February 2, 2022

Anatomy of SEM Campaign Success

Complete online marketing strategies require incredibly comprehensive approaches. Before you can even hope to convert any leads, you need to make sure you can reach them in the first place! Search engine marketing, or SEM, is one of the best to cast the widest possible net. If you want to make sure people find your business, you need to pay attention to SEM.

SEM Campaign
Table of Contents

What is an SEM Campaign?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a marketing strategy used to improve a business or brand’s ranking position on search engines. It involves gaining website traffic by paying for ads on search engines. It should not be confused with SEO, which is effectively its organic counterpart. The goal is to make your website appear in the highest-possible ad slots for search phrases relevant to your industry. This is done with an SEM campaign.

SEM campaigns are conducted on one or more of the popular search engines or other digital platforms. The most popular option to default to is Google. It gets the most search traffic by far, and thus presents the best opportunities overall. It’s also a simple-enough platform, with extensive educational resources to enable businesses to get started.

Regardless of your specific goals, SEM campaign management is always hard to wrap your head around as a beginner. There are some simple basics, but successful implementation becomes complex. There are many new concepts, as well as a new vocabulary (including many acronyms) that you must understand.

While there’s a lot to learn, we can cover the most important search engine marketing campaign aspects in the scope of this article. With this information, you can:

  • Understand the importance of SEM
  • Learn how to create an SEM campaign
  • Know the main types of SEM campaigns

Importance of Search Engine Marketing

As a method, SEM advertising is a critical aspect of digital marketing. This is due to the now-ubiquitous use of search engines as a part of the buyer journey. In fact, 81% of buyers searched for a product or service before making a purchase in 2020. 74% made a purchase online.

When it comes to the preferred platform, Google is the undisputed winner. In December 2021, 86.19% of desktop search engine searches were done on Google. They were responsible for 78.39% of all global desktop and laptop searches. If you want to maximize your reach with a new marketing opportunity, learning how to make a Google SEM campaign is a necessity.

Lastly, if you’re not competing in the SEM space, your competitors probably are. This isn’t a simple case of “monkey see, monkey do”. The fact of the matter is that forgoing SEM advertising is ceding advertising space and valuable traffic to your competition.

How to Create SEM Campaigns

Planning an effective SEM campaign is somewhat similar to most marketing projects. The SEM campaign structure may appear very recognizable to you if you’ve engaged in any kind of digital marketing or advertising.

Goal Setting

First of all, your SEM campaign needs a specific and easily measurable goal since you are going to spend money for a specific kind of attention.

When you start an SEM campaign, you’re putting a landing page in front of people searching for what you’re selling. So, you need to decide what you want them to do once they arrive at the landing page. There are at least a million individual goals to choose from, but most fall into something resembling one of the following:

  • Making a sale
  • Signing up for a website
  • Downloading an app
  • Getting on an email list
  • Signing up for a newsletter
  • Signing up for a podcast
  • Enticing people to a promotion (eg. a free trial, sample, course, etc.)

This action-based goal can also include a quantified goal such as:

  • 100 sales closed during the duration of the campaign
  • 1,000 new email newsletter subscribers
  • 5,000 viewers for a digital event
  • 10,000 app downloads

Whatever the specific goal is, it should be clear and measurable. This can help guide the campaign and provide insights into whether you’re progressing toward the goal at each step of the campaign.

Competitor Research

If you’re just getting into SEM now, the good news is you have thousands of case studies to refer to. It’s highly unlikely that you’re the first one in your industry to run an SEM campaign. So, you have lessons from others you can learn from.

The point here is to assess the style and performance of SEM ads in your niche. You want to find out how they are selling and what their targets are.

It’s hard to get a lot of useful information on your own. Most digital marketing involves the use of tools and software to gain a competitive edge. SEM is no different.

Competitor analysis tools like SEMrush, KeywordSpy, and Alison are used to provide key data.

Alison, for example, is a complete solution for maximum SEM performance with insights in how to:

  • Reduce CPA (cost per action)
  • Maximize ROAS
  • Drive the most valuable users to decisive actions
  • Scale ad spend

Using research tools (which also offer practical applications), you can create an outline for your industry. However, even the competition research step comes with a list of sub-steps.

1. Build a list of competitors.

Start by building a complete list of all competitors operating in your market. Regardless of previous experience (or lack thereof), you’ll need to make sure this is up to date. Organize them by niche, only including the niches relevant to your business. Then, as much as possible, sort them by their market share. Most SEM tools (including Alison and the others mentioned above) will have automated features for this step.

2. Sort current organic and paid ad competitors.

Some of your competition is already a step ahead of you in the SEM race. You need to find out who you are competing with for the same ad slots. Those competitors will end up fighting you for those ad spots when you are targeting the same keywords and geographic locations. By the same token, you will want to know which competitors are fighting for organic search results for the same keyphrase. If you’re paying for SEM ads for “best drones Chicago” but someone else is creating SEO content for the same search phrase, you are indirectly competing with them also. You aren’t going to fight over the same ad spots, but you will be competing for attention from the same users. So, it’s good to know what competitors are doing with both paid ads and organic SEO.

3. Local Search SEO Competition.

Even when localities are not mentioned in search phrases, your location is often considered when you search on Google. Many SEM tools have features that streamline this process.

4. Know your landscape.

This comes down to looking at the data you’ve collected. Then, you analyze your own market share relative to theirs. How much influence do you have in the market? Who are you targeting, and how much do they overlap with your competition’s targeting? What is the quintessential company profile of your serious competitors? These are the kinds of questions you will need to have answered.

