Sunday, July 31, 2011

How To Generate Leads Without Pushing Products

My friend George owns a mega insurance brokerage, as well as a ridiculous number of apartment buildings in LA.  His success formula is very simple: "I never sell, I help people buy."

His agents are probably the most relaxed group of sales people I have ever met.  They never "close hard." Instead, they spend time understanding prospects' needs, then explain why certain plans would work better.  The conversion ratio is very high.  So is his referral business.  Below are my recommendations on applying this principle to online content strategy execution:

1.  Great Content.   Create relevant and interesting content that helps prospects understanding  and solving their challenges.  Brief, interesting articles / blog entries several times a week can help transforming your site into an industry "water cooler," where people can find news and practical information on their challenges and the ways to solve them.

2.  Content Mix.  Try to have a mix between industry news, industry "guest speaker" opinions / interviews, customer stories (not too product focused), industry event commentaries and "non-marketing articles".  This will provide a variety necessary for visitors to stay interested in keeping coming.

3.  "Non-marketing Articles".  Find a specific challenge that your market really cares about and your products help to solve.  Write about this challenge and best practices for solving it.  Then talk about the approach your company took to solving it and why.  This should be an "approach discussion," and not a product pitch.  Not mentioning the product name often is a good idea at this stage.  At the end of the article, you can provide a link to solutions and tools.  That link will lead to a landing page with product info and a call to action.  This way your article is credible, interesting, and actionable.  And it is not pushing products.

4.  Landing Page.  The landing page picks up the discussion and shows how your product or service solves this specific problem in details.  Later, you can add other features that you think the reader may find interesting.   Finish the page with a call to action, such as a free trial, purchasing options, etc.

5.  Promote The Content.  Since the article is fairly neutral and is not talking about products, you can promote it at industry communities, social media and forums, generating a lot of traffic to your web site that you can turn into leads, opportunities and sales.

To summarize, with this approach your prospects are learning more about their challenges, ways to solve them.  Once they decided on buying your product, they feel like they are making a purchase decision vs. somebody forcing them into buying something they may not need, understand or may not be ready to buy.  So, they are more enthusiastic and excited about their decisions and your products they are buying.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

5 Practical Steps For Increasing Website Conversion Rate

Congratulations!  Your web traffic is good!   Now what?  How do you convert visitors into business?  The 5 approaches below came as a result of my own experience of running marketing in several companies, as well as from the practical feedback from my marketing colleagues.

1.  Understand your traffic.  Most likely your web traffic is coming from many different sources.  For example, some people may be visiting your site as a result of reading a blog; some - from a banner ad at a community forum; some may be responding to an email.  Each traffic type has unique characteristics that are important to understand:

  • Function.  IT Manager vs. CIO vs. BU Manager, etc.
  • Buying cycle.  Research phase (traffic source: just read a magazine article, realized had the same challenge) vs. shopping for a solution (source: read a customer testimonial at an industry forum while looking for a solution to a known problem) vs. ready to buy (source: responding to a price promotion.)
  • Topic / Trigger.  Visitors came to the web site after reading a blog entry on a nasty Trojan Horse vs. an article about disaster recovery vs. a  promotion on your product, etc.  

2.  Multiple landing pages.  Each traffic type requires a unique conversation with a category of prospects  (based on function, topic, etc).

For example, let's say you have a group of IT managers that came to your web site as a result of reading a blog entry on the complexity of managing file servers.  Sending them to the main page may disrupt that conversation.  Most of them may feel tricked and will probably end up leaving.  Instead, a simple landing page continuing the discussion, perhaps explaining how this complexity can be solved with a practical implementation, would retain them and encourage to continue exploring the site.

It is important to have as many landing pages as necessary for a meaningful traffic segmentation (based on unique types of conversations) and driving them to a logical conclusion (more info, trial, contact, purchase, etc.)  Many content management and marketing automation tools (like Marketo,) can help in accomplishing this quickly and easily.

3.  Unique messages.  Each landing page requires a specific message to continue the unique conversation started at the lead generation phase.  The message should take into account all the factors from above.

For example, if visitors are coming as a result of reading an article on the risk management in CIO Magazine, you want a landing page with an "executive" look and feel, focused on best practices for solving this problem, and not getting into too many technical details.  It is also a good practice to speak to several of your CIO customers to craft this message.

For a number of webmasters coming from a blog entry on solving Apache web server performance issues, you may want to have a landing page that is be fairly technical and specific.  Again, I would suggest talking to a couple of webmaster customers to craft the message.

4.  Unique elements.  You probably already have a collection of elements, such as videos, podcasts, white papers, blogs, customer testimonials, etc.

Each landing page needs the elements that are appropriate for its audience.  The best way to find right elements is to talk to your existing customers fitting the profile.  This can be an eye opening experience.

