by the brand itself. With the large amount of china purchased through department store wedding registries and the frequent turnover in designs being manufactured, it makes sense for a brand like Villeroy & Boch to encourage partner bidding by resellers, although the company’s opening of several new retail stores in the past year suggests they are well-aware of the increased revenue to be gained through direct sales.

Helpful Partner Bidding

Similar to KitchenAid in the first part of this series, a BrandVerity search for “Villeroy and Boch” reveals that many retail partners, including Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Amazon, and Replacements.com, bid on their search terms. The optimal partner bidding situation for Villeroy & Boch looks something like this:


Villeroy & Boch

As you can see in the screenshot, on this Google search for “Villeroy & Boch,” the organic hits yield their own website in the top two positions and the search ads have their website first, followed by a variety of retailers including Macy’s and Replacements.com. If we click through both of those top two search ads, we’ll find that both Bloomingdale’s and Replacements.com direct their consumers to dedicated Villeroy & Boch pages with lists of the various products they have for sale.

While Villeroy & Boch would save money through a direct sale, their partnerships with large, nationwide department store retailers like Bloomingdales and china-specific sites like Replacements.com allow their brand to grow and expand, and they’ll still probably get the sale at the end of the day.

Harmful Partner Bidding

A more negative result arises when partners beat Villeroy & Boch in positioning on the SERP, as seen here:


V_B_Bing_Edit_3

Or when the links in those search ads do not direct a consumer to a brand-specific results page as in this example:


V_B_Bing_Edit_2

In this case, clicking through the Replacements.com link does not take us to a brand-specific page with every Villeroy & Bloch pattern ever manufactured. Instead, it takes us to this page:


Replacements Knife

While the advertised fork is made by Villeroy & Boch, the odds are low that it’s what the consumer was looking for, creating unnecessary frustration for the customer.

Finally, a partner like Replacements.com—which sells not only new merchandise, but also vintage, second-hand, and discontinued products—creates another level of potential downside for a brand. According to the website’s FAQ, customers cannot specify that they want “never used” versus “previously used” china:

Since we inspect and grade each piece for quality before it is inventoried, we do not separate pieces based on new or previously owned status. Rest assured that any piece you purchase from us is fully guaranteed and comes with our 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy.

As a result, a consumer may very well end up buying used products from Replacements.com even if they wanted and were searching for a new product. In that case, Villeroy & Boch sees nothing from the sale. Further, depending on what the consumer wanted or expected, the brand may lose out in both customer loyalty and satisfaction.

What could Villeroy & Boch do?

The frustrating-but-true theme of this blog series is that while there is no perfect solution to the potential issues surrounding partner bidding, constant vigilance is the first step toward minimizing negative impact. In this case, because Replacements.com is a retail partner of Villeroy & Boch (in addition to purchasing product from estate sales and other dealers, the company also purchases directly from Villeroy & Boch), the brand might have more capacity to curb bidding that they feel is not to their advantage. They could perhaps ask the company not to bid on certain terms or require that search ads lead to brand-specific result pages. Another option might be for Villeroy & Boch to encourage partner bidding by retail partners who do always buy directly from them, like Bloomingdales or Macy’s, in order to be sure that they do receive as much profit on a sale as possible.

At the end of the day, the best thing a brand like Villeroy & Boch can do is closely monitor this kind of partner bidding in order to see exactly how others are using their name in advertising. While it’s unlikely that a brand as established as Villeroy & Boch has much to fear from a few badly placed search ads, their ability to remain a leading name in the tableware industry is dependent on simultaneously protecting their customer experience and their profits. Vigilance regarding their resellers’ use of their name is a crucial step in that direction.

What do you think the best practices for a brand like Villeroy & Boch would look like? Let us know in the comments below or contact us directly at BrandVerity!

To say that Seattle loves their football would be an understatement: the Seahawks are basically a religion around here. And, while it pains my San Francisco-born-and-bred heart, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement about football season—and about the Seahawks (just don’t tell my dad!).

But we’re not the only ones getting excited about the kickoff game this week: as we’ve pointed out here, here, and here, big television events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars can bring trademark poachers out in droves as they look to capitalize on the increased searches for these terms. At BrandVerity, we thought the start of football season might have a similar impact and so last week we set up some monitoring to see if we could catch anyone looking to turn an illegitimate profit on keywords related to DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket Package.

Sure enough, we found several interesting examples of brand bidding—much of it by authorized dealers, which raises some of the questions we’ve been discussing in our reseller series. As discussed in the first posts of our reseller series, partner bidding can be a good way for brands to dominate the search results and ensure that when their brand terms are searched, unauthorized sites do not appear among the top hits. Telecom companies, like DirecTV, sell a great deal of product through licensed retailers, meaning they likely allow those resellers to bid on some or all of their brand terms. The downside, however, is a lack of control over customer experience when a consumer navigates through a retailer site rather than through DirecTV’s.


So, what did we find?

DTV-Sales-Ad-Google

Our monitoring picked up several websites bidding on terms related to NFL Sunday Ticket that might raise some eyebrows among executives at DirecTV. In particular, searches for “nflst.directv.com”—the streaming site for NFL Sunday Ticket—brought up some ads that seemed potentially detrimental to DirecTV’s brand and ability to provide excellent customer service.

One ad we found was for a site called DTV-Sales.com, with the headline “Get NFL Sunday Ticket”. This ad directs the user to a landing page that offers a background image advertising a variety of DirecTV packages with an “Order Now” button at the top.


