Episode 13

SEM Budget Forecasting

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About this Episode

Today, Jon asks how to determine what your SEM budget should be...and Ryan explains why the answer may actually be to have no budget at all

For all your digital marketing needs:

https://www.logicalposition.com/

TRANSCRIPT:
Jon:
It's a common question that I hear quite a bit. "How much should I be budgeting for search engine marketing and how do I even forecast what I should be spending?" Well, securing the SEM budgets is always a challenge, right? So when you do spend on search engine marketing, you want to ensure that you reach your performance goals, but there are countless traps and ways to actually overspend or even underspend on your search engine marketing budget.
And even if you follow all the best practices, you could still end up with some inefficiencies, so correctly addressing the ways to misspend requires paid search experts to consistently monitor campaign performance and budget spend. And also they need to have a pulse on what the company is trying to accomplish. So luckily for us, we have access to Ryan and he has access to 6,500 search engine marketing budgets to learn from. So today we're going to talk about ad word budgets and how to forecast what your brand should be spending and how to ensure you don't overspend or underspend. So, Ryan welcome.

Ryan:
Thanks, Jon. It's a big one. This topic is constantly top of mind for CFOs and there's constant tension, I think, between marketing teams and finance teams over budgets. And for me personally, it's one of my favorite topics and also my least favorite topics, just because of all the tension around it. It's my favorite because almost every company needs to be educated in how to forecast and plan budgets. But it's also my least favorite because it's always an uphill battle with changing the opinions of business owners, executives, finance teams, even marketing teams that don't understand forecasting and budgeting. It's a difficult conversation to have, but I'm happy we're going to be diving into this and hopefully doing some education. Hopefully making people think about what they're doing and how they can be maybe looking at SEM forecasting a little bit differently.

Jon:
Awesome. Well, I'm looking forward to being educated on this. This is a topic that we were chatting before we started recording, and you have some unique perspectives on this that I've never even given thought to. So.

Ryan:
We both have [inaudible 00:02:32] all kinds of things, Jon. It's great to be able to do this with you, but when this topic came up in our sequence of things we're going to be talking about it. I get all hot and bothered and excited and adrenaline starts flowing and I talk fast. So bear with me, but very similar to how you get when somebody's got a discount email pop up on a site is how I get when somebody tells me what their budget is X number of dollars a month. And don't overspend. It's just, I'm on a personal mission to eliminate SCM budgeting for 99.9% of the population. It just doesn't make sense for most companies.

Jon:
So explain that to me, I'm interested to learn more. Why is that? Well,

Ryan:
we get into the conversation because finance people want to see what numbers are going to be and understanding what's going to be coming in and out of accounts.
And so it's for the last a hundred years of CFO's doing work to prepare bank accounts. Marketing has been a line item on the P and L that they've paid attention to and set goals around on how much are we going to spend? What are we going to do? How much are we putting into magazines and newspapers and TV ads and billboards? So it's understandable, but SEM is in a very unique position that it's not a normal P and L line item. Let me just use an example because here's what normally happens. Finance meeting, all right, the owner is, "What the heck," gets all red in the face. "What the heck is this $350,000 charge for Google last month? You know, we need to cut that down because our retailers are selling less of our product. We need to save money. And you know, if we go into a COVID time, we've got to control all of our money and keep it from going out so we're not spending $350,000 on Google anymore. Every month, a marketing team, we need to cut a hundred thousand dollars of that."
Marketing team reaches out to the logical position says, "Hey, yeah, our wholesale channel is down because nobody's shopping in stores. So we need to cut a hundred thousand dollars of our marketing budget on Google." And that I get it, logically it passes the make sense test that you're going to take that hundred thousand dollars from Google and move it to the bottom line of profit. So you can cover the missing profit from some retailers that aren't selling product.

Jon:
Right. They're looking at it purely as an expense line item.

