How to Avoid Search Budget Cannibalization For A Better Share Of Spend

In my 18+ years in search marketing, one thing I’ve seen continuously is shared budgets.

When I ask the advertiser why, I always get a similar answer: “We have a set limited budget, and this is the best way for us to fund everything.”

That is a response I get from mom-and-pop operations and SMBs, all the way up to major holding company ad agencies and Fortune 100 enterprise brands.

The reality is, sometimes this approach works fine, and other times you are inadvertently shooting yourself in the foot, as your shared spend ends up limiting your potential return.

The Situation

The fact is a shared budget (often called a portfolio budget) does, in fact, help bandwidth-strapped operations (i.e., literally every marketing team on Earth) in avoiding overspending in a single engine.

Budget Sharing Between CampaignsImage from author, August 2023

However, a shared budget rewards the high-volume or high-demand elements first.

It’s essentially like attempting to get Taylor Swift tickets – those who come in fast and with deep pockets get the tickets, and everyone else loses out.

The Impact

This is cute until you realize you have a low conversion rate-producing campaign that has high volume in traffic, sharing a budget with a campaign that has a low demand in traffic but is producing a high conversion rate.

Thus, the underproducing but high-volume campaign will take a disproportionate amount of the budget based on daily demand, potentially diminishing the opportunity or amount of time the high-producing campaign can show (as viewed in Impression Share and Impression Lost to Budget).

This is often referred to as budget cannibalization.

Or when one entity takes a disproportionate amount of the total allotted budget against the entities it shares the funds with.

When one campaign cannibalizes the spend of a shared budgetWhen one campaign cannibalizes the spend of a shared budget.

This, in turn, reduces the aggregate performance (which can only be looked at as aggregate because they share the budget) of the campaigns sharing the budget.

To put this in a different perspective: This is like claiming all New York NFL teams are mediocre at best because the Jets haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, despite the fact the Bills and Giants both went into the playoffs in 2022.

NY shares an NFL affiliation, but one entity is discouraging the confidence as it brings down the rest.

The Fallout

If you’ve read any of the above, this should be fairly straightforward, but to lay it out nicely:

You treated two campaigns like they were equals and told them to share some money evenly.

This potentially will have left you with a missed opportunity for traffic and conversions.

The Fix

I should note that every operation is different. Some may not fall into this scenario, and some will – I see it more often in smaller agencies and brands that are strapped for bandwidth.

My personal preference, and I exercise this approach whenever I can, is to have standalone, daily budget caps by the individual campaign.

Note: I said daily. If this campaign is ongoing or evergreen, don’t use a campaign total; it’ll become a pain in the butt for you later. Only use campaign total for short campaign flights with predefined end dates.

From there, I work manually to keep the budgets fluid between campaigns – meaning that I will manually shift funds between campaigns. If one is outperforming another and can take on more budget, then I will make the necessary shift.

We make decisions on budget migration through manual tracking (which I prefer, though there are plenty of ways to do it) of spend pacing. I like to do this daily as it keeps us fresh, but you’ll know the right interval for your team.

Then compare the campaigns against which campaigns are meeting or exceeding our objectives vs. those that are underproducing against the objectives.

When Are Shared Budgets Appropriate?

This is a bit subjective, but there are times when it can become appropriate.

One of the more common ones is when you’ve split your campaigns by devices (i.e., Campaign 1 is mobile-only, and Campaign 2 is desktop-only).

Here, presumably, the keywords, assets, and targeting are all the same, but it just so happens you have a justified reason to split the campaigns. So having the campaigns share a budget is fine.

But you should closely monitor performance, as mobile often takes the lion’s share of traffic and may cause campaign cannibalization of desktop. (This was less of a problem back in the day when mobile cost per click (CPCs) were significantly lower than desktop, but 55%-65% of the total traffic.)

This can also be applicable when multiple campaigns have the same assets and targeting but are splintered by match type at the campaign level – which, believe it or not, is still a common practice.

A shared budget works fine, and in theory, it would replicate the situation if you split the match types in a single campaign but at the ad group level.

The only caveat is that broad match will need to be watched like a hawk, as that often tends to be a driving force of search volume.

Another one is when using a portfolio bid strategy. When a group of campaigns share a single goal, and there is no disproportionate demand in volume, they can be put into a shared bid strategy.

This is a time when using a shared budget makes sense, as all elements are working together for a common goal (sort of like a Performance Max approach with the different ad units).

Shared budget with portfolio bid strategyShared budget with portfolio bid strategy.

The Takeaway

First, a friendly reminder that shared budgets aren’t even applicable to all campaigns (i.e., campaigns in experiments or Performance Max don’t qualify to use them).

Next, if you are using shared budgets: before you go and make changes to opt out of them after reading this inspirational article, you must first do some analysis.

In campaigns using a shared budget, look at things like:

  • Is one campaign considerably outperforming another one in terms of return?
  • Is one campaign consuming a disproportionate amount of the budget (and not the top performer of those who share the budget)?
  • Do you have the bandwidth to manage and maintain individual campaign budgets? Always calculate the cost of manpower when doing return analysis.
  • If they have a portfolio bid strategy, is the budget also shared?

If you’ve done this, and decided it would benefit you to try an individual budget over a shared one, then absolutely proceed and test it out.

Just keep in mind that you may see an improvement in your target campaign but run the risk of an adverse impact on the other campaigns that shared the budget.

Happy search marketing!

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Featured Image: one photo/Shutterstock

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