The ROPO Effect: Measure, Search & Destroy

[This article ran on Search Engine Watch on January 13, 2011.]

With the 2010 holiday season now over, the search marketing industry engages in a common ritual – measuring from all angles the most recent bump in spending, and its estimated effect on the overall e-commerce trends of the gift-giving blitz.  But what about the e-commerce sales that never happened?  Is anyone looking into these?

Virtually every consumer is handy with a search engine.  Roughly two-thirds of them are using search engines to qualify purchase behavior, and yet online sales represent at most 7% of total US retail sales.  So we’re not exactly going out on a limb here, saying that a lot of commercially-motivated search behavior is ending up in a black hole… instead of the shopping cart.

One explanation for this is the ROPO effect (research online, purchase offline).  In 2011, the overwhelming majority of offline purchases still include some online research component.  But ROPO is not a trend which will die off as digital consumer culture continues to evolve; Google estimates that offline sales influenced by online research will grow 12% this year, while online sales begin to flatten out.

The trick, for search marketers, is to acknowledge the offline world’s contributions to marketing innovation in the online world.  This starts with proper measurement of the ROPO effect to understand its contribution to revenue and profit.


Passing from online to offline, the data attribution challenge becomes significant.  In one study, Google measured ROPO by monitoring different configurations of online & offline advertising in three German markets, and comparing resulting revenue levels.  This method alone is prone to various biases, but could be improved upon with an additional qualitative component.  A simple point-of-sale survey, asking the question “have you ever researched this product online?” would provide insight into the share of ROPO customers (and how much they spend).  Pivoting this against credit card data from the e-commerce side of the business de-duplicates multichannel consumers, and voila, you’ve sized up the ROPO opportunity.


If the ROPO share of your brand’s revenues is 25%, then it stands to reason that a sum equal to at least one-fourth of the search marketing budget should be earmarked for ROPO applications.

But what are these, exactly?  Any marketing tactic which bridges the gap between the consumer’s online and offline worlds constitutes a ROPO opportunity.  There are a number of tactics which come to mind, but for now we’ll focus on the low-hanging fruit: Mobile Search.

Tell me if this sounds familiar.  You’re walking around a store or shopping mall, and all you see is the tops of people’s heads as they’re buried in their phones.  Many of these people are researching their next purchase.  What’s the name of that thing again?  Can I get a better price by comparison shopping?  Does it come in fuchsia?

Today, the Mobile Search market (worth $250m in the US in 2010) represents only 2% of the entire search marketing industry.  That share will more than triple in the next four years – and it remains to be seen whether the researchers adequately take into consideration the radical innovations occurring in the mobile space.  It could be 10% or more, for all we know.  The first mover’s advantages are crystal clear.

How to target the mobile ROPO audience with Search:

  1. Get into the habit of segmenting all your search campaigns, into Mobile vs. Non-Mobile.  It’s not just for budget control; you’ll see differences in searchers’ affinity for keywords and ad creative as well.
  2. Aim for granularity with your keywords, right down to the product’s model name and number.  These will present uncompetitive, low-CPC (cost-per-click) opportunities for visibility.  (Tip: Remember how small those mobile keyboards are; you’ll want to add typos to your keyword list as well.  I’m a fan of Aaron Wall’s Typo Generator.)
  3. Reach out with mobile coupons.  Roughly 8 of 10 smartphone users are receptive to receiving coupons on their phones (compared to less than half on their computers).  These can be used to push foot traffic to offline destinations using services like ShopText, Opt It, or Google Local Business Center.
  4. Build up your efforts on the organic side as well.  Keywords like ‘reviews’ and ‘compare,’ when paired with your product category, will turn up popular sites for consumer feedback.  This is an opportunity to build a trusting rapport with the shopper when they’re close to the checkout.


How does the ROPO effect translate into success for a brand?  Let’s count the ways.

  1. Showing an ad, absent competitors and so close to the point of purchase – that alone is enough to make marketers salivate.
  2. Given the relatively low CPCs, generating incremental revenue from Mobile Search improves ROI overall, which makes you a lot of friends.
  3. Running ads on Mobile Search, over time you’ll amass a vast repository of search query data.  This is in effect a snapshot of consumer behavior focused specifically on their needs when they’re somewhere between their home and the cash register.  In a channel where virtually every unknown ties back to consumer behavior, this could be the biggest catch of all.

Next time around, we’ll talk about a more qualitative approach to ROPO – at the intersection of Search & Social Media.

Update: Food for thought — research from Performics indicates that roughly 1 in 6 of all Google search clicks will be from Mobile Search by the end of 2011.

About Paul Burani

Paul Burani - Partner, Web Liquid Group. Connect with me on Google+

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About Web Liquid

Web Liquid is a digital marketing agency with offices in London, New York and Lagos.


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