Build or Buy? SEM Agencies vs. In-House SEM Campaigns

Build or Buy? SEM Agencies vs. In-House SEM Campaigns

For the past decade or more, in-house SEM campaigns have taken a back seat to SEM agencies for most small, medium and large businesses. Admittedly, going with SEM agencies proved a good solution for many companies over the years who enjoyed handing off their marketing efforts to knowledgeable professionals in lieu of building their own teams. And for many, it still is.

But while there are still a host of benefits to outsourcing functions to SEM agencies, in light of today’s digital climate this tried and true approach is far from the only one available or effective for many organizations.   

So what does this mean for you? Depending on your business needs, budget and marketing goals, you might want to consider thinking outside the proverbial box and take a new approach — such as in-house SEM campaigns that put your digital marketing activities within your control. Today, there are a myriad reasons why it’s not only beneficial, but even strategic to your digital marketing objectives to build and manage your own online advertising using smart tools. In short, if you can find ways to hack growth in-house, there’s a strong chance you’ll see significant results.

However, before you’ll be able to experience any kind of unprecedented growth, you’ll need to understand why bringing your efforts in-house represents a fundamental change in approach from outsourcing to SEM agencies, and how it might better align with your digital marketing needs and comprehensive strategy. Only then can you determine the course of your company’s future marketing vision.

A Common Misconception: SEM Is Where the Customer Experience Lies

Competing in today’s digital marketplace is no mean feat. Not only are you competing against other companies going after the same audience, you’re sometimes competing against organizations that use questionable tactics to create ad space that human eyeballs never see– then sell it off on legitimate ad spots.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this practice has a negative impact on digital advertising revenue goals. For one, your ads are hosted on sites all but invisible to your targeted consumer audience. You also may be paying more for ad space if marketing companies fail to reach the right targets. Third, many organizations don’t have precise tools to analyze the results of each ad, and as such, may repeat an ineffective campaign simply because they lack data and context to see where they need improvement, or a new direction altogether.

Because it’s extremely difficult when you work with a search engine marketing company to tell whether or not they’re choosing the right keywords and writing effective ads, you have to be extra careful with whom you choose to work. Yet even the best SEM agencies struggle with a fundamental problem: search engine marketing is not where the customer experience lies. A search engine marketer can produce spot-on creative content and bid intelligently, but if they fail to help you optimize the experience in the first place, you won’t get far.

Within SEM, most of the opportunity to iterate on the customer’s experience lies deeper in the funnel. That is, the landing page, downloads and emails, as well as interaction with the interface – all leading to your product and service. Ad messaging is perhaps the most important aspect of SEM when it comes to the customer’s experience, but you have to build that messaging on a sturdy foundation.

So, what is the foundation? Simply put, it’s the product and customer experience themselves. Your messaging might be revolutionary, but without enough data to improve those, prospects are likely to feel disappointed and let down when they arrive on your site or try your products. And while seemingly obvious, both the product and customer experience must exist before you can run meaningful ads or glean insightful information from analytics.

Instead, what matters most is the infrastructure that goes into targeting, bidding and optimizing. It’s this infrastructure that empowers a brand to reach the point where they can improve the relevance of their content – the parts of SEM that impact the customer’s life cycle. SEM is merely a channel through which you target the intent signals of good customers, not where you optimize each individual’s experience, nor where you optimize the content of your site.

The takeaway: If you don’t have that infrastructure in place before you work with SEM agencies, your campaign will likely underperform or otherwise suffer. 

And while well-intentioned, ultimately many of today’s “tried and true” search engine marketing efforts end up being a distraction — which also simultaneously leave open opportunities more personalized, increasingly effective new solutions.   

Getting Real: Acknowledging the Biggest Search Engine Marketing Challenges    

SEM is complex, which is why so many companies outsource it in the first place. Thus many businesses begin to panic when SEM agencies are no longer an option — and with good reason. Building and maintaining an internal tool is incredibly resource-intensive. And most businesses don’t have the time, money or human power to do it. Given these challenges, it’s reasonable to question whether it’s really worth it to put energy into in-house SEM campaigns. It potentially could be little more than a lateral move, trading one form of labor-intensive and budget-heavy marketing endeavor for another.

Like almost anything else, if the effort is executed correctly, you’ll avoid copious budget, personnel and labor headaches associated with an in-house platform. First, you need to address basic needs, as well as common hangups in SEM that, with the right tools, you can address in a cost-effective and efficient manner. These include:

  • Scale
  • Data scarcity
  • Ideal bid & bid adjustment calculations
  • Campaign build outs
  • Cross-publisher management and reporting
  • Integrations with vital data sources

One thing to note, however, is that addressing these problems from scratch will likely require a lot of internal resources and training. What’s more, many technology vendors build solutions to these problems that fail to meet your specific needs and thus, fall short of resolving your marketing challenges.

