Archive for July, 2012

Nine B2B Marketing Lessons from College Visits

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

I’ve spent several weekends this summer experiencing the excitement and trepidation of visiting colleges with my eldest offspring.

The Campanile at Iowa State UniversityThe adventures have been eye-opening (college life has changed a lot since the 90s) and, sitting late last week in another university presentation, it occurred to me that there are lessons to be learned for social media marketers from the way colleges handle this process: (at least) nine of them.

One advantage that university marketers have over their most of their b2b counterparts in optimizing their programs is scale; colleges can learn from and fine-tune their messages and marketing processes based on thousands of interactions each year. Only the largest b2b enterprises approach that level of sales activity. So, here are several lessons b2b marketers can take from that high-volume learning.

1. Provide prospects with a “guided tour.” On college tours, representatives of the university show you around different buildings and classrooms, explaining key features along the way, and always end the walk by telling you where/how you can find more information.

B2b buyers probably won’t come to your office in droves, but you can provide them with a similar experience online. Design your website to guide prospects through your different product and service offerings. Content should focus on compelling high-level messages, but always provide the opportunity to “learn more” by drilling into detailed functional specifications for those who really want that level of detail.

2. Focus on your differentiators. Every university offers certain services (flexible meal plans, for example) so these features tend to be touched on lightly. The focus is always on what sets the campus apart, for example the innovative use of technology in the classroom at Purdue or the one-of-a-kind tornado simulator at Iowa State University.

For b2b marketers, it’s crucial to communicate those messages about your products and/or services that include words like “only,” “first,” “largest,” “fastest,” “most,” etc.. Just be sure to back up these statements with facts, examples and demonstrations.

3. Anticipate questions. Fielding questions from thousands of prospective students each year enables college marketers to integrate answers to most common questions into their web content, brochures and presentations.

This can be more challenging for smaller b2b companies, and particularly for startups. Marketers need to take advantage of every customer and prospect interaction as well as tapping the experiences of sales and customer service personnel to develop content and materials that address the most common questions in their markets.

4. Make it easy for prospects to ask additional questions. College presenters and tour guides encourage questions at almost any time.

B2b vendors should do the same on their websites through features like site search, FAQs, prominent and easy-to-find phone numbers and email addresses, social media links, and interactive capabilities beyond online chat. Like a college tour guide, a b2b website should encourage dialog and make it easy to engage.

5. Address price straightforwardly—but find ways to avoid “sticker shock.”  College is expensive, very expensive, yet most universities do provide easy-to-find cost data broken out by the main categories of tuition, books, and room & board. But they often preface this information with a page covering topics like financial aid, scholarships and student employment.

B2b marketers can’t entice buyers with promises of government financial aid, of course, but there several other tactics that can be employed to minimize price objections, such as:

  • • Offer your product in a modular fashion, so it can be purchased and implemented one affordable piece at a time.
  • • Lead with proof of compelling ROI, or an ROI calculator to enable prospects to do their own calculations
  • • Provide products and services in a mix-and-match, a la carte fashion, enabling buyers to purchase only what they really need.
  • • Offer different levels of product/service bundles, e.g., Basic, Premium and Enterprise.
  • • Offer discounts based on organization type (e.g., for educational institutions and non-profits), based on volume, or based on pre-payment.
  • • If your pricing model is necessarily complex, simplify presentation for the web by providing a wide range with a narrower “most cost” range, similar to the way Mack Collier explains the cost of social media.
  • • Provide terms such as buy vs. rent offerings, a monthly fee or payment plan, or financing offers (car companies do a great job with this, advertising their vehicles as costing $x per month rather than showing the sticker price).

6. Address cultural as well as functional issues. Recognizing that university life is about the experience as well the education, college tour guides spend as much time talking about campus life as they do about academics, covering topics like housing, food, amenities (green spaces, gym access), local shops and restaurants, clubs and activities, and sports (intramural and spectator).

Similarly, many b2b purchases aren’t one-off transactions but rather the start of a (hopefully long-term) relationship. So tell prospective not just about product features but also about what it’s like to be your customer. For example, do you offer an online support and discussion community just for customers? How do you keep your customers informed of product updates, patches and new features? What kind of environmental and sustainability initiatives do you have in place? In other words, communicate not only about what you sell but also about what kind of company you are, and why prospective buyers should want to do business with you.

