Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Microsites can dilute brand equity

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008
As search continues to grow, advertisers are seeking ways to use it to support their other marketing efforts – recognising the interdependency between search and other media. But in doing so, many are breaking some of the basic rules of advertising and hampering their own efforts to make search work for their brand.

Company websites are often massive, templated affairs that don’t lend themselves to the creative, flexible demands of a short-term campaign, and so many marketers deal with this by setting up campaign microsites to address this limitation.

But the problem comes when enthusiastic marketers create new web domains for campaigns.

A domain is key brand asset – boots.com, Sky.com, tateandlyle.com; all of these companies recognise the importance of having the web domain for their brand.

But all of these companies have launched microsites under separate domains to support short term objectives.

The difficulty here is that the focus of communication becomes the domain, rather than the brand itself – relegating the brand name itself to the second tier, and making it subordinate to the needs of the campaign. The objective becomes to promote the campaign itself, rather than the brand – not an inconceivable idea, but one to be approached with caution.

From a communications point of view it’s also a matter of consistency. Whilst this isn’t true of Double Diamond or Smash, campaigns (and straplines) usually have shorter shelf lives than brands, and we have to think carefully before we deviate from making the brand the hero.

But it’s much worse when you try to promote these sites using search.

In paid search, whilst you can prevent competitors bidding on your brand terms, this is harder to achieve with straplines (though you can if they’re trademarked). Type ‘quote me happy’ into Google, and whilst Norwich Union is listed in the paid for results. But so are two aggregators, insurancesite and Adrian Flux – both selling competitive products.

And to compound the loss, whilst Norwich Union have registered www.quotemehappy.com, they haven’t secured www.quotemehappy.co.uk, which continues to direct traffic away to other insurance companies.

So using campaign-specific domains creates problems in paid for search. But natural search is a much bigger challenge.

The spiders that crawl the web creating the index for search engines are programmed to evaluate websites against a set of criteria which determine how highly those sites appear in the ranking for particular search terms.

Four of the most influential criteria are; how long a site has been in existence, the quality, depth and relevance of information on the site, how many websites link to it, the quality of those linking websites.

So setting up a campaign microsite on a new domain runs counter to the way search engines work.

Compared to a brand or company website, campaign microsites tend to be shorter-term affairs –often even for a promotion with a finite and brief shelf life. Natural search rankings take time to establish, so are less effective as a promotional tool against transient activity – particularly if that activity offers little that will cause a spider to prioritise it.

And it does. Limited content, few links from other sites and competition from the brand website tend to push these sites to invisibility down the search rankings – expertatboots.com, boots’ site to promote their professional expertise, ranks 4th in google behind the boots.com brand which takes the first 3 places even when you search for ‘expert at boots’, and fails to make page 1 in either the paid or natural listings for any of the product areas featured on the home page.

Campaign microsites can fulfil short-term objectives and be a valuable means of circumventing corporate inflexibility. But when they’re given their own domain, more often they dilute brand equity and perform poorly in search. They might look attractive in a conventional advertising sense, but they frequently fail to deliver in digital terms.

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