For example, one of my customers told me that most of the elements we were planning were irrelevant for him.  He told us that many SMB IT Managers typically look for product screenshots first.  If they like them, they continue browsing.  After verifying this point with a few other customers with the same profile, we ended up giving screenshots a very prominent position on the page.  Very quickly it became the most visited element for the whole site.  The landing page ended up having a great conversion rate.

Another very successful element we added as a result of a direct customer feedback was a "sandbox" for a cloud product we were marketing, where IT managers could play with the product in a "sandbox" environment.

5. Unique call to action.  For this step, it is important to understand prospects' phase in the buying cycle.  If they are just researching, a big red "BUY NOW" button will most likely turn them off.  However, "watch a video" or a "free trial" may work well for them.  Alternatively, if the traffic is coming as a response to your "30% off" promotion, you may want to have the "buy" button in a more prominent location.

These are just 5 ways of increasing your web site conversion rates.  These steps require a bit more planning and execution from your marketing team than usual.  However the conversion rates and revenue results are well worth it.  

There are important steps like monitoring, measuring, and adjusting pages and campaigns that I did not discuss in this entry.  I will try to cover these in a future hack marketing blog entry.

Please feel free to leave your comments and suggestions of other conversion approaches that have worked for you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Microsoft's Social Network Strategy?

Microsoft has been suspiciously absent from the whole social networking game.  That is very much unlike them.  There are several trends that should  drive Microsoft to drastic steps in establishing  strong presence in social networking space... fast.

1. Windows OS is becoming less and less essential with the emergence of Apple, tablets, and smartphones.   More and more businesses are using MacBooks instead of PCs; Apple is winning in the tablet space; Windows is way behind in mobile devices, dominated by iPhone and Android.

2. Office is becoming less relevant too with the emergence of Google Docs and similar free or low cost cloud-based services.  Yes, many of these services lack all fancy Office features, but majority of people never use them anyway.

3. Internet users are becoming less aware of Microsoft too.  IE is being pushed by Firefox, Chrome and Safari.  Bing  is interesting, but not dominant.  Microsoft created a lot of hype on its cloud, but Azure or their other offerings are not dominant - neither in business space, not in consumer.

4.  "VOS".  Daily communications are steadily moving to social networks, both on personal and business levels.  Email is moving to the cloud.  A lot of personal applications are moving to mobile devices and social networks - consumers complete micro-purchases on AppStore, Android Market, Facebook credits for games, etc.  Business apps are moving to the cloud, making the client OS unimportant.

To summarize, Social Networks are becoming the center of consumer computing experience, sort of a "virtual consumer OS."  And all they require are a computing hardware, a browser and an Internet connection.  Microsoft is not dominant in any of these areas.

Google is steadily taking over the "Virtual OS" space.  This has to be a mortal threat to Microsoft.  It has to worry Microsoft.  The questions is, "what is Microsoft doing about it?"  Well, for starters there was recently a "leak" on that subject.

But Microsoft today is not the same fighting machine it used to be.  During the last two decades, Microsoft was a staple of computing.  Competing against them was never a good experience.  It got quite a few companies and industries destroyed.  However, Microsoft went from being an innovator that revolutionized computing to a competition destruction machine to a somewhat civilized corporation to a huge company that is becoming too slow, unfocused, decentralized and stuck in the past.

On the other side, it still has lots of money, really good talent (I know quite a few amazing professionals there) and a huge presence both in the consumer and business space.  I would use that as entry point for its social platforms.

DISCLAIMER!  Back seat driver perspective.  I would start with Outlook.  Why not create a native and rich Web UI for Outlook that would integrate really nicely with Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+?  It would transform into a web app that provides business users with an integrated and seamless communication experience that includes email, social networks and documents creation / cloud storage / sharing.  Since many corporate users still "have to" use Outlook, this would benefit them in a way of simplicity - they wouldn't need to switch between applications and services.  It would also benefit Microsoft by making Outlook "stickier" and increasing the usage of IE and Office.

Microsoft could also create a light version of it for consumers.  Do I dare to say a "free," or a "freemium" version for less technology-savvy consumers (that don't buy MS Office anyway, so not much will be cannibalized.)   This would become a gateway to social / cloud experience.  Maybe even as a part of Windows UI in the future.  Having lots of interesting components, Microsoft could offer certain nice to have components as upgrades.  For example, from a free cloud word processor or a MS Word in the cloud.

Then I would grow the business by M&A.  LinkedIn could be an interesting target to build on the business space.

Of course, this is me thinking out loud.  There are many smart folks at Microsoft that may be working on similar functionality as I am writing this.  It is never that easy for a large corporation to switch gears in a dramatic way.  But soon Microsoft will have to make a drastic move or risk becoming a dinosaur.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Is "Good Enough" marketing good enough?

