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The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a survey yesterday revealing that teenagers now use e-cigarettes at substantially higher rates than traditional cigarettes. The results of the annual, federal survey was written up in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Tripp Mickle, an expert on drugs and alcohol for the WSJ, writes:

A new survey shows U.S. teenagers are more likely to use electronic cigarettes than traditional cigarettes, a trend researchers say is driven by teens’ belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful.

The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey could add fuel to the policy debate over the battery-powered devices, which heat nicotine-laced liquid into a vapor and are regulated far more loosely than combustible cigarettes.

This news and these articles caught our attention for a couple of reasons. First (full disclosure here), we work with e-cigarette companies, so we’re always interested when we see the words “regulated” and “e-cigarettes” in the same sentence. Second, we know that e-cigarette companies probably become very nervous when they see a phrase like “teens’ belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful”—not because they aren’t (I’m no doctor—jury’s still out on that one), but because making health claims and advertising to children can raise a lot of regulatory issues for these companies.

So let’s back up a minute. What is it that we offer to e-cigarette companies, and why?  

E-cigarette companies use our new Content Monitoring service—something we’re thrilled about, as we think we can really help them improve their monitoring and self-regulation. This service, like our Paid Search Monitoring, is designed to help assure affiliate, partner, and publisher compliance. But, unlike Paid Search Monitoring, which finds improper ads on search engines, this service is specifically targeted at the content on publisher websites—be they endorsements, review sites, or other content-driven advertising platforms.

As Mickle writes in the WSJ, at the moment, e-cigarettes are much more loosely regulated by both the FTC and the FDA than traditional cigarettes. That said, A) they are regulated, especially by the FTC, which is, in general, very concerned about any possible “health claims” in advertising—ie. “healthier than traditional cigarettes;” “non-addictive,” or “quit smoking”—as well as advertising to children. And B) it seems like the FDA is looking to increasingly regulate the industry, taking the first steps toward doing so this past April by specifically zeroing in on sales of e-cigarettes to minors. Many companies are interested in being one step ahead of both the FTC and the FDA so that if new regulations do come down, they will already be in compliance.

That’s where we come in!  

As is true in all kinds of performance marketing, companies are responsible for the claims their affiliates or publishers make. Our new Content Monitoring service can (among other things) scan known websites for forbidden copy—such as “healthy alternative” or “no carcinogens”, detect whether a site is lacking in proper affiliate disclosure language, and discover previously unknown websites that may have forbidden copy. One of the big issues in this space is that it is constantly changing. The FTC or FDA can change regulations. Laws regarding sales to minors vary from state to state. Furthermore, doctors are in an ongoing debate about both the potential health risks (addiction) and possible benefits (ability to quit traditional cigarettes more easily) of using e-cigarettes. These frequent changes make it very easy for publishers to find themselves unintentionally out of compliance and make it even more essential that e-cigarette companies know who is promoting their brand, where they are promoting it, and how they are promoting it. We can help do that.

Given the content of the survey and its coverage in national news sources, I think it is likely we’ll see both the FTC and the FDA taking an even bigger interest in e-cigarette companies.  You can understand how they might be uncomfortable with the idea that kids think they’re safe and that doctors are saying they help curb addiction (even if true).  The science, unfortunately, just isn’t there yet. And until it is, e-cigarette companies need to stay safe rather than sorry. That means they can’t make claims regarding their safety or ability to curb cigarette addiction and should steer clear of marketing to children, both on their own and on any publishers’ sites.

If you’re an e-cigarette company in search of compliance solutions, please do reach out to us at BrandVerity. Our sales team would love to show you the product and work with you to make sure it suits your needs. Also, please feel free to leave comments in the space below!

Right before Thanksgiving, we ran a quick post outlining how to minimize the non-compliant paid search  tactics that often crop up around Black Friday. We also said in that post that we’d update with any trends we noticed in the days leading up to and on Black Friday. This is that post! (Aren’t you excited?)

To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t as significant an increase in brand bidding around Thanksgiving as we feared we might see. This is good news for brands and retailers, as it means that for the most part, people acted appropriately around these major shopping days.