Understand Your Audience

The step somewhat overlaps, but certainly builds upon competitor research. Competitor research will naturally give you a lot to work with when it comes to knowing your audience.

This is the main area where your competitor research will overlap. You can learn a lot about which search terms they are using and other aspects of their online activity with these SEM tools. However, you will need to develop a better understanding of your audience if you want to break new ground and achieve new successes. If your business offers truly niche products and there is a lack of useful competitor information, this is even more important.

The ultimate creation here will be your buyer personas. Buyer personas are fictional avatars of the ideal audience or client based on audience research.

By understanding the demographics that you are targeting, you can craft better marketing. You can speak a language that they understand, identify with their problems, and address them.

The old-fashioned way of doing all this would be with questionnaires and surveys. These methods often work quite well still, but they take more time and practice to use. Fortunately, SEM tools make it easier by having built-in features for these same needs as well.

It will normally be easiest to discover the basic demographic information such as:

  • Age groups
  • Gender
  • Geographic locations

It pays to go a step further and discover more comprehensive information like:

  • Common hobbies & interests
  • Social media channels followed
  • Popularly-followed websites

Choose Your Platform

There are several platforms to choose from for SEM. They each have varying strengths and weaknesses. However, you will want to stick to the larger platforms. Google is by far the most popular and presents the greatest opportunity for greater search volume. Bing is less popular and has less search volume but is cheaper to use right now.

For the purposes of this guide, our examples (particularly for types of campaigns) all assume you are using Google.

Set A Budget

By now you should have a list of keywords, all the audience research you could need, and a platform to get started on. Now you will need to get serious and decide how much you’re ready to invest.

SEM normally comes with a learning curve, which includes a costly and less-financially-efficient beginning. That’s why it’s normally better to outsource to an agency offering SEM services if you don’t have the talent in-house. That cost will need to be considered within the constraints of your budget.

Next, there are the actual advertising costs. These costs are paid directly to the platform of your choice. The most common payment choices are PPC (Pay per click) and CPA (Cost per acquisition).

Of course, you will need to pay any mix of writers, graphic designers, video editors, and all other necessary talent depending on the type of SEM campaign you are making.

Make the Ad

This will include at least a few of the following steps, some of which are optional. For example, you won’t need to have a video shot or edited unless you’re launching a video campaign.

  • Writing landing page copy
  • Acquiring and editing stock images
  • UI and UX design
  • Visual and verbal calls to action
  • Video shooting and editing
  • Targeting settings (varies by platform)


Regardless of the type of SEM campaign you choose, you will need to test your ads. Landing pages are normally split tested repeatedly to find better iterations of the same message.

It’s impossible to have your cake and eat it too. You can’t leave your SEM campaign on autopilot and expect to have the best results. Even well-tested and highly performing ads will become outdated eventually. This requires split testing, enabling you to narrow down which ad elements create the best results.

ROI Analysis Of An SEM Campaign

The goal is to constantly improve your ROI. If you have the right marketing team, you can continuously improve the performance of your SEM campaigns through testing. Every successful long-term SEM strategy involves continuous testing and adjusting. Each adjustment should improve your clickthrough rate, reduce your bounce rate, and make your ad budget more efficient.

Types of SEM Campaigns

You have a few types of SEM campaigns to choose from. The types differ by what your audience will see and thus how many will respond to your ads.

Search Campaigns

This simple campaign type places text ads in the Google search results. When people are looking for the products and services you offer, they may find your landing page as a text result.

Search campaigns are the easiest to set up, but they are no less effective by default than any of the other campaign types. You need to provide ad text and the keywords you’re targeting for.

It’s important to be specific with search ads. You will likely need to test many keywords and headlines to achieve optimal results. While they’re simple to use, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of carefully crafted headlines and deliberately chosen keywords.

Google Display Campaigns

These campaigns will have you place images (display ads) in front of users actively browsing web pages. The Google display network covers all Google assets (including YouTube) and many private sites.

Display ads are more demanding to work with, but they are visually engaging. When done well, you can make a greater impact on a wide audience. You are also reaching people beyond the search results alone.

Video Campaigns

Video campaigns place your video ads on platforms like YouTube, or anywhere where video ads are displayed.

Video advertising is far more costly than the other options available to you. But if you have the resources for production, they are excellent for brand recognition and making a more emotional impact.

Video campaigns on platforms like Google place your video ads in front of an audience based on a large number of factors.

Shopping Campaigns

Shopping campaigns place products on a sliding shopping tab. When people search for the kinds of products you sell, they may see a sliding product tab with your products, titles, and prices.

This is the go-to option for eCommerce businesses. It can be effective for any retailer with a significant online presence.

App Campaigns

These campaigns are specifically to help people find your apps or increase in-app sales. In the context of Google, this means YouTube, Discover, and over 3 million individual sites and apps.

Local Campaigns

This new SEM campaign type is meant to draw online audiences into your brick-and-mortar locations. They are displayed on multiple platforms and serve to promote in-store products, events, and promotions.

Next Steps

Search engine marketing can pay off but it’s also a highly-competitive space. You now have a basic understanding of how an SEM campaign works. Perhaps equally important, you have an understanding of the utility offered by SEM and broader digital marketing tools at your disposal.

If you want to learn more, we suggest having a look at the broader paid user acquisition space and seeing how an SEM strategy can help your business.

Let's talk Marketing
Get in touch!