7. Use multimedia. College tour guides excel at mixing demonstrations, graphics, photos and video into their presentations.

Though rich media is nothing new, many b2b websites are still predominantly text. Make your site stand out and communicate more effectively by incorporating diagrams, infographics, animation, photos, video and other media types.

8. Appeal to both the “buyer” and the “check writer.” College representatives make sure to address the concerns of both their “functional buyers” (students) and the “economic buyers” (usually parents) by pointing out topics like financial aid (see above), placement rates and on-campus job fairs.

B2b marketers similarly need to address multiple audiences, often including management (cost reductions, improvements in operations, new capabilities), users (ease of use, built-in help, simplified workflow), the IT department (ease of integration, minimal implementation requirements) and finance / executive management (increased efficiency, lower costs, higher revenue).

9. Let your customers speak for you. Most of the tour guides and many of the presenters are students; who better to “sell” the university to potential incoming freshmen than next year’s upperclassmen? Students naturally understand the concerns and interests of their peers, and are seen as highly credible and knowledgeable sources of information.

Developing case studies and collecting testimonials can sometimes be challenging in the b2b world due to corporate policies about endorsing vendors, but even in situations where your customers can’t sing your praises directly, there are ways to let them “speak” to prospective buyers on your behalf.

If you find yourself stuck in rut with your b2b marketing, recycling the same-old same-old tactics, take a look outside your industry inspiration. After all, as many of us remember from our college experiences: some of the most important learning happens outside the classroom.

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Seven Common AdWords Mistakes to Avoid

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

As Google’s standard search results page has evolved from displaying ten organic links on the left and eight ads on the right to a more varied page (see example below), featuring more or fewer ads and different media types depending on the nature of the search, the old pattern of organic results receiving 70%-85% of all clicks has also gone by the wayside.

Paid versus Organic Search Results on Google

 

In fact, recent WordStream research highlighted on eStrategy Trends reveals that, for keyword phrases with “high commercial intent,” almost two-thirds of all clicks are now on paid ads. For these types of queries, on average, 41% of clicks go to the top three (ad) spots while just 9% are captured by the top organic search result.

65% of Clicks on Commercial Searches Go to Paid Search AdsClearly, Google has been successful at shifting more traffic to paid results (which is where Google earns 97% of its revenue). That makes AdWords a critical component for any company seeking to dominate the first page of search results. Yet I often hear from prospective or new clients that they have used Google AdWords in the past and stopped because it “didn’t work” for their business.

Digging a bit deeper, it usually turns out it wasn’t the tactic that was ineffective, but rather the execution of the AdWords or other search engine marketing (SEM) program. SEM can be a productive channel for selling virtually anything more expensive than a candy bar and less costly than a commercial jet. Here then are seven common mistakes to avoid when setting up and optimizing an AdWords campaign. Steering clear of these potholes and using SEM best practices greatly increases the odds of success with AdWords.

1. Using both search and Google’s content network right away. Content network ads perform very differently from search ads and need to be managed separately, with their own budget and unique ad copy. It’s best to use search on its own for a while to determine which keywords, calls to action (CTAs) and ad messages are most effective before expanding advertising to the content network.

2. Not testing. Too often, campaigns are set up with an initial list of keyword phrases, a single static bid for all keywords, a single ad, and a single landing page. Then, if that particular combination of elements doesn’t produce great results, AdWords is deemed a failure. But it’s extremely rare for a campaign to produce optimal results right out of the gate, and therefore critical to test every element of the campaign on an ongoing basis to continually improve results. Of course, sometimes advertisers do test and still fail to meet objectives because of the next mistake to avoid, which is…

3. Not understanding the analytics. Marketers too often get hung up on the wrong objectives, like maximizing click-through rate (CTR) or minimizing the average cost per click (CPC). True, all other things being equal, a higher CTR and lower CPC are good things, as they mean more clicks for fewer dollars, but they should not be the primary focus. The single most important metric in a paid search campaign is cost per lead (CPL) (sometimes alternatively referred to as cost per acquisition or CPA).