Ryan:
Exactly. Which again, conceptually makes sense. What isn't considered in that is that $350,000 drove 1.3 million of top line revenue, 10,000 new to brand customers, and also had an impact on two million organic direct traffic revenue.
And so cutting that hundred thousand dollars, most likely won't even save that company money. It'll probably cost them revenue and profit because it's not going to be driving as much top line revenue. And many times in the past, if you cut a hundred thousand dollars of billboards, you may not actually feel an impact in the business at all over the next month, depending on what you're selling, depending on what the billboard's mentioning, but it simply does move that hundred thousand dollars to the bottom line. And that again, logically makes sense. But with SEM, it doesn't operate like a historical marketing channel. It is driving so many other things that impact the business.
And so because of that, it is somewhat complicated to explain that to a business owner over a phone call or, "Hey, we've got five minutes with the exec team. Let's tell them why we need to be spending on SEM." For most businesses, I'll add, will start with the crazy notion that you should not have a budget for paid search. It should be, "Nope. You are going to set your goals and going to spend. And if you can spend more, you are going to take it if you're hitting your goals."

Jon:
Okay. So it's not an expense line item. It's an investment.

Ryan:
Yeah.

Jon:
Okay.

Ryan:
If you're printing money with an investment, is there any reason you wouldn't continue printing money? And the general answer is, "Well, no, if I put a dollar in and I get $10 back, I'm going to go find a bunch more dollars. There's no limit to the number of dollars I can be spending. Because I could take that $10 that I just printed and put it back in and it prints a hundred and I take it out and it prints a thousand." The asterisk to this, which we will touch on probably a little later is it does make sense to forecast sales from SEM, potentially based on historical data for inventory or production. And that's where it does get kind of like a sliding scale on what we can spend based on the inventory we have. And I've got a couple of examples on that.

Jon:
So if you're not budgeting the spend, should you be looking at the back end is what you're saying. You should be budgeting the return on that adspend and what that's going to be in revenue. So you're saying, "I want to make a million dollars. What does the adspend take to hit a million dollars?"

Ryan:
Maybe? But the reality is, is I challenge companies to, yes, you're going to look at this, after the fact on a PNL, as a line item, but in the month itself, the spend on SEM actually doesn't have an impact on cash. Therefore it's not necessarily a normal P and L line item. So easy math example, you're going to spend a hundred dollars on paid search on Monday. Great. You set up your Google Ads account. You've got your credit card on there. You spend a hundred dollars on your credit card on Google. It drives $500 of revenue. Okay? That hundred dollars that you spent on Google Ads doesn't even hit your card until you spend 500. So it's still just in Google system. You spent in essence, at that point, fake money, it didn't hit anything. It's just a Google system, but that $500 that you processed on your website is real money.
And that's going to hit your account as soon as your merchant processor will send it to you. So let's just say easy math. It's going to hit you on Wednesday 48 hours later. So every day you're going to spend a hundred dollars to get 500, your credit card's not going to get built from Google until end of day Friday, when you hit the $500 billing threshold from Google. And by that time you've already collected $500 on Wednesday, $500 on Thursday, $500 on Friday, that's hit your bank account minus the processing fee. But we will ignore that for this example, you've got $1,500 in your bank account. Your credit card has only been hit for $500. If you are like me and you're [inaudible 00:08:29] this, I pay my credit card once a month. And I pay off the entire balance on ever pay interest. And that credit card bill is probably not due until the 14th of the next month. Let's say this was the first of the month.
So you've got 45 day float on that hundred dollars you spent on Monday. And by that time you've already collected money. And if you're not losing money, which ideally you're not, but you're actually making money, then it's a money printing machine that actually doesn't cost you any money. You have, in theory, an unlimited amount of money, as long as you're at least breaking even just from a cash perspective, right? And your credit card limit, obviously.

Jon:
So it's no longer about SEM budget forecasting. It's around the laws of SEM cash flow.

