Search and the Digital CPG Shelf

First published October 25, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last April, James Lamberti from comScore, Randy Peterson from Procter and Gamble and I (representing SEMPO) grabbed a relatively quiet corner at the New York Hilton to talk about a potential research project. Here was our wish list:

–    A study that tied together online activity to offline purchase behavior
–    A study that identified the impact of search in a category not typically one that would be identified with search marketing
–    A study that would attempt to quantify the leveraged impact of search with brand advocates

Search and CPG: Are You Kidding?

As you can see, these were pretty lofty targets to shoot for. Choosing the product category was done at that table. What is the last category you would think of as generating significant search activity? Consumer packaged goods. After all, aren’t these either replenishment purchases, where we keep buying the same brand over and over, or a non-considered purchase, where we’re not really concerned with doing much research? Why would we need to turn to a search engine to figure out which toothpaste to buy, or which would be the right chips for Sunday’s ball game? We reasoned that CPG had the “Sinatra” Factor going for it: If search can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

To be honest, we really didn’t know what to expect, but comScore, together with a lot of help from Yahoo and Procter and Gamble, managed to come up with a workable study design. SEMPO jumped on board as a co-sponsor and we put the study out in the field. This week, with numbers crunched and charts drawn, the results were released in a study labeled The Digital Shelf. After several months of holding our collective breaths, we were about to see if people had already locked CPG brands into their brains, eliminating the need to search for product information.

Apparently not.

People went online for CPG information — in fact, to a significantly higher degree than even our most optimistic predictions.  Over a 3-month period, comScore recorded over 150 million visits to CPG websites in four categories: Food Products, Personal Care Products, Baby Products and Household Products. Those are numbers no marketer should ignore. But even more significantly, search drove significant portions of that traffic, from 23% of all visits in Household Products to 60% in Baby Products.

It’s not just automotive or travel that drive search traffic. We search for recipes, how to get the stains out of carpets, the most eco-friendly disposable diaper and yes, even the nutritional information for potato chips. We search, a lot!

And our searching sets us apart as a consumer segment. Searchers tend to be more interested in product information, comparing against competitors and what they need to make a purchase decision. Non-searchers are more interested in special offers and coupons.

Searchers spend more, about 20% more  — in all the categories in the study. In fact, in the Baby Care Category alone, people searching for information and eventually purchasing could result in almost $12 billion in sales.

Search = Opportunity

But perhaps the most compelling finding was this: People search because they’re comparing alternatives. This means they’re not locked into a brand. They could very well be your competitor’s customer right now. Non-searchers are more likely to go directly to a site because they do have a brand preference. They’re just looking for a bargain on that brand. The study found that 36% of searchers had recently switched their brand, compared to 29% of non-searchers. And, interestingly, searchers are less motivated by price. Only 27% of searchers switched because of price, compared to 38% of non-searchers.

So, the study delivered on our original wish list, and then some. It showed that search is a significant influencing factor in the most unlikely product category of all, the stuff on your pantry shelf or under the sink in your bathroom. In fact, I have yet to see a study done on any product category where search didn’t blow the doors off the competition in its effectiveness in connecting with customers. So perhaps the biggest question left unanswered by the study is this: Why are all those branding dollars still going everywhere but search?

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