4 Tactics to Compete with Huge SEM Advertisers

I’d like to paint a picture of a Monday morning we’ve likely all experienced.

You log in to your AdWords account to check on your beloved brand campaigns and find that your CPCs have doubled over the course of mere days.

You check auction insights to see what’s happening. Much to your chagrin, you find Amazon/Target/Macy’s have started bidding.

They have lower prices.

They have free shipping.

Worst of all, they have (seemingly) unlimited budgets.

The outlook is grim – you pour another cup of coffee to plan. How will you ever compete with the biggest in your industry?!?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on both ends of the spectrum. I’ve been the small brand, operating on a finite budget trying to fend off attackers. I’ve also been the beast, armed with an unlimited bank account and nothing but a CAC goal.

The goal of this post is to help all the underdogs out there hold their own (or even beat) the big guys via a few simple don’ts.

For the sake of consistency and posterity, this post will focus on fending off marketplaces or large national competitors. The tactics should work in any space.

1. Do Not: Race to the Bottom with Discounts & Offers

Odds are you will never have lower prices than Amazon or Macy’s.


You can often win by getting more specific with your ad copy. Create ads that represent the value of purchasing direct from the brand. Value-driven copy will put you well ahead whomever is looming over. Highlight things like product mix, customer service, or response time.

Big brands are unlikely to zero in on smaller competitors with custom offers or builds. Its likely part of a larger keyword build, meaning their ad copy and landing pages will be on the generic side.

2. Do Not: Try to Reach Every Single Person the Big Brand Targets

Trying to show everywhere a large competitor does is a surefire way to empty your bank account.

If a 30 percent off sale from Macy’s can sway someone, odds are they’re not a customer who will help you in the long run anyway.


Find niches and areas where your brand has a distinct advantage over competitors. As with custom copy, it’s unlikely that the bigger budgets in your space will get particularly specific.

There’s too much going on for large brands to segment their campaigns by audience. Instead, they’ll likely do it via bid modifiers or take advantage of smart bidding.

Don’t hesitate to go local. Odds are your small brand doesn’t have a lot of awareness in Billings, Montana; pick out your best geographic regions and focus your campaigns.

A great way to stand out is with tight, hyper-local copy focused on:

  • City names.
  • Neighborhoods.
  • ZIP codes.

If you think Amazon is going to spend their time writing copy for every metropolitan area in the country, I have a bridge to sell you.

Look within your own data to find “hot spots” where you convert well. If you find a pocket of brand awareness where your CTRs or conversion rates index high, split out the campaigns! Focus budgets in the best regions out into their own campaigns to maximize volume.

If you find smaller volume and longer tail search queries, split them out and target them on exact match. It’s unlikely a huge advertiser will get granular enough to compete over scraps. You’ll achieve lower CPC’s and more efficient conversions when isolating these small key terms.

3. Do Not: Use Their Campaigns as a Basis for Your Own

Fight the urge to drop a site into a competitive analysis tool and copy-paste to your own campaigns.

Remember, the likelihood of the indirect conversion is far higher for a Goliath than it is for you.


Manipulate the SEM economy to your advantage by making it smaller. Focus campaigns on markets where you win!

If you’re a retailer, build campaigns around your most popular products. And don’t forget about inventory and margin – make sure you have plenty of both.

Isolate products where a gigantic competitor may not have a breadth of products. These terms are less likely to work for them (thus, likely to have low bids) and more likely to succeed on your own site.

Service companies can excel by honing in on tighter queries. Think:

  • Local.
  • Review.
  • Emergency.
  • Personal touch.

Focus your campaigns on local or industry lingo larger competitors may not understand. Listen to customer service calls to find the root cause of a customer challenge.

Craft keywords around neighborhood names or local landmarks. Things larger competitors won’t know about.

There’s nothing that irks me more than seeing a “Philadelphia” campaign about cheesesteaks! There’s more to my city than that.

These little pockets of volume will help you make up what you miss by avoiding top of funnel terms.

4. Do Not: Play the Same Game as Them

Remember, this is your campaign.

Focus on your goals and your company to make the most profit for you.

I touched on indirect conversions above. A searcher will often convert on a product or service they didn’t start searching for.

Larger advertisers realize this.

They don’t usually have a per-conversion profit target as a result. Nor do they focus on hyper granular ROAS targets.

Usually (blanket statement!) larger advertisers look at a larger portfolio as a whole. They know some poor performing keywords will balance with efficient terms. They also view search as an acquisition channel.

They focus first on cost per acquired customer rather than single order profitability. As a result, they often over-index on lower cost easier to convert keywords, as it’s faster to get someone in the door.


There’s an old idiom that if you don’t like the rules, change the game. Keep this close to heart as you’re thinking about your own goals.

Use the knowledge gained above along with the intimate knowledge of your own customers to hone in on the most profitable markets for you.

Leave the low-hanging fruit, cheap conversions to the Big Kahunas. You want to focus on the best, most loyal customers you can find.

Your big competitors likely have a cost per customer goal, are using an automated system and are going after keywords at scale.

You can sneak in the side door to find the best customers by going after those who may be a bit more difficult to convert.

You found your niche and your value proposition from the tips above. You’ll have no problem getting those tough cookies to convert while the behemoth gives up.

Do Not…

Panic. You’ve got this!

With a sound strategy and niches identified, you’re sure to compete (and win) when faced with formidable foes.

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