A keyword with a low CTR and a $10.00 CPC may be much more valuable than another with a high CTR and $1.00 CPC if the former converts at a significantly higher rate than the latter, thereby producing conversions (generally leads or sales) at a lower CPL.

4. Using the wrong keywords. No matter how extensive the upfront keyword research is, the initial list compiled for an AdWords campaign will very rarely be optimal. And even if the list turns out to be very solid, it is likely to change over time as market and search trends change, so ongoing monitoring and optimization remains imperative. Keywords with a high conversion rate should be bid up into one of the top ad spots. Keywords with a lower, but still respectable, CPA should be bid with a target of making a low ad spot on page one of search results. Keywords with a very low CTR or quality score should be re-examined. And “campaign killer” keywords—those that produce lots of clicks and therefore lots of cost, but few if any conversions—should be identified and deleted as quickly as possible.

5. Writing poor ad ad copy. Even when using best practices for writing search ad copy, it’s impossible to know exactly what combination of words within the scant 95-characters permitted by AdWords will resonate most effectively with your audience. That makes it essential to test multiple ads, and to continue replacing the poorest-performing ads with new variants in order to optimize results over time.

6. Not dayparting. Dayparting is simply the practice of scheduling ads to run during certain hours of the day and not during other hours. It’s surprising how often this is overlooked, and ads are simply set to run 24/7. Running ads at 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday may make sense for open-all-night restaurant, but is highly unlikely to produce productive clicks for an enterprise software vendor.

7. Poor CTA or landing page design. If a landing page is attracting clicks from relevant keywords but few of those are converting into sales or leads, the problem could be that either the call to action itself isn’t appealing (for example, a white paper download may be more appealing to prospects than a free trial), or that the landing page design isn’t effective (e.g., too much or too little copy, too many form fields, or unnecessarily complex layout). There’s no way to know which is the culprit without testing multiple CTAs and tweaking landing page design to optimize conversions.

Google AdWords and other SEM programs may not be ideal for every company. But with search results page display changes being made by Google and other search engines to emphasize paid results over organic, at least for “commercial” searches, it’s important for any business that relies on online lead generation or sales to evaluate.

Only by avoiding common AdWords mistakes, following established best practices and testing, testing, testing can businesses be sure whether shortcomings in AdWords results are a problem with the medium itself—or with the execution of those programs.

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What Could Kill Google and Facebook

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Imagine that you walk into a restaurant and there’s no one there to take your order. You can’t even find anyone working in the place. Or you are waited on and place your order, but have to repeat it to three different people, because the servers won’t talk to each other. Or you’re told shortly after placing your order that you’ll need to choose a different item, because the menu has changed in the last five minutes. Twice.

Lousy Service Could Kill FacebookYou’d probably rip the place on every review site you can think of and then never return to that establishment. Yet we tolerate exactly that type of behavior from leading search and social media sites every day, and even reward them with growing traffic and more of our precious time. Why?

A potential Google killer, Facebook killer or even Twitter killer may not do it with superior technology, but simply with a better user experience.

Facebook

One of the biggest complaints about Facebook is of course its constantly changing interface, and its convoluted privacy settings have also repeatedly come under fire (as have changes to its privacy settings). The constant changes are a problem for brands not only due to the expense of keeping up to date, but also because the newest (Timeline) layout has reduced tab engagement.But the most appalling shortcoming of the world’s most popular social network may be how un-social it is.

Granted, even with its never-ending UI changes, Facebook is easy enough to use even for technophobic grandmas. But imagine that you did have a question, or something wasn’t working quite right, and you wanted to contact Facebook for assistance. Try this: go to Facebook and see how long it takes you to find any way to contact the company: phone number, email address, even a fax number. I’ll wait. Let us know in the comments below how long it took.

Given these issues, it’s little wonder that Facebook has the lowest user satisfaction rating of all the major social media sites. And Facebook’s size may be no defense against ultimate demise; it wasn’t all that long ago the MySpace was the largest social network, and the experience of social news site Digg—once valued at $100 million but sold recently for just 5% of that—is a cautionary tale.

Google

Google not only accounts for 85% of all web searches but controls an astounding 44% of the global online advertising market. It’s the 800-pound gorilla of the web, and acts like it with increasing frequency.