While there might seem to be a multitude of reasons not to build your own fully fleshed-out, in-house marketing campaign from the ground up, think again. There are, in fact, a myriad of options and approaches available for you to create your own customized in-house campaign that can be tailored to your specific marketing needs, achieve higher ROI and elicit even more value from your PPC efforts.

Growth Hacking Without the Distractions

So just what does it mean to hack growth, and how do you do it without burning through your marketing budget or exhausting your engineering team?

Fundamentally, to “hack growth” means to be customer-centric and connect marketing and engineering to quickly and creatively iterate on the product. Having your engineers develop infrastructure for an SEM platform would be a distraction from this mindset and set of principles — which is why you don’t want to dedicate your engineering personnel to creating a from-scratch platform to underpin your search engine marketing efforts. In the same way that a scientist would not blow his own glass beakers and make his own pipettes, your engineers and growth teams should not devote time, skill and money to researching and designing iteration tools.

Instead, in the interest of growth, your engineering resources need to be focused on optimizing both the product and the customer’s experience. When growth hackers talk about connecting engineering with marketing, they’re highlighting the importance of customer-centricity and increasing empathy for the customer across every business unit. That does not mean reinventing the wheel with internally developed tools, a common misconception, and one that would be a massive waste of time.

Instead, your developers should be focused on implementing product and process optimizations driven by the data and insights sourced from the scientific research process. In so doing, you can optimize your customer experience to the point that, when you do go to market online, you feel confident that you’re finding the right prospects – those that will actually convert to loyal clients and customers.

We have seen again and again that the successful companies are those that use data science and machine learning to build out a conversion funnel that will bring in the right customers, then use that foundation to build an effective PPC strategy to find them in the first place. That starts with a DFY data science foundation on which you can rely to save time and energy, and ultimately achieve the results you want.

Reaping the Rewards of Data Science and Machine Learning 

Building a full marketing solution requires not only capturing and connecting all of the relevant data points that impact SEM, but also building and maintaining the infrastructure that use the data to take action in the auctions themselves. Yet utilizing the granular data necessary for success and managing it across digital channels is difficult.

Companies need solutions that master the complexity of this data — an endeavor that presents a plethora of new and unforeseen challenges. Unintentionally becoming attached to one of those solutions is all too possible without the targeted use of machine learning algorithms and a data science mindset. When combined, they can help you surface insights and take action on the available data with maximum relevance and efficiency, which otherwise would be nearly impossible to attain. With the foundation of SEM infrastructure in place, your engineers, marketers and growth teams will be empowered to immediately start working with the data to improve your product and the customer experience. Let your partner worry about maintaining the tools that empower your team and adapting to the changes that the publishers impose – in a new way that is very different from the legacy workflow tools. In short, place the burden of maintaining infrastructure on a company committed to helping its customers achieve their highest potential across these upper-funnel channels.

But that’s far from where your efforts end. While reporting on SEM data is easy, execution with SEM data is more difficult. Thus, you need a complete system that helps you do both. And partnering with organizations like QuanticMind to build the desired features will cost much less than building, training, and maintaining an internal team.

From there, you can allocate additional or leftover resources to service your customers or build tools within the ecosystem to complement the foundation. Not sure what the best use of those resources might be? Your partner will have the knowledge and expertise to help advise where additional solutions will add the most value — with the goal of perfect customization every time.

It all goes to  ensure that your PPC manager is aligned with customers’ business strategy and growth. The proof is in the pudding: Some customers have seen leaps of 150 percent in roughly a year’s time, and looking ahead — if anything your SEM partner will be there to take once cumbersome and frustrating SEM campaigns to new and unprecedented heights.


SEM agencies still have their place in the PPC marketer’s toolkit. Among other things, they retain a lot of expertise at optimizing and managing multiple accounts, along with profound insights and insider knowledge of the digital advertising landscape. The diversity of their clientele can also result in a broader customer perspective that enables them to learn about different facets of the industry and strategically apply it to numerous campaign scenarios.

However, for a growing number of organizations, SEM agencies represent just one of many options for their campaign strategy — and sometimes not the one that best aligns with their campaign objectives. Organizations looking to deeply customize and personalize their campaigns, while significantly elevating value and ROI are increasingly bringing their efforts in-house. Among other things, a PPC manager is innately connected to your customers’ advertising needs, business objectives and overall company vision. Like a partner, they often have access to communications, internal marketing meetings and minutes while helping to shape high-level strategy that will ultimately determine the direction of the campaign. That means that they will be that much more committed to not just achieving, but exceeding, campaign goals that will bring your PPC strategy, and your ROI, to the next level.

Lynn Langmade

Lynn Langmade is an award-winning digital marketing leader who creates valuable content that drives demand, increases brand awareness, and inspires advocacy for B2B brands and then uses science to measure, test, and leverage what works for predictable revenue.