Bridge the gap between marketing and sales with online marketing

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Practical advice on online marketing to drive sales: improve your Web site, stay user-friendly, email and newsletters, directories, content, banner ads, and budgets.

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With the addition of the Internet as a marketing channel, you probably have questions about what role online marketing or the Internet should play for your company and how much of your marketing budget should be used to fund it.

As a marketing consultant I get to work with dozens of companies selling products or services to businesses. So I’ve had a chance to see what’s working in regard to business-to-business marketing online, and what companies are spending to do it. I’ll share some of what I’ve learned with you.

Start with your Web site

If you’ve got an established Web site, I’ll bet you’re in your third or fourth round of redesigning it by now. When it first appeared, it was probably a messy collection of technical support information and difficult to navigate. Then a predecessor in marketing turned it into an online brochure. Then you added a few bells and whistles to make it hip and easier to use. Now you’re rethinking the purpose of the site (Good!). And you’re probably confused about exactly what to do with it next (I’m not surprised.).

Bridge to success

Think about how your Web site can act as a bridge between your marketing and sales. In other words, use marketing to drive people to your Web site, then use the Web site to give them the information they need and encourage them to take the next step in the buying process by identifying themselves.

As Kristin Zhivago, editor of Marketing Technology, says, “Your Web site isn’t a place, it’s a process.” Think about why people visit your site and try to arrange your web pages and the information they contain in ways that mimic their searching and buying processes.

If your Web site visitors know the product name or number, let them access information about the product that way. If they only know they need a network hub, for instance, let them get a list of hubs with clear specifications and explanations about which are best for certain applications. Or if someone isn’t sure what they need, give them a path that shows all the products or services you offer that are appropriate for their size company.

User-friendly approach

Zhivago also compares your Web site to a swimming pool with a bottomless deep end that you invite people to visit for as long as they want, and dive as deep as they care to. Do you have shallow, top-line information available on your site? If they need more in-depth information, do you make it easy to find?

Think about offers you can make that will entice visitors to identify and qualify themselves. Can you create a free guide for selecting your kinds of products or services? Can you offer a white paper that explains how their kind of operation is successfully using your product or service to solve problems? If so, use it as bait for having your visitors share their names, titles, company names and contact information.

One thing not to do is make visitors sit through a Flash(r) animated commercial every time they visit your site. You may think it’s cool, but it just wastes their time. Use Flash(r) instead for online tutorials and demonstrations.

Email

Sending email to people who have expressed an interest in your products or services is a very cost effective way to market them. Many of my clients are shifting a large portion of their direct mail dollars into email.

However, not everyone would prefer to be contacted by email. So be careful not to be labeled a “spammer” — someone who sends unwanted or unsolicited email. If you have email addresses for your prospects and customers, but they haven’t expressed interest in hearing from your company by email, be sure to politely ask their permission before starting a campaign. I recommend that you ask them how they prefer to be contacted. By email? Fax? Snail mail? Telephone? Most will opt for email, which is what you are hoping for.

Then give some serious thought to what you plan to send and how frequently. Sometimes I feel more like a punching bag than a prospect or customer as I get slugged with too many inappropriate offers too often by companies who think they are doing “customer relationship management.”

Newsletters

My clients report great success with online newsletters — whether published by their own company or when they sponsor or advertise in an industry newsletter published by others. Why? Because the folks receiving the newsletter have opted-in or requested the free subscription and are more likely to read it and notice your ad, article or sponsorship.

However, some people would prefer to receive a printed version of your newsletter instead. So if you want to be able to communicate with these people you need to print and mail some copies in addition to those you email.

Directories

Print directories are handy, and online directories are always up to date. Most directory publishers are publishing both, frequently offering you exposure in both mediums for the same price. Keep in mind that directories are often where buyers look when they are seeking new suppliers and have immediate needs.

Content

Industry Web sites want online content to attract and keep visitors. Many refresh their content daily or weekly. This gives you plenty of opportunities for editorial contributions.

Email the online editor, asking him/her what they are looking for and offering to supply appropriate releases, articles or contacts for possible interviews. You might be surprised at how receptive online editors can be.

Banner ads

Conventional wisdom is that banner ads don’t work. Anti-banner pundits quote statistics — such as only 0.5 percent of the people exposed to banners click through — to support their argument.

Think about it. What miniscule percentage of the people searching at yahoo.com or altavista.com are the decision makers, specifiers or recommenders for your products or services? No wonder the click-through rates are so low!

Your banner ads shouldn’t be there. They should be put in the right places instead — on vertical industry, publication and association Web sites already serving the markets you wish to reach. Then, not only are you creating awareness with the right audience, your click-through rates will increase significantly.

Rather than simply running your banner ads on the home page of the Web site, consider placing your banner ad only in special sections that relate to your products and services or linking them to appropriate keyword searches.

How much to spend

In 2001, I found that most of my business-to-business clients were spending just under 20 percent of their marketing budgets for online marketing tactics like those mentioned above. This year, I expect that number to increase to nearly 35 percent. (Please note that this doesn’t include funding e-commerce initiatives for online order processing, because that usually comes out of sales or operations budgets.)

Where is the money coming from? Occasionally it comes from larger marketing communications budgets. A proven technique for getting a larger budget is to plaster the conference room with all your competitors’ ads, emails, web pages and literature, then invite your boss in to discuss your budget. When he sees everything the competition is doing, he might just have an impulsive response and boost your budget!

However, funding for online marketing usually is reallocated from other media. For example, a number of my clients have shifted half or more of their direct mail budget to email and cut out marginally producing trade shows and secondary advertising buys to free up money for Internet-related expenditures.

Conclusion

Keep in mind that as radio didn’t replace newspapers and TV didn’t replace radio, online marketing isn’t going to replace your print advertising, direct mail, trade shows, public relations and other marketing tools. Instead, it’s another effective way to reach your prospects and customers and should be included in your marketing toolkit.

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