The search giant has annoyed everyday users with moves like dropping popular tools (Picnik, Knol, Gears) and presenting search challenges when it sees an “excessive” volume of searches from a single IP address (yes, this was designed to thwart automated rank-checking tools—though it isn’t clear why those are a problem—but can be triggered by a much lower volume of searches; my daughter has had these thrown up while doing research for high school English papers).

Google has thumbed its nose at businesses, advertisers and SEO professionals as well through a series of recent moves like hiding a significant share of keyword data in the “not provided” category within Google Analytics, eliminating the Website Optimizer tool in AdWords, and the recent Panda and Penguin algorithm updates, which were designed to eliminate webspam but caught a lot of innocent sites in their wake.

Twitter

The leading micro-blogging tool isn’t as friendly to other web services as its cute little bluebird icon would make it appear. Last year it stopped sharing tweet data with Google (bad for the SEO results of Twitter users) and more recently the company eliminated the ability to automatically share tweets on LinkedIn. And after six years, the platform still doesn’t offer simple and obvious functions like the ability to download one’s followers and tweet history.

These web giants are assuming we’re so addicted to their services that we won’t quit or go elsewhere, no matter what they do, change, or eliminate. But the next Google killer or Facebook killer may very well not be a better search engine or social network, but simply one that treats its users with respect. And listens.

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How Will Web Hosts Prepare For Upcoming Internet Security Bills?

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Guest post.

Security of information starts with the individual. But as more and more of us are relying on web hosting companies and the cloud to store our data, the responsibility for the safety and security of data extends to many people. The US Congress has been active in network security and are crafting legislation that will impact the business of hosting companies.

Two bills will have the most impact on us: the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 and the SECURE IT Act.

How Pending Bills will Affect Internet SecurityThe Cybersecurity Act

The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 is concerned with potential attacks on critical networks that support the US infrastructure. Examples of these are the air traffic control system and electrical power grids. Companies that manage these networks would have to prove that they are following a level of security that protects these resources from a cyber attack. Regulatory groups would be created to oversee these requirements.

The SECURE IT Act

The SECURE IT Act specifies ways that businesses and government can share information more readily. There is no regulatory system to manage this. There will be incentives to share information with the federal government about any potential cyber threats detected. There are also a number of criminal penalties defined for various cyber crimes such as stealing passwords or damaging important infrastructure systems.

While these two bills have similar goals, the major difference is in the use of government regulation to manage the process. Proponents of larger government control prefer the Cybersecurity Act of 2012. Others, including Sen. John McCain, the major sponsor of SECURE IT, want less government intervention and intrusion into civil rights.

Their Effects

In light of some form of cyber regulation being put into place, web hosting companies should position themselves to be ready to respond. Users of hosting companies should question their vendors about their plans. Users with web hosting from Yahoo or GoDaddy will probably find that these large companies are already preparing or currently have processes in place. Smaller companies may have a lot of work to do.

How Businesses Are Preparing

SECURE IT means that data will be shared in ways that could result in private information being given to the government. There is no stipulation that the information be “scrubbed” of personal identities. In other words, names, addresses and various ID’s could be given to government entities. A conscientious web hosting company will create procedures to remove that type of information from the data before it is shared, since it is not required to be there. Smaller, low budget companies may decide the financial impact is too great and just send the data through as is.

Under the SECURE IT Act, information shared with the government must also be shared with the military branch, including Homeland Security and the NSA. This is another reason that web hosting companies should remove private information from the stream before passing it on to these agencies.

Other privacy contracts, like the ones you may have agreed to when you hired a web hosting company, are overridden by SECURE IT. It is important that these companies include provisions in their privacy contracts that specify how they will handle the data sharing with the government.

Fair Uses

One of the biggest concerns is that in SECURE IT, information that has been shared may be used in the investigation of a crime, even if it is not considered a cyber threat. By sharing private information, citizens may be put at risk of investigation. Again, this is a good reason to check with your hosting company. Even if you have web hosting from Yahoo or another large company, make sure that they will make the effort to protect your private information before sharing it with the government.