That’s not to say there wasn’t an uptick at all. This graph shows the incidence of non-brand ads using trademarked terms for the month leading up to Thanksgiving and continuing until December 5, 2014. The data is pulled from the same cohort of monitoring policies as our State of Branded Keywords Report, meaning that the search terms were brand names, domains, and common misspellings. It did not include searches like “[Brand Name] coupons,” which might have further inflated the numbers.


DeVry SERP

A few interesting things appear here. First, on the day before Thanksgiving, non-brand trademark usage dropped to its lowest levels all month. It’s hard to say what exactly caused this, but there is a general pattern of numbers dropping, then spiking throughout the month–perhaps as a result of fiddling with ad campaigns or attempts to hide from compliance teams. Wednesday was a lot of people’s last day in the office before leaving for the weekend and perhaps brand bidders decided to lay low until everyone was out.

Second, starting on Thanksgiving and continuing through Saturday, trademark usage by competing advertisers was particularly high. As you can see, numbers skyrocketed back up on Thursday, more than making up for the dip on Wednesday. The number of non-brand Ads/SERP on Black Friday was the highest for the entire month of November. The implication here is that people interested in targeting brands’ trademarks on paid search did take advantage of the holiday weekend’s increased shopping and the fact that many compliance and marketing teams were out of the office or simply overwhelmed by their own marketing campaigns.

The final interesting point here is that there is a (small) drop in non-brand Ads/SERP on Sunday, followed by another uptick on Monday and Tuesday, suggesting that Cyber Monday has become nearly as much of a target for brand bidders as Black Friday.

It is absolutely clear that brand bidders do target companies over the Thanksgiving weekend and that it would be in a brand’s best interest to put in place a monitoring system to catch the offenders, if they do not have one already. That said, we’re planning to do a bit more digging into how brands, especially in the online retail space, are targeted around the holidays more broadly. Preliminary looks at the data suggest that, overall, numbers of non-brand Ads/SERP go up in November and December and that’s a topic we’ll explore in more length in our next report on the State of Branded Keywords in Paid Search. Keep an eye out for that in January.

Did you notice an uptick in brand bidding over the holiday weekend? Let us know in the comments or by contacting us at BrandVerity!

No-Display-URL-Bing

We’ve recently been finding some ads appearing on Yahoo and Bing without a Display URL. We first noticed this on Yahoo, where the ads were simply composed of a headline and description text (without any space for a Display URL to appear). In some more recent monitoring, the examples we’ve found on Bing have always included a lone dot in the Display URL field. In the Bing example on the right, you can see this dot followed a gap where the Display URL would normally be.

Branding Issues

Initially, this seemed like a test that Yahoo was running. Yahoo has often experimented with different ad formats in the past, so this wouldn’t be a shock at all. But how would brands be affected by an experiment like this? One potential issue would be that brands could no longer identify themselves in their own ads. Without the Display URL for proof, competing advertisers could look very similar—if not identical. If this experiment picked up momentum, what would brands do to distinguish their ads from the crowd?

Fortunately, this doesn’t seem like something that Yahoo or Bing is actually considering. The Bing examples, with a single dot instead of a Display URL, indicate that this is most likely a minor technical issue. Of course, in the short term that means that some SERPS will still include these types of ads. But overall these ads are quite rare, and in the long run we don’t expect to continue seeing them. This isn’t a significant cause for concern at this time. And if something changes, we’ll be keeping an eye out and let you know.

Additional Information

Some more details are available in these articles on Search Engine Land and Search Engine Journal. As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments below or leave us a note on BrandVerity.com!

If this blog series could be summed up in a single phrase, it would probably be “what you don’t know can definitely hurt you.” (Then again, that might be the theme of all BrandVerity blog posts). But, even if you know what your partners and publishers are doing, that doesn’t always fully fix the problem. This blog post will look at an example we found where a brand has managed to reap the benefits of working with lead gen partners—including increased coverage on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and likely an increase in marketing efficiency—while maintaining nearly total control over brand image.

Case Study: DeVry University and Leapfrog Online

As we saw last week with the University of Phoenix, lead generation sites are fairly common in the Education industry—both for-profit and non-profit. While last week’s example demonstrated a serious case of brand poaching, this week’s shows a lead generation company working with a university to mutual benefit.

