PPC Confessional: What Sex Toys Taught Me about Paid Search

Did I get your attention? No? How about now:

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That is the logo of the best client I’ve ever worked with, and I’m not just saying that for brownie points because, alas, my time with them is finally coming to an end (as of October).

First a short background. Babeland sells sex toys at four brick and mortar locations (three in New York and one in Seattle) and via their Web site Babeland.com. The latter is where I come in. I started working with Babeland on their PPC campaigns on Google and Yahoo back in 2007. At this time there was some kind of devastating Google update in the natural results which occurred right before the critical holiday season. It hit the sex toy and porn industry hard (pun entirely intended).

I’d never worked with an adult industry client before Babeland, and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. But their VP of marketing made me laugh within the first ten minutes of talking to her, and the issue they were dealing with (plummeting sales due to the latest Google Dance) intrigued me. What was going on was definitely the underbelly of search marketing.

Google seemed to have a problem with the very nature of Babeland’s business. Sex toys. Sex. Adult Products. Adults + Sex. Well, you get the picture. Babeland was lumped in with an entire history of ugly black hat spammers that fell into several untouchable categories including porn, gambling, drugs, online pharmacies, and content arbiters who gamed the system to make ad revenue (often polluting Google search results in the process).

Was this fair? No. As it turns out, Babeland is a women-friendly sex toy shop which was opened nearly 20 years ago in Seattle (I love Seattle). The store’s founders are also authors, and advocates of sex education. Their products are tested and safe (phthalate free) and they are passionate about customer service (check out their Honors page to see the list of awards they’ve won).

So, what’s an honest sex toy store to do when Google slaps them with a huge penalty? What everyone else does. They turned to PPC to augment their flailing traffic and I worked with them to make their campaign profitable, while also giving them some much needed visibility in the search results.

I hope they learned a lot about paid search from me, because I learned a lot of stuff about e-commerce, competition, prudish editorial policies and patience from them (not to mention sex toys).

Here are some things Babeland taught me:

  • Your brand is your best asset, particularly when it comes to keywords. Bidding on your brand should not be your only strategy, but it’s helpful in all sorts of ways (not the least of which is boosting quality score for your account). Babeland has a great reputation and people actively search for them. Babeland’s competitors figured that out and continue to bid on their brand terms even now. However, Babeland never, ever bids on competitors’ names (at least not since I’ve been working with them.) Why? Because it’s bad form to hijack someone else’s trademark. Hooray for having morals, along with dildos and 49 different kinds of vibes.
  • You can have a stellar ROI even if you can’t compete on price. It’s called having a good reputation. And amazing customer service. And a thorough idea of what the hell is going on around you in your own industry. Babeland taught me to look at every single data point (though not obsessively) and figure out how that played into the search campaign. They were also willing to test a lot of things I suggested (coupon code, anyone?) Being willing to test new ideas, scrap ones that failed, rinse and repeat were winning approaches for Babeland and, quite frankly, made them a wonderful client to work with.
  • Persistence. Babeland’s budget was not big enough for Google to warrant a dedicated rep, which is quite common for anyone spending under about 30K/month. So when bad stuff happened – like the time our ads wouldn’t show up for the term “babeland coupon” but three of our competitors’ ads did – we learned that constant phone calls, emails and follow-ups to Google would get our ads back up and running. This happened at least three times in the past four years, by the way. So, lesson learned – even if Google sticks their fingers in their ears and says “nyah! nyah! nyah! I can’t HEAR you…” keep calling and complaining. There’s just no good reason your brand terms should be triggering someone else’s ads but not yours. Google apparently agreed (although not in writing) because we were always able to get our keywords re-activated

All good things must come to an end. After over four years of working with Babeland on their campaign, we’re wrapping things up. It’s kind of weird for me, as a consultant, to be so bummed about losing this account. I’ve been thinking about this very topic lately – that is, when is it productive to end a client relationship. How long is too long for the same person (or agency) to manage an account? My personal feeling is that clients benefit from multiple eyes and multiple approaches and it’s probably time to give this one up.

I’ll admit I’m bummed though. The best time I’ve ever had writing ad copy was when I brainstormed copy for a bunch of stocking stuffer, sex toy ads. I’ll let you use your imagination for that one.

A colleague of mine – the very same person who referred me to Babeland – once said that he didn’t want to work with any client if he wasn’t comfortable putting their logo on his web site. I guess it makes sense that a sex toy retailer would fall into that category – or at least it made sense to me back then. I’ll admit I suppressed my affiliation with Babeland out of those same concerns, but now I am proud to feature their logo all over my site.

That’s right. My name is Jackie. I sold sex toys. And I’d do it again! I just hope that Google and Microsoft figure out that it’s okay to let companies like Babeland run ads for their products in a less restricted way (particularly Microsoft!) I mean, if someone’s looking for a dildo from a reputable, discrete store, then dammit they should be able to find it.