The "good enough" concept is valid and important in many areas, including product management.  There is never a perfect product, so a good product manager knows when the product is "good enough" and ready.  This is based on many factors, such as customer feedback, quality, R&D reality, roadmaps, competitive data, etc.  This subject is taught  in Pragmatic Marketing and is widely used in most PM organizations today.

But does this principle work in other marketing areas?  Not in my experience.  For example, the difference between "good enough" and great for PPC and SEO is drastic.  Lots of PPC campaigns never work and exec teams stop believing in these as valid lead gen tools because marketing never puts the right level of effort on finding out what are the exact keywords their prospects use at different buying stages, from the research to purchase.  This is not an easy process.  And good enough usually = failure.  This is where you use "Hack Marketing" to find the right keywords.  The results of these extra steps are the difference between success and failure of PPC and SEO.

The same goes with the rest of messaging.  It really pays to conduct research and understand what are the exact words customers and prospects use.  There is no "good enough" here.  For example, we changed one word describing how the product category is referred based on customer feedback.  Lead gen campaign results shot up 67% in one week.

Finally, "good enough" marketing materials in my experience are useless.  I rather have a great web site with all the right messaging and use it as the major marketing tool instead of  tens of mediocre white papers just because it is "the right thing to do" and "everybody does it."

So is "good enough" marketing good enough?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Google+... Why does it matter to marketing professionals?

Google+ means duopoly.  Facebook's honeymoon is over.  It has a real competitor now.  The "social media" industry took another step to its maturity.  It is now Google+ vs. Facebook.  Just like Microsoft vs. Apple.  Or Toyota vs. Honda.  USA vs. USSR.

Google+ can put an end to the fragmentation in social networks.  Until now, we had Facebook for personal connections and LinkedIn for professional ones.  And most people have been separating personal and business contacts.

Google+ allows combining all your contacts in one place, organized in various "circles", like family, friends, soccer teammates, fraternity buddies, security community, blog audiences, etc.  Then you can communicate with all these circles from one command and control center.

Google+ gives us a new way to simplify and unite connections, social networking, as well as conducting business, e.g. creating user communities, doing research, managing forums, blogs, etc.  It also becomes another way to market - reach target markets, customers, partners, communicate with remote teams, generate leads / demand.

Given Google+ adoption rate stays high, it would be critical for business and marketing professionals  embracing and using it.  The exciting part is that it gives new and creative ways of reaching our audiences, which can turn into a competitive advantage for early adopters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

6 Ways To Avoid Fluff in Your Marketing Materials

FLUFF is one of my pet peeves. Why use complicated words that add up into phrases that mean nothing?  Words like leverage, easy, flexible, scaleable, secure, ROI, TCO.   They demonstrate lack of subject knowledge and discourage the target audience from reading these documents / web sites / blogs.

Here is an example I just found on a web site of a well known vendor.  "...(product) is the foundation for the CIO's and IT leadership team's performance system. It features a cascaded optimization system, the industry's deepest and broadest insight into IT-controlled assets, and a secure, comprehensive, operational environment for a hybrid world."

What?  A "hybrid world?"  Wasted words.  I counted 19 words that are just fluff and mean nothing.  Wasted space.  Wasted time and budgets.  There are better and more practical ways of writing marketing materials that people understand and read.  My suggestions are below:

1.  Know your audience.  Understand who exactly is your audience.  Which industry?  What is the main function of your target reader?  What are their pressures and challenges?  What are their titles and reporting structures?  Their internal customers.  Demographics.  Internal politics, etc.

2.  Understand the lingo your audience uses.  Talk to your customers directly.  Ask how are they using your product.  Don't assume you know the words they use.  For example, you would fail if you used "IT words" with process engineers in Electric Power companies.  When marketing cyber security to Power and Energy, we had to change about 80% of our marketing materials.  But the results were amazing - almost every IT department we contacted, wanted to talk to us.  Even at the meetings, we were treated like peers rather than vendors.

3.  Simplify.  Read what you wrote out loud.  Pretend you are presenting in person to your target audience.  Keep on rewriting until the text flows easily and you would have no problem verbally presenting it.

4.  Be brief.  Less is more.  Remember, the goal of most marketing materials is not to close the deal, but rather get the prospect interested enough to contact sales or try the product.  Longer texts tend to discourage busy viewers from reading.

5.  Avoid fluff.  Avoid generic words, like flexible or leverage.  Try quantifying or using proof points.  For example, "the industry's deepest and broadest insight into IT-controlled assets" is fluff.  However, something like, "a system covering 95% of the industry's IT-controlled assets" is much more credible and easier to understand.

6.  Test.  Most of us, marketers, don't work in the functional area of our target buyers.  It may be a good idea to test the text with your target audience.  This can be a very revealing exercise.  In my experience, this step has revealed some gems that turned into new marketing tools and lead generation approaches that we never knew existed.  For example, from our customer conversations we discovered an IT community called Spiceworks, that turned out to be one of the best lead  generation sources for SMB markets.