Ryan:
Not every business has unlimited inventory. So you might be able to spend a hundred thousand dollars tomorrow to generate a hundred thousand and $1 of profit in your business. But if you don't have the inventory to back that up, then you do have problems. And we have some clients right now that are struggling to get inventory from China for their production. I think one company has a hundred containers en route from China they're just waiting on to be able to sell and they can flip a switch, and that inventory is almost going to be gone immediately. It's crazy, the demand for their products. So from that perspective saying, "All right, we have this much inventory coming. We want to sell it." And maybe that becomes the conversation around, okay. Based on the historical data of what we've been able to sell, what we've been able to spend, what's the return on adspend goal that we need to be at to sell that much inventory?
So again, this is getting somewhat complicated math, but I'll try to boil it down simple. Let's say in my brands, for example, I will spend down to break even to acquire a new customer at any point in time, because I'm competitive. I would love to put my competitors out of business because I think my product is better. My service is better, but break even is fine for me because it doesn't hit the cash. I'm getting new customers. And I have a lifetime value. If, for example, I all of a sudden had a... And this happened, I think in April we had a production hiccup. And so I knew that I was going to run out of inventory if I kept spending down to break even on like, let's make it up the 20th of April. So I said, "Okay, all right, marketing, we're actually going to raise our return on adspend goal because I need to throttle down sales because I can't run out of inventory on the 20th. I have to be able to get to the 30th before I can get my inventory back in."
And so that's the strategy I use. I didn't care what we spent, as long as it wasn't losing money. I still, I said, "All right, instead of breaking even, and we're going to get a 2.5 X because based on the historical data, we think that's where my sales special is going to be." So that took some guessing and manipulation on daily sales totals. And we had to watch it pretty carefully. But once we hit inventory levels again, I was right back to pushing aggressively to sell an inventory.

Jon:
Yeah, that definitely makes sense. So there's other factors you need to be thinking about here and inventory sounds like is a big one for sure. Then that could be the more delimiter than what you should be spending or what the budget would be for SEM.


Jon:
Let me ask you this as a little divergence, but how do you get leadership on board with this type of mindset? Right? Because if you go in most financial folks would probably understand that return on investment spend, but maybe if leadership and finance is still looking at all of this as a budget line item, that's only on the expense column. How do you recommend people approach this conversation? Obviously there's simple math, just like writing it out, might help, but have you have found any tips and tricks for how to approach leadership about something like this?

Ryan:
It's difficult again, going into this conversation about money is always... I don't think there's any conversation around money that becomes easy, except, "Hey, I want to give you a million dollars." That's pretty easy. I'd be like, "Yeah. Okay, great. I'm in." The longer an organization has been looking at marketing on Google or Microsoft Ads as a line item that they forecast and budget annually, the more difficult it's going to be to change the minds of the team that's been doing that. We've worked in some billion dollar organizations that said, "All right, last year we did X number of dollars on our website and we expect a 10% growth. Therefore we're going to take our marketing budget for paid search, which was 10% of that total. And then we're going to add 10% to it again. So there's your budget. Go do it. Divide it up by the quarter that you think the revenue is going to come in and four quarters higher, therefore it gets 42% of the budget."
And then they work down into the week and have even daily budgets. Those organizations are going to be much more difficult because they're bigger, their CFO, they were publicly traded. So they had to report numbers to shareholders and forecast what their expenses were going to be. And because SEM is an expense you report to shareholders, if that expense was a hundred percent higher than you told them it was going to be last month, they may not be happy because they're not understanding what's that top line number that it was driving. So you have to have it correlate really, really well saying, "Hey, we spent a hundred percent more, but we actually drove over a hundred [inaudible 00:13:53] more revenue." It's going to make them excited. But the group that's doing the conference call with the shareholders may not understand that and be able to break it out in that much detail, especially if it's a multibillion dollar organization and the website is a small piece of that overall business, which it was at the point we were working with them.
It's challenging. So my advice is to try to chip away at certain aspects of it over time, being able to show, "Hey, when we spent more at this level, we got more, it was a direct correlation." And I like to use impression share showing potential like, "Hey, there's a potential there in impression share. We used absolute impression share at the top, which means you're in position one on Google and top impression show, which means you're just above the search results," to kind of give an indicator if there's a room to push. And then I also like to talk about what we refer to an internally as the Halo Effect. I don't think that's an official term, but if it does become an official term, you heard it here first.
Paid search, specifically shopping in eCommerce has a large impact on organic traffic and direct traffic. And in fact, if you look in Analytics and you get lost in Attribution, sometimes it's hell, sometimes it's heaven, but you can get lost all over an Attribution. You will find out that the more you spend on Google Shopping, the more your organic traffic increases, the more organic sales you get. And you can look at assisted conversions to see that if you label your campaigns appropriately, you can see generally on non TM shopping campaigns, which is non trademark people, just looking for your product and service, and don't know you as a brand yet for that product or service, you will see assisted conversions generally higher than attributed last click conversions in Google Analytics. And so it's having a disproportionate influence on driving sales through other channels, and it is driving sales to its accredited channel.
And so showing them that, showing them, "Hey, this says have a large impact. If you just cut it, you're not just cutting the results that you're seeing from the SEM budget. You're cutting results you're seeing in other channels as well." And so in some companies, this is unfortunate, but if you cut Google Shopping, your SEO team, all of a sudden is going to look worse without them doing anything wrong. They just happen to have the organic traffic drop because of Google Shopping not spending as much money. So it's a very complicated web picture as we continue to shop more and more online, it's only going to get more complicated and intertwined, but at least helping them understand some of that first, even before you get to the, "What are we going to spend," budget.