Here’s what we saw when we googled “devry.edu”:


DeVry SERP

The first search ad is for Devry University itself, as is the organic result.  The 2nd search ad is what’s interesting.  It’s for “Devry Washington DC” with a display URL of “devryuniversitycampus.org/DC”. (Other searches showed similar results for Devry in every major US city).


Leapfrog Landing Page

This page looks like it could be site run by DeVry University itself–it also could be a lead generation site masquerading as DeVry, like we saw with the University of Phoenix last time.

In fact, it’s neither.

A quick check of the site’s WhoIs information revealed that it was not owned by DeVry, but instead by a company called Leapfrog Online Customer Acquisition, LLC, a lead generation and marketing company that works closely with DeVry.


Leapfrog Website

Their site notes that their “clients see results and partner with Leapfrog for extended engagements” with an average tenure of “over 8 years.” While many lead generation companies encourage longer-term partnerships, usually by offering some kind of enhanced, dynamic bidding system for leads, this kind of extended mutually beneficial partnership seems less common.

Based on our monitoring, it appears that Leapfrog manages all of DeVry’s local marketing, maintaining specific lead generation landing pages for all the different locations and programs the school offers. While the Leapfrog pages are clearly intended for lead generation, the main DeVry website is more general-purpose, giving a variety of information about the institution and its offerings.

By working together, DeVry and Leapfrog manage to dominate the paid search results. The only other ads that appear on DeVry’s keywords do not use DeVry’s trademark in the ad text. This may be due to a couple of factors: 1) By working exclusively with Leapfrog, DeVry ensures that no other advertisers have authorization to use its trademark in their ad copy. (As far as I could determine, DeVry does not seem to purchase leads from other lead gen companies. In the research I did for this series, I never saw an affiliate link for DeVry on another website, nor was I contacted by DeVry after entering information into other websites’ forms—including sites that were bidding on DeVry’s core brand terms. And 2) DeVry and Leapfrog may be working together to catch third-party trademark usage and report infractions to the search engines.

By working with Leapfrog, DeVry manages to both exert total control over their digital marketing efforts as well as deploy the expertise of a lead generation partner. For companies that find lead generation a useful source of new leads, this kind of partnership is definitely worth considering.

Do you know of other brands that interact with lead generation publishers in this way? Would you consider doing so? Leave a comment below or contact us at BrandVerity!

If you’ve been following our lead gen series, you’ll know that we’ve already discussed the basic outline of lead generation sites and the problems that arise when those sites bid on your terms. This week we’re going to discuss what happens when a lead gen site takes brand bidding a step further by masquerading as a particular company.

What do you mean masquerading? That sounds bad…

Yeah, it is. In the example we looked a couple weeks ago, the insurance lead gen site produced a search ad that looked like this:


FarmersAuto Ad

In this case, InsuranceStep is clearly targeting a person looking for Farmers, but in a way not dissimilar from how resellers work. In this ad we see both the brand name and the name of the lead gen company–almost like an ad for KitchenAid at Macy’s. A consumer may click that ad instead of Farmers’, but it’s fairly clear that they are not going directly to the brand’s site.

On the other hand, let’s look at an example from another industry that extensively uses lead generation sites (also known as “enrollment technology services”): for-profit education. Take a look at this ad generated by a search for “phoenix.edu”:


Become a Phoenix

Here, we have EDegreeUSA clearly trying to convince a consumer that they are in fact the University of Phoenix, when—surprise!—they aren’t. In this case, a consumer would need to be paying attention to the display URL in order to have any idea that this is not a University of Phoenix ad. Both the headline and the ad text imply that EDegreeUSA is in fact the University of Phoenix.

Here’s the landing page that this ad leads to:


E Degree USA1

While this lead generation site only advertises the University of Phoenix, an improvement over the insurance sites we looked at last week, it has effectively stolen traffic from the University of Phoenix’s own site–especially as it bid on “phoenix.edu.”

Further, there is no guarantee that EDegreeUSA, a partner of DataChamps, LLC, will only sell that customer information to the University of Phoenix–or even sell it to them at all. Given that I could not find a single mention of University of Phoenix on E Degree USA’s site, beyond this landing page, I find it very possible that these leads never make it to the school at all.

