Type in the title of a consumer magazine and you’ll likely see subscription-agent offers in the paid advertising areas of a Google or Yahoo search. That’s because, like publishers themselves, subscription agencies have discovered the value of search-engine marketing (SEM) to drive subscriptions. But the conflict immediately becomes clear as publishers find that, as they use SEM to reel in subscribers, they’re competing with those subscription agencies over the same keywords. It presents a sticky situation for publishers in both a branding and business sense.

While some subscription agencies do offer a legitimate source of subscription revenue, there are others that are not authorized sellers. These agencies, and even the legitimate ones, do have an impact on a publisher’s SEM efforts by either driving up bid prices on keywords, encroaching on trademarked terms, or tainting a magazine’s brand message.

Bruce Rhodes, circulation director at Harvard Business Review, has been using SEM to drive subscription conversions for four years. When he began using SEM for the magazine, he noticed right away that the agencies were already there. "Early on we realized that there were some interesting offers out there. There’s some [agencies] that we would happily take orders from, they’re authorized, and then there’s people that we’ve never even heard of," he says.

Protecting Trademarks
Trademark protection is available through both Google’s AdWords and through the Yahoo ad program. This allows a trademark owner to track and selectively choose who is allowed to use these terms in the brief text ads that show up in the paid section of a results page.

Rhodes was able to refuse unauthorized agencies the right to trademarked keywords and terms, such as the magazine title. To be clear, however, anyone can bid on those terms. The restrictions kick in when using them in the copy in the ads themselves. As a result, if you search on "Harvard Business Review," paid results will show subscription offers for "Harvard Business" or "Harvard Business Magazine."

"People can use variations of trademarked terms," says Rhodes. "But at least that stops people from using the full trademarked versions."

This works well because it’s the full trademarked terms that generate the best results. "If someone sees an offer for "Harvard Business Magazine" they might pause and realize it’s not what they really want," says Rhodes.

A Matter of Control
There is some work involved in identifying which agencies are legitimate. "Our first preference would be to get the order ourselves," says Rhodes. "The second is if they’re not going to click through on ours, hopefully they’re going to go to an authorized agent who we know is treating the brand correctly and the offer is going to be what we’re offering."

As with traditional channels, Rhodes places dummy orders with some agencies to determine who’s authorized and who’s simply a fly-by-night operation.

Affiliates have gotten into the SEM mix as well, but Rhodes excludes them from the process as much as possible. "Theoretically, they can bid on those same terms, however we’ve excluded them from using the search channel to get new orders through the terms of our affiliate agreement," he says.

(Low Level) Bidding Wars
With multiple sources bidding on the same terms, there is some upward pressure on keyword prices. But not so much that it has become unmanageable, says Rhodes. "It definitely drives it up a little bit. But at the end of the day, if we get the order, we get essentially all the revenue. And if they get the order, they get a percentage of the revenue, so they need to make their metrics work within certain parameters. So I haven’t seen prices driven to a point where we worry about whether we can be first, second or third on our own brand terms."

Rhodes does add that magazines with higher priced subscriptions will likely see more agency action in SEM. Nikki Getman, associate director of online for Rodale, notes that Rodale has moved away from SEM as a subscription source. "We’ve tried to differentiate our offer with premiums that [the agencies] don’t have, but find that it’s very time sensitive with little upside," she says. "We’ve recently been trying to do a better job converting SEM traffic coming to the Web site with special promotions, but this has proven to be quite small, too."

For the near-term, SEM is working for Rhodes despite a climbing budget;it’s 10 percent of the overall Internet acquisition budget;so he’ll remain committed to the tactic. "It depends on who you talk to, but for us it’s still a fairly steady source, but at some point I would expect that to level off," he says.

Brand Terms and SEM
According to Bruce Rhodes, circulation director at Harvard Business Review, keep these three concepts in mind when launching your SEM campaign.

  1. The best performing keywords are usually your brand names and terms.
  2. You must pay attention to who else is legitimately bidding and who is just driving up the price.
  3. Don’t overanalyze the high and low performing brand terms. Just realize that rational thought sometimes does not apply online.