Jon:
Yeah. It's almost like we, as an industry, need a one sheet for executives on how to explain this simply for them, because I think there's a so much education that goes into this. And I think half the job of marketing ends up being internal education, which is really just reduces effectiveness. I mean, we fight that all the time with conversion optimization ecomm and marketing teams, they're all a hundred percent on board and understand the return on the spend on optimization. But then you look at a high level executive and they say something like, "Well, but you know, we just had our best month ever. Why would we need to optimize?"

Ryan:
No, exactly. We're constantly in education mode in what we do. And I actually had this conversation with Google last week because they're really internally pushing for more automation within Google to control a lot of the inner workings of Google, which is not bad for many companies, but they want to move agencies into more of an advisor role and helping companies grow by educating them on digital marketing, which I think is a great goal. I said that, "Well, the problem you're going to experience with that though, is you've got a bunch of, let's just say 24 to 30 year olds in digital marketing that have never owned a business that are trying to educate business owners on growth strategies for their brand. And they probably just don't have the experience to be educating at a high level why these companies should be investing in marketing." And it's scale yet, I just don't think we have the expertise as an industry to be advising people that have grown hundred million dollar brands on how they should continue growing.

Jon:
And the barrier to entry with marketing roles is typically pretty low, right?

Ryan:
Yup.

Jon:
It's something where there is a lot of people in the industry, but there's few experts. And you start doing something like that with all of the junior folks who are just getting into it, and you're going to end up with some big problems. So let me ask you this, Ryan. What are some ad word budget management solutions that kind of help you maybe just prevent yourself from even under spending? Because I think we've determined today, most companies under spend, right?

Ryan:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jon:
Because they're not focusing on the right metrics around this, but I know you're talking about a lot of these tool sets that Google's coming out with. I know we've talked about them on this podcast before how I've even been personally kind of put through the ringer by using automation tools through Google. So what are your thoughts just on the AdWords budget management solutions that are out there?

Ryan:
Generally, I don't like them, but when I'm talking to business owners about controlling budgets, the first thing I tell them is, "Look, you're going to have flexibility, regardless." If you're rigid on your goals, you're either leaving money on the table or you're wasting money. You can't dictate search volume across the entire United States, for example, for your product or service, but what you can do is decide, "Okay, here's what my goals are. Let's make sure that we're at least meeting those. And if we have a little bit more we spent, that's probably okay, as long as we get the goals, if we under spend it's okay, because the search demand wasn't there." Google at its core is a demand capture. People are searching for a product. You put it in front of them because you have that product. There are pieces of Google that can be demand creation, but by and large, it is demand capture.
And so build flexibility into your model. But then this is another thing I have to educate a lot of businesses on as well. A big education piece is aligning your marketing goals with your business goals. So often those are not going in the same direction. So you have a marketing team. That's been given a goal and they're rowing in direction to achieve that goal because they have incentives and bonuses in place to hit those goals. And then you have an executive or a business owner that's driving or paddling the boat in a different direction because of their goals. And if they're not aligned, you have a lot of tension and issues because there's going to be frustration from the executive team. "Why isn't marketing giving me the results I want? We set this wonderful goal and they achieved it, but it didn't have the impact I wanted it to."
So you start with, what's your business goal? Do you want to grow? Even beyond that, do you have an exit strategy as an owner? Do you have shareholders? You have to hit certain metrics as a business to be successful and make them happy? And then after you've set that you say, "Okay, how can my marketing team utilize the SEM channel to help hit that goal?" And let's set incentives around that rather than what a lot of companies do is well, "We had an agency five years ago tell us that we should be getting it for X or you know, 10 years ago, we were highly profitable on Google Ads. I want to be highly profitable still."
And don't pay attention to the changes or evolution of digital marketing over the last decade that has made your 10 X profit goal spending 50 grand a month, not possible at this point, based on what your site's converting at or all these other things you could be doing or should be doing. So it's goal alignment build in flexibility and then monitor it. It's not something you just set it, forget it, let the marketing team just do it. Like I'm in marketing, I have brands, I still daily track everything. It's all about the data. Like I want to know what's happening in my business regularly. I don't let it go on autopilot. Sometimes I want to, but I don't. And just in be involved as a business owner, you have to have an understanding of what it's trying to do.