DTV-Landing-Page

Confusingly, there’s nothing you can click on this page except for the “Order Now” button at the top. Since the entire page is a background image, none of the expected website functionality is there—no hover states, no highlightable text, nothing to click. It definitely took me a moment to figure out how to move forward in the ordering process here. And even when you click the “Order Now” button, you get redirected to a site called TVSavingsForYou.com. Despite being an “Authorized Dealer” of DirecTV, TVSavingsforYou.com also creates some friction of its own. You have to hover over a “Save Big” piece of artwork to get a visible mention of NFL Sunday Ticket. Otherwise, the only information about NFL Sunday Ticket is buried well below the fold in an section that’s easy to miss (it isn’t even pictured in the screenshot below).


Dealer-Landing-Page

Another search for “nflst.directv.com” pulls the following ad from a site called DirectStarTV.com:

DirectStarTV-Ad

It’s also an “Authorized Dealer” of DirecTV and is offering NFL Sunday Ticket as part of the packages it sells.

DirectStarTV-Landing-Page

These two sites (DTV-Sales and DirectStarTV) also appear on searches for keywords such as “nfl sunday ticket,” “nfl sunday ticket package,” “dtv nfl sunday ticket,” “nfl sunday ticket cable,” and “DirecTV sunday ticket special.” DirectStarTV, in particular, often shows up in the 1st or 2nd ad position.

Because both sites are authorized dealers of DirecTV products and they are advertising that NFL Sunday Ticket is included in certain packages that they sell, their bidding on brand terms is legal according to Google’s policies and likely according to DirecTV’s as well. But, a few red flags do pop up regarding these sites and their bidding activity from the perspective of DirecTV’s brand protection and customer satisfaction.


What are the potential problems here?

Friction for Current Customers

The first problem that comes to mind with sites like DirectStarTV and TVSavingsForYou bidding on DirecTV’s terms is the potential for friction. One instance of this friction is the confusion for existing DirecTV subscribers—specifically those who stream football games via nflst.directv.com. Let’s say a DirecTV customer, in an effort to log in and start watching a game, typed the URL “nflst.directv.com” into Google by accident. What would they make of an ad placed by one of DirecTV’s dealers? There are a few potential outcomes:

  • Scenario A: the customer simply ignores it
  • Scenario B: the customer notices the incentive offered in the dealer’s ad, causing them to question the value they’re getting from DirecTV as a direct customer
  • Scenario C: the customer notices the incentive offered in the dealer’s ad, causing them to pursue the offer and try to switch their service

While Scenario A would be relatively benign, Scenarios B and C could actually be quite harmful for DirecTV. They hurt brand image, discourage customers from purchasing direct, and complicate the buying process to the point where the brand may be unnecessarily competing with itself. These complications can result in increased cost-per-sale and lost subscribers. Those outcomes aren’t great.

Friction for Potential Customers

What if the person searching for “nflst.directv.com” wasn’t already a customer? What if they were interested in signing up for DirecTV’s streaming service? In that scenario, the dealers’ ads cause even more friction!

It’s unlikely that someone interested in streaming would want to purchase from one of these dealers. These dealer sites are promoting DirecTV television and internet packages—they are not offering the streaming service at all. At best, the prospective customer would probably ignore the deal. At worst, they may end up signing up for something that’s different from what they wanted—which can lead to all sorts of issues down the road. Ultimately, a customer who ends up on one of these sites looking for NFL Sunday Ticket streaming will likely leave disappointed and frustrated.

But let’s say that a customer is looking for the television service only. Perhaps she searched for one of the other terms on which these ads appeared like “dtv nfl sunday ticket”. Would she be satisfied with the service offered? The answer is a maybe, at best. These sites can sell her a television package that includes NFL Sunday Ticket—but only if she’s a new customer to DirecTV. If she’s an existing customer looking to add the package, these sites will direct her back to DirecTV.com to complete the transaction. (It doesn’t appear that these sites direct the user back through an affiliate link, but there may be some kind of referral tracking in play.)


Existing-Customer-Page

If indeed she is a new customer, she still cannot buy DirecTV’s services online through this dealer—she needs to call them and complete the transaction over the phone or enter her information into a lead generation form so that they can call her. From where I stand as a consumer, this added step would likely frustrate me and keep me from purchasing through one of these sites, although many customers may complete their transactions this way. It is, of course, difficult for DirecTV to monitor what the customer experience might look like on that phone call and a less-than-stellar experience could negatively impact customer retention and loyalty down the road. The company will also end up paying a commission on a sale they could have made directly.


Do authorized resellers and dealers always have your best interests in mind?

One of the particularly interesting things that came up in the course of our monitoring is that Direct StarTV is a “Preferred Online Retailer” of DirecTV, along with three other websites. According to DirecTV, these retailers achieve this status “because of their commitment to DIRECTV’s high customer satisfaction standards.” All four of these sites operate on the same basic model as Direct StarTV, in that they sell DirecTV packages over the phone or ask the customer to fill out a lead gen form so that they can get in touch later.

Of the four preferred online retailers, two were actively bidding on terms related to NFL Sunday Ticket over the past two weeks, including searches for “nflst.directv.com”. While DirecTV clearly knows the basic model of these sites and approves of it, I do have to wonder if they’re aware of how and how often these sites are bidding on brand terms in paid search—and how often they’re bidding on terms for products they don’t sell. DirecTV’s must find partnering with these sites to be beneficial, but are they also aware of how this kind of partner bidding can increase friction for sales, produce negative customer experiences, and drive up the cost of their keywords? If they aren’t thinking about these issues, they may want to do so—and consider revising their terms of service with these partners.

Thoughts on these kinds of telecom partner relationships? Questions about how to track this kind of partner bidding? Predictions about the upcoming football season? Leave your comments below or contact us at BrandVerity.

« Previous Entries  Next Page »