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Keyword Research Is Fast, Free Brand Strategy Research that Helps Smart Companies Grow

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The phrase "marketing research" usually brings to mind elaborate, expensive charts, graphs and diagrams with fancy names. But as a funny -- and famous -- IBM commercial featuring two-dozen workers "ideating" illustrated in 2008, in today's dynamic business market there often is not the time or budget for extended research.

The corporate marketing buzzword "ideation" is now a popular term for brainstorming for new business ideas. It's all the rage for smart companies to embrace the mantra of "fail small, fail quickly" to quickly determine which ideas are likely to gain traction.

Product developers use the tactic of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) -- the minimum number of features needed to release a product -- for fast and quantitative market testing of a product or service. The idea is to not waste time and money creating products in which potential customers are uninterested. The product or service is released to a sample of potential customers, such as early adopters who are thought to be more willing to give feedback and able to grasp a product vision from an early prototype. Typically an MVP involves a simple website of a few or even one page with an email capture function. The product is publicized via email or a small online advertising budget.

However, before an MVP is created, time, but not necessarily money, must be invested in simple, effective research. The object of research is to identify how changing components of the marketing variables affect customer behavior.

Conducting keyword research using Google's keyword tool is often my favorite starting point. Keyword research is a practice to determine the actual search terms potential customers type into search engines when searching for products and services. The tool gives volumetric statistics and demographics about those searchers. The real power of keyword research is that it also provides the related words and phrases about which people are searching. This provides significant insight into existing consumer demand for your potential core product and possible ancillary features.

In addition to providing insight into the size of your potential market, keyword research can also stimulate new thinking as to how consumers perceive your service. This permits you to pivot your strategy to expand or contract your scope as needed. All this before you spend a penny.

While conducting keyword research, many marketers mistakenly target the keywords with the most search volume. Attempting to "own" search results for keywords that have 10,000 searches a day, or even 1,000 searches a day, is expensive, and makes it difficult for a new website to break through existing clutter.

Furthermore, these "popular" search terms represent only about a quarter of web searches. The remaining 75 percent are what's called the "long tail" of search. The long tail contains hundreds of millions of obscure unique searches that might be conducted a few dozen times in any given day, but, when added together, they comprise the majority of the demand for information through search engines.

A lesson marketers have learned is that long tail keywords often drive a higher level of sales, because they catch people later in the buying process. A person searching for "sports memorabilia" is probably doing casual research, and not ready to purchase. Conversely, someone searching for "Pittsburgh Penguins Hockey Stanley Cup Banner" is ready to buy NOW.

Using keywords and specifically long tail keywords is particularly useful in marketing professional services. As an example, the company LinkedIn Profile Service recently used keyword research to pivot its marketing strategy. The phrase "LinkedIn Profile Service" only has approximately 1,500 searches per month on Google; additional complementary keywords were needed to expand the pool of potential customers. So keyword research was used to find more long tail phrases that each has at least several thousand searches per month. The research expanded the market size by coming up with "LinkedIn Profile," "Profile Professional," "Make a Profile," "Profile Examples" and "Profile Tips." These words were used to build additional web pages that extend out from the homepage. People who are entering these phrases into search engines are likely good candidates for a service that builds LinkedIn profiles.

Using keyword research is a fast, inexpensive way to test, quantify and pivot your marketing strategy and get your MVP off to a good start. It's worth noting that even if your keywords are number one, Google experts recommend that you also invest in paid online advertising, with the same keywords, to maximize traffic to your website.

IBM's famous commercial showed two-dozen employees lying on mats trying to come up with good business ideas. Thanks to keyword research opportunities, today's small business can harness the same kind of power -- but without an IBM-sized payroll.