Jon:
This is great because I think if I could summarize a little bit of my learnings from the conversation today, it's you shouldn't have a budget, you should have a goal, right? So look at the other end of the spend, not the front end, but the back end.

Ryan:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jon:
And then you really need to work on educating your team internally and the executives, if it's not your money that you're spending, because that way, you're making sure that they understand the return on the investment there. And then from there it's really an inventory challenge perhaps on how much you could spend. And you could really look at this as a cashflow machine. And that's how this should be looked at, perhaps is what's that cashflow equation? How are you getting that money before it's even truly spent? And how can you reinvest that up until you have no inventory left or you have an inventory problem. And then from there, there's no real way to kind of put something on autopilot here. They just don't work that well. You don't want to look at your marketing channels as equal. You really want to play at these different points of the acquisition funnel as you've mentioned. Did I miss anything on that?

Ryan:
Well, there's a couple of points. I think people should just pay attention to as well. There are circumstances where some companies intentionally lose money on the initial order from a customer. They have high lifetime value, they have a competitive space where it's necessary to even compete. They're going to lose money on the first order, beauty, skincare, that is often the case.

Jon:
That's still the cashflow formula. You're just stretching it out, right?

Ryan:
You can't spend unlimited money because it does actually cost you money to get that customer. And so you have to look at, from a finance perspective, how much money do I have in the bank? I can't spend endlessly if I'm losing money on the first order, if I'm breaking even or profitability, you can usually spend endlessly, but then it's also saying, "Okay, what's my diminishing return, and is there a better place for that investment?" Yeah. Diminishing returns is I'm losing money to spend. So maybe I stopped spending here on Google because I know that I can get this money losing return on Facebook or Instagram which is actually better. And so that's where forecasting probably has a bigger impact. And we've had those conversations with businesses about lifetime value. And there's some complex math formulas around it, but it can be done.
But then when you're looking at moving budgets, there are some automated tools that brands love looking at. I mean, brands really do love tools that have great graphics and sliding things you can move around and makes it look like you're just doing amazing. And there's one that I really don't like. And it says, "We're looking at your Facebook spend and your Google and Microsoft spend. And if Facebook is at a five X and Google is at a three X, Oh, we're just going to move money from Google over to Facebook and keep spending until they're kind of at equilibrium," because that totally makes sense if you're just looking at math and numbers, but what most brands miss is that those budgets are accomplishing very different things.
And so you have to look at them differently and not necessarily move budget from one to the other, just because a return on adspend goal makes sense like, "Oh, I'm printing all this money on Facebook and I may be breaking even on Google." It should be looked at differently. So generally avoid tools that just automatically move budget to the best performing things. Because for most businesses that doesn't make sense.

Jon:
I think that's a great point to end on today. And I think we've packed so much into 30 minutes here. I really appreciate you as always Ryan educating me on and helping me change my point of view on this, as I definitely came in thinking of SEM as an expense line item and you need to budget and have a forecast around that. And you've definitely shifted my thinking completely around, which is awesome.

Ryan:
One less business owner to educate. I love it.

Jon:
Boom. All right. Well hopefully a few other got educated today by listening to this and we'll continue to spread the word. So thank you Ryan.

Ryan:
Thanks Jon.