Performance marketing beyond the bottom of the funnel.

As the economic storm clouds gather, so too do opinion pieces from marketing’s great thinkers, thought leaders and contrarians.

“Double down on brand,” they cry. “Resist the temptation to focus on performance,” they plead.

And they are, of course, absolutely right. The evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of brand advertising for driving long-term growth is stark, compelling and complete.

So this isn’t another diatribe about brand vs performance. This is a story about mistaken identity.

A recent WARC blog post reported that consumer electronics firm Logitech is reducing top of the funnel marketing spend in the face of softening consumer demand. It goes on to quote CEO Bracken Darrell as saying: “…whereas search engine optimisation, the things you’d expect us to keep investing in, we’ll certainly keep investing in.”

And as night follows day, the rest of the article goes on to set out the incredibly compelling case why “top of the funnel marketing” is actually rather important for driving brand growth – we’ve all read Binet & Field, Byron Sharp, Dr Grace Kite and the rest.

The same article highlights the case of ASOS, which has seen profits drop 105% amid “insufficient spend focused on driving longer-term brand awareness” and 80% of spend going into performance marketing.

“Yes, people see TV ads and then turn to a search engine to find out more about the product or service they’ve just seen. Yes, good ATL advertising drives big increases in brand search demand. But SEO – and performance marketing as a whole – is about so much more that.”

The fundamental point is absolutely true – sacrificing brand building and over-investing in converting demand for your brand will logically and inexorably result in decline over time.

But beneath the surface, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding at play in this debate – performance marketing and performance channels are about so much more than just the very bottom of the funnel; there’s so much more to them than “catching people when they’re falling” as I heard the awesome Les Binet describe it at a conference a few months ago.

Let’s go back to the Logitech example quoted by WARC. The fundamental misunderstanding here is conflating SEO with “bottom of the funnel” marketing.

Yes, people see TV ads and then turn to a search engine to find out more about the product or service they’ve just seen. Yes, good ATL advertising drives big increases in brand search demand. But SEO – and performance marketing as a whole – is about so much more than that.

A few years ago, I was in a meeting with the boss of a very well-known brand. We showed them the opportunity SEO represented when it came to ranking for their brand terms (people explicitly searching for their brand and their products). After a prolonged period of very effective brand building, that opportunity was sizable, almost as big an opportunity as generic search terms for their category and product types (people searching for the types of products they made without explicitly mentioning their product names or brand names).

But when we showed him the opportunity SEO presented further up the funnel, he nearly fell off his chair. There were almost 10 times the number of searches for highly relevant, top of the funnel, informational, “I want to know” and “I want to do” terms. Each one a golden opportunity to reach, engage and convert the audience. Totally organically. There’s more to performance than the bottom of the funnel, and there’s more to top of the funnel than buying traditional adverts.

Consumers search in a myriad of moments right throughout the customer journey – from pre-category informational searches right at the top of the funnel, through product research searches in that famous messy middle, right down to those “I want to buy” bottom-of-the-funnel brand searches mentioned earlier.

Every single one of those searches – when truly relevant to both brand and consumer – represents a real person raising their hand and asking for help, and a golden opportunity for a brand to give that person what they want and need.

“Performance marketing is about driving actions. It’s about building rich and rewarding experiences across the whole customer journey. It’s about way more than catching people when they’re falling.”

At the top of the funnel, that will mean providing genuinely useful, practical, helpful content; at the bottom it means providing people with content that genuinely helps them choose or buy quickly and effectively with minimal friction.

To mislabel search as a “bottom of the funnel” behaviour massively over-simplifies how and why consumers search.

This is more than just a hunch or a theory – forward-thinking brands have been doing this quietly for years, creating quality top of the funnel content for their prospective consumers, converting that into product discovery, then product exploration, then purchase.

For one tech company client, leveraging top of the funnel search delivered more than 800,000 extra visits to their site – each one of those clicks representing a person helped in a moment of need, a cookie captured, an opportunity to drive brand and product discovery.

For one client in financial services, building a deep and rich hub of top of the funnel search content pulled drove transformational levels of high-intent traffic to their site, leading to more than £28m incremental revenue.

It’s an opportunity that exists for almost every brand in every sector. But exploiting that opportunity requires a mindset shift, breaking away from binary thinking about brand vs performance.

Performance marketing is about driving actions. It’s about building rich and rewarding experiences across the whole customer journey. It’s about way more than catching people when they’re falling.

Of course search isn’t a silver budget, organic marketing is not somehow “better” than paid, performance is not better than brand – it’s about using all the tools in the toolkit in the right ways at the right times.

That means assessing the relative size of the opportunity each channel represents and then using your budget to squeeze as much out of the opportunity as a whole. As demand softens, that might mean shifting a little short-term top of the funnel spend into building out long-term search performance right across the funnel to drive more traffic organically

Time will tell if Logitech has adopted the right approach, and whether its continued investment in SEO goes beyond the bottom of the funnel.

But one thing is clear, brands that invest intelligently in search and performance done right – as well investing in brand marketing done right – will be the ones to emerge strongest when the storm passes.

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