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SAS does more for less

  Article , Tech and Telecom , Success stories

Global tech company gets granular

A game of chess

SAS Institute logo

It may appear at first glance to be a three-letter acronym, but “SAS” isn’t spoken as such. It’s pronounced “sass.” This is appropriate because both the software itself and the company have wielded attitude to spare while confidently navigating 40-plus years of technological innovation. SAS has become a leader in analytics software and services while empowering customers with “The Power to Know.”

“We are one of the largest privately held software companies in the world,” beams Dave Phillips, senior manager of global paid search at SAS. “We have about 13,900 employees around the globe, 5,600 of those where I am on the North Carolina headquarters campus.”

SAS started on a much smaller scale in the early ‘70s, when a pair of North Carolina State University faculty members spearheaded a groundbreaking computerized statistics program intended to analyze vast amounts of agricultural data. Soon, SAS software was being licensed by pharmaceutical, insurance and academic entities, and the company was spun off as an independent operation.

“Now, SAS is embedded into most major companies around the globe, as well as a lot of governments,” Phillips says of the company whose worldwide 2016 revenue was north of $3 billion. “We're working with all the Fortune 100 companies that are part of the financial services industry, and through our ‘data for good’ efforts we’re making an even greater impact with our analytics, using them to give back and help the world.”
Doing it all in the Bing Ads desktop tool has been a lifesaver.

— Dave Phillips, senior manager of global paid search, SAS

Playing the game

Screenshot of SAS website

SAS website

Considering its ubiquity, one of the amazing things about SAS is how it has held on to its simple roots and small-business feel. “A lot of people have worked here for 20, 30 and now 40 years,” explains Phillips. “It's a great company that regularly earns awards as one of the top places to work. Because of all the nice benefits and the work-life balance, most people who get a job here, tend to stay.”

Phillips refers to himself as “very junior,” having joined SAS in 2015. Following B2C and B2B stints in the hospitality, automotive and event management industries, he took the job after relocating to North Carolina to support his wife’s higher education. 

“I figured if I'm going to be down here, why not work for the best company around?” he grins. “So, I found an opening.”

Phillips has a unique way of looking at the paid search industry, and it’s one of the reasons why he enjoys his job. “I enjoy having such a measurable job. I can quickly see how well my ideas pan out, and scratch them or iterate and improve on them,” he explains, comparing each carefully calculated move to navigating a chess board. “I approach paid search like a game, one that requires tons of testing and analysis to win.” 

More for less

Phillips takes pride in the confidence and intent that drive his actions. As with any game, however, there is always the danger of making a false move. That’s why he places such importance on the ability to rapidly dissect the impact of his actions on the paid search chess board. 

“It’s fun to craft messages and see if I can outdo myself last month, last quarter — even, to a lesser extent, outdo my predecessor's work. I want to try to be better, right?” he says. 

Recently, Phillips discovered that the game board was changing in a way that will sound familiar. “We need to do more with less. As SAS's digital marketing team has grown, other channels have received a little bit more of our budget, and rightfully so,” he reasons. “That means some budget has had to be taken away from search, so SAS can go after untapped markets on LinkedIn, Facebook and other sources.”

But as any paid search professional can attest, a lower budget needs to be seen as an obstacle, not an excuse. “My goal is to still get the same amount or more, in terms of leads and registrations,” Phillips says. “Doing more with less, lowering our cost per lead — these things are vital. Our struggle became: How can we lower our cost per lead so we can get the same amount of lead flow that we have been getting, or if possible, even better?”

The great evolution

With his preferred Bing Ads tools in hand, Phillips attacked the obstacle with confidence that the proper pawns were being put in play. “The main one I use regularly and love is Bing Ads Editor,” he explains, and he should know, since he has been working with the tool at various positions for over a decade. “Its evolution has been great; every few months there's another iteration that's just making it better, where you can do anything and everything that you can within the web UI.”

Sitelink Extensions, Location Extensions and Universal Event Tracking are just a few of the other features that Phillips uses to help him get more bang for a lessened buck. “Doing it all in the Bing Ads desktop tool has been a lifesaver,” he adds. “I love it for making ad changes. I love it for making destination URL changes. It's been great because we have a number of campaigns. We broke out all these ad groups, and we have a ton of landing pages.”
With Bing, that cost per conversion is a lot lower than other search engines. Whether that's the algorithm, whether that's the lack of competition, I'm not sure, but we love it.

— Dave Phillips, senior manager of global paid search, SAS

Real-time results

Datatable showing SAS achieving a 5.34% increase in conversion rate, 24% increase in site traffic, and a $5.99 cost per click.

SAS datatable

Such a strategy allowed Phillips to fine-tune his gameplay, reacting to the results in real time. “We've basically gone very granular with our approach,” he explains. “In the past, we had a handful of campaigns, a handful of ad groups, all of which contained way too many keywords, and therefore ad copy that wasn't relevant to all of those keywords.”

By tinkering with keyword utilization, Phillips focused them better. “You're affecting your quality scores at that point, where you're obviously going to spend more money than you would if you had more tailored ad copy that's booked to a fewer amount of keywords,” he says. “So, we've since gone very granular, from maybe 50 ad groups to close to 1,300 ad groups. We've also expanded the number of landing pages that we're promoting, from around 20 to about 175. By doing that, our overall cost per lead came down by 50%, and that was amazing.”

The other results are similarly stunning:
  • 5.34% increase in conversion rate
  • 24% increase in site traffic
  • $5.99 cost per click
“With Bing, that cost per conversion is a lot lower than other search engines. Whether that's the algorithm, whether that's the lack of competition, I'm not sure, but we love it,” he says. “So, what we're trying to do is put more and more money into Bing Ads, as much as possible. We’ll continue to flood Bing Ads with our budget, and I’ll spend as much as demand will take.”

Searching for the future

With those recent results, Phillips is more empowered than ever to continue tinkering on behalf of SAS. “I've done a lot of stuff around testing with ads, and other people are often surprised when I share results with them. What they might think would be a crazy idea for use in ad copy actually works,” he says with pride. “Suddenly, it’s getting a much higher click-through rate and conversion rate. That's what's great about digital, and search specifically, testing stuff and iterating very quickly — whereas with other mediums and platforms you're going to be waiting a while, especially with SEO.”

Achieving more with less, Phillips is convinced that no matter what games the future may hold, the tools are there to remain one move ahead of the competition — if you’re smart enough to properly wield them.

“I see the future of search as being done by more marketing generalists. In-house, this is common practice, but oftentimes these marketers are stretched thin and give search a bare-bones approach with minimal attention,” he explains. “You can’t leave huge budgets in the hands of someone who did a bit in an internship once, or read a search blog a few times, and thinks he can just throw up some keywords in broad match and things will run themselves. Directors of these teams need to understand all the ins and outs and nuances within search campaigns to understand if people really know what they’re doing because, unfortunately, a lot of the time they are throwing away money.”

But no matter how the industry evolves, he insists that its importance will only increase. “We use paid search to educate people how in a broader sense analytics and data management can help them solve issues, and then nurture them into an understanding of how SAS specifically can help them,” Phillips says. “With so many new business problems and areas of data management and analytics technology popping up all the time, we need to be able to get in front of our audiences quickly. Paid search will always be extremely important.”

See a summary

With Bing Ads, SAS increased site traffic by 24% while decreasing the cost per lead by 50%.

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