The intention of these bills is good. They hope to protect valuable US infrastructure from cyber attacks which are becoming an increasing threat. The inclusions in these bills, however, may put individual rights at risk. Find out from your web hosting vendor how they will address these requirements and continue to protect your valuable data.

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B2B Testimonials: Seven Things to Do When Clients Won’t (or Can’t) Talk

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Recommendations and reviews are common in the consumer world, where customers routinely yelp, buzz and epine about everything from air conditioners to yard ornaments. Search for any local restaurant, retailer or other establishment and customer reviews are almost certain to be featured prominently in the results. Online shopping sites host reviews of products and sellers, and Angie’s List built an improbable business on ratings of household services companies.

What to Do When Your B2B Clients Can't Provide Testimonials

Image credit: Carla Zanoni

But obtaining and publishing client ratings and reviews is much more difficult in the b2b world. This is particularly true when the vendor is relatively small compared to the client organization. Many large companies and government agencies refuse to provide testimonials, authorize news releases or participate in case studies simply as a matter of policy. Some even go so far as to write restrictions on any sort of publicity into their purchase agreements, or fire employees who publicly endorse vendor suppliers.

Some companies view their selection of vendors, and their particular methods of using those vendors’ products, as a competitive advantage and so don’t want to reveal their choices or methods to other market players.

And some organizations refuse to endorse vendors out of legal, regulatory or security concerns. For example, every bank hires security consultants to test its systems. But you’ll never read about a bank president saying, “We’re so pleased with the services of XYZ Security. They helped us identify some online vulnerabilities that could have cost our customers millions of dollars!” Not gonna happen. It occurs every day, but no one is going to talk about it.

So, what can you do if you’re a b2b marketer who has an abundance of delighted clients, none of whom can provide public endorsement? Here are seven possible tactics.

Blind case studies: write those case studies, just use generic descriptors (e.g., “a large telecommunications firm”) in place of the actual client name (e.g., AT&T or Verizon). Many clients will even agree to provide information about their implementation and results (ROI, cost savings, time savings, etc.) as long as neither they as individuals or the organization are identified.

These may not seem as powerful as “named” case studies (particularly when the client is a well-known brand), but other prospective buyers get this and will still attach credibility to the case studies—they probably have similar policies about publicly endorsing vendors within their own organizations.

Use cases: these are variations of case studies, focusing on a non-obvious use of a product or service rather than a particular customer experience. For example, if you sell software that is normally used by engineering departments but can also improve operations and reduce costs in human resources functions, a use case is an excellent way to describe that application, pulling in results from real-world customers—just, again, not naming them specifically.

Multi-deal news releases: private companies typically don’t reveal financial results, and if large customers won’t consent to any publicity, how can you earn the credibility that goes with strong business performance? One method is to periodically publish news releases with high-level details of recent customer wins. You can even include details like how you were selected over several other vendors or the types of results that a particular (described, but unnamed) customer organization expects to achieve with your product/service, based on the experience of similar customers.

Use statistics: write about your clients as a group rather then individual entities, for example: implementing your 1,000th customer system, hitting the  1 million user mark, or achieving 98% customer satisfaction. Or publish collective customer results, such as cumulative cost savings, online threats thwarted, transactions accurately processed, etc. If possible, get third-party validation for your numbers or offer to share your methodology confidentially in specific sales situations.

Ask for the possible: even clients who can’t agree to case studies or news releases may be willing to help in other ways, such as presenting at customer events, providing private references as part of sales cycles, or serving as internal champions helping to “sell” your product or service to other departments or locations within their own organization.

Build a thriving social network: encourage your clients to follow you on Twitter, like you on Facebook, and connect on LinkedIn. Then give them a reason to monitor and participate in these networks, e.g. by sharing helpful product usage tips and stories as part of your content mix. Prospective clients will check you out on social networks; the quantity and quality of interaction in those venues says a lot about your responsiveness as well as client enthusiasm.

Create a private customer community: again, clients who can’t speak publicly may be much more open within a controlled environment. If your product is one where customers are able to support each other, a private social community is a great way to get them talking. This doesn’t generally support new deals, but can help expand your sales within existing client organizations.

The key is to be creative. If you’ve got clients willing but not permitted to publicly sing your praises, find other ways to let their messages—even if not their specific voices—be heard.

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