Another question arises as well. At the bottom of that webform is a consent agreement, stating that the University of Phoenix has permission to contact the consumer:


TCPA Compliance Consent 1

This consent language aims to bring the University of Phoenix in compliance with the 2012 updates to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which requires express, written consent for a specific seller to autodial a consumer. Should EDegreeUSA sell this lead to someone other than the University of Phoenix and should that school telephone this consumer, both EDegreeUSA and the education institution could be in violation of the TCPA. Given the recent uptick in TCPA lawsuits and the variety of industries implicated–including education–this seems like a potential compliance issue that should be of concern to companies purchasing leads. If you don’t know exactly where your leads are coming from and what languages is on those sites, you may be opening yourself up to unnecessary risk.

Hmm…Interesting. What other kinds of impersonation happen?

Glad you asked! Another interesting example we found was in the home services sector where a search for “rotorooter” on Google Mobile revealed the following ad in the #1 position:


My Roto-Rooter Ad

The landing page looked like this:


Roto Rooter Landing Page 1

The site looks like it may be the Roto-Rooter official site–even displaying the Roto-Rooter logo and linking to the national RotoRooter Twitter account. Most people who land here probably assume it is the Roto-Rooter site. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a page owned by the Marquette Group—a digital marketing and lead generation agency that, according to their website, focuses on connecting local customers (note the local, El Paso franchise being advertised) with national brands.

The question here is one of how much control a brand is willing to give up. Marquette is providing a service to the national brand not only by collecting leads, but also by handling the process of creating local landing pages and targeting those pages at local consumers. On the other hand, if this were affiliate marketing, we’d consider this pretty shady: a partner bidding on brand terms, outbidding the brand itself, and selling that lead to the brand. The question I would have for Roto-Rooter is, how much are you really getting out of this situation? Is the lowered in-house marketing cost enough to make partnering with a company like Marquette worthwhile? It’s possible that it is. It’s also possible that they don’t know that they are paying Marquette for leads who were already searching for them in the first place.

What can I do about this?

The answer remains constant: monitor everything you can. The best way to protect your brand, your bottom line, and potentially your legal compliance is to know where your leads are coming from and how your partners are driving them. While there are good reasons to use lead gen sites, lead-driven marketing agencies, and publishing networks, these services are only beneficial insofar as you know how they work.

Do you think branded landing pages improve the ROI that brands receive from lead gen sites? Would you contract out local advertising for franchises? Do the the new TCPA rules make you nervous? Let us know in the comments or contact us!

Happy Black Friday from BrandVerity

This Friday officially kicks off the holiday shopping season (though if the emails I’ve been getting this week and this TechCrunch article are any indication, it’s already started). While we at BrandVerity look forward to the advent of holiday decorations, peppermint mochas, and really great deals just as much as everyone else, we also know that Black Friday can see a major uptick in the amount of brand bidding and trademark infringement appearing in paid search.

We wrote a bit about Black Friday and the attendant increase in non-compliant affiliate tactics last year.  If you’re a merchant, this might be a good time to review the information there, in our Resellers series, and in our Guide to Affiliate Compliance. Because marketing teams tend to be swamped at this time of year, compliance issues can slip under the radar. The sheer quantity, however, of shopping during the holidays makes it imperative for brands and merchants to know exactly who is bidding on their brand terms and what those advertisers are promoting. The potential losses to non-compliant partners of all sorts can seriously eat into your expected Black Friday profits. Take the time now to review your agreements and remind your affiliates, resellers, and other partners of what you have agreed upon in order to avoid issues over the holiday weekend.

Watch this space next week for a recap of trends we noticed in paid search leading up to and on Black Friday. While we hope there won’t be much new to report–as that would mean everybody played fair this week–we expect that we’ll have some interesting examples to share.

To our US readers, have a happy, healthy, and compliant Thanksgiving, and to our international readers, we’ll see you in December!

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 [edit 11/25: a report released by Google and Ipsos suggests that users do strongly prefer “Click to Call.” This Search Engine Journal article covers the report in detail]. 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!

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