SG telcos GOMO, TPG and Circles.Life caught in search word hijack spree

The search word hijack war is on as Singapore telcos take to Google to lure in prospective customers from their competitors.

Earlier this morning, Marketing spotted Singtel owned GOMO, a plan targeted at Millennial, "hijacking" search words "Circles.Life porting" on Google ad words. The ad cleverly said "Stop Circling. Go GOMO 40GB.", linking to GOMO's official website. Marketing has reached out to GOMO for additional information. 

Not one to miss out on the fun, Marketing also saw TPG Mobile taking a jab at the two telcos with keywords "circles life GOMO". Promptly, an ad for TPG Mobile appears with the caption "Why pay MOore? - Get 50GB for $10 with TPG". The intentional capitalisation of "MO" seems to make a reference to GOMO's brand name (although the O could refer to Circles.Life's logo as well) - tossing TPG Mobile's hat into the telco ad word war ring as well. 

In a statement to Marketing, a spokesperson from TPG Mobile said it is common practice for the brand, adding that it switches keywords in its ongoing campaigns from time to time to maximise its search results. "As you've found, TPG Mobile's ad can be seen together with the different telco plans in Singapore. This is done so that we can optimise our search campaign through various means such as modifying ad copies to increase audience reach or to ensure relevancy of the ad copies," the spokesperson said. 

Commenting on the "hijack", James Chua, founder of GERMS Digital, deemed the move as one that will easily resonate with particularly the younger audience given its  “simplicity of execution marinated with light humour”. Chua added that in such instances, generally conversion is the main intention but done well, awareness can also be achieved as young tech savvy audiences can catch the context of the ad immediate. Chua added:

These moves is reminiscent of the aggressive telco ad wars in the late ‘90s and early 2000s - albeit now on the internet front. 

Jeffrey Lim, founder and managing director of 8traordinary, added that such practices are almost reminiscent of the hay days of TVCs where telcos were 'bring down' their competitors through the use of colours.

“Today, brands who are running search engine marketing or adwords campaigns are doing this regularly (buying into competitors' keywords and ambush marketing is gaining popularity in sports/events and sponsorships spaces. The only difference in this instance is the creative use of the ad copy to poke fun at competitors,” Lim added. He added that this instance brings out the creativity of the brands ambushing, and is effective in bringing the “hijackers” product and brand to the forefront.

Unlike Chua, Lim believes the objective in this instance is leaning towards awareness rather than conversion. He advised: “If the competitor brand is intending to drive conversion, the could introduce a great offer or freebie which might work since a large part of the decision making process for telco services selection is also on the price point.”

Safeguarding tips

Meanwhile, Ian Cheow, CEO of digital marketing agency OOm, said awareness will be a given and this type of "hijack" is becoming a common tactic used to cannibalise competitor search traffic. In such instances, if the competitors are giving a better promotion or package, this might sway the searchers’ decision and lead to conversions.

“It is important for brands to monitor their brand term on the search results. Even though their website might be ranking organically in first position for the brand term, in this case, it is critical that they buy their own brand terms with search ads so as to ensure that they occupy the top of the search ads and not lose traffic to the other advertisers,” he explained, adding:

Although the brand cannot prevent the competitors from bidding on their brand term, at least they should protect their search ad position with their own ads.

Dhawal Shah, co-founder of 2Stallions, added that it is one of the reasons that companies have to spend advertising dollars on their own brand name to show up above their competition.Although this tactic is a great way to gain more awareness for the brand, if someone is already searching for the brand's competitor, they are unlikely to click on the ad unless it is a really compelling offer, Shah added. Thus, companies have to keep in mind that the alternative offer they are providing should be extremely compelling, if not the "hijacking" will usually just serve to grow awareness. "If you are just starting out, this practice can help boost your awareness and eventually help you drive better conversions," Shah said.

Although he is of the view that it is not a "very sporting behaviour" to advertise on competitors' brand keywords, Shah recognises that it is necessary in order to grow a brand. Shah also added that while this is standard practice these days, that there are restrictions set for this marketing tactic. For example, companies are not allowed to use their competitors’ names in their ad copy, which may mislead searchers. 

Holding a similar stance, Charanjit Singh, managing partner of Construct Digital, called the move "sneaky" but "perfectly legitimate". He added that Circles.Life has been known to do far sneakier marketing tactics, and it is good to see other telco's marketing team responding in a smart way. Singh also pointed out that the key words in which GOMO's ad appeared are "circles life porting", which could mean the user searching these terms is someone trying to port out of Circles.Life. "So it is perfectly legitimate for GOMO to place itself in front of such consumers," Singh said.

GOMO and TPG Mobile are not the first telco brands to do search word "hijacking". Last year, Malaysia telco brand U Mobile launched a search engine marketing campaign, where it poked fun at other telcos in Malaysia including Maxis, Yoodo, Digi, Celcom and Hotlink, and redirected consumers to U Mobile's plans instead.

Upon doing a search of the few telcos listed above, consumers would come across a customised and cheeky ad by U Mobile. For example, when consumers do a Google search of "Hotlink RED plan", they will also see U Mobile's ad which says "Data on red alert?". Similarly, searches for "MaxisONE plan" and "Digi.com.my postpaid phone plan" revealed the phrases "The One plan for unlimited data" and "DiGiler unlimited postpaid plan" respectively.

This is also not the first time telco brands in Singapore has taken a jab at each other. Last year, Circles.Life released a letter on The Straits Times and The New Paper addressed to fellow telcos "red" and "green" in Singapore for "finally recognising that its customers are not happy". Although not stated explicitly, the telcos mentioned seemed to be referring to competing brands, Singtel and StarHub. Instead of advertising its mobile plans and benefits, in the open letter founders (and former subscibers of red and green) Rameez Ansar, Adeel Najam and Abhishek Gupta said they faced lock-in contracts, poor customer service and rigid mobile plans just like the rest of Singaporeans. 

Shortly after, another telco brand Zero Mobile also took a shot at Circles.Life's letter with a version of its own. Published on its website, Zero Mobile said Circles.Life's letter is "preoccupied with alternative facts". In Zero Mobile's open letter, it calls out Circles.Life for saying it's the "world's first digital telco" when in fact it is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) and not the "first one of those" either. "When you build a few towers and stop renting network from an actual telco, then you might become one," the letter added.

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