A Prospect Ignored isn’t Really a Prospect

asleep at work / schoolI’ve ranted about this before and – oh yes – I shall rant again!

But first – the back-story.

I needed some work done at a property I own. I found three contractors online and reached out to each of them to get a quote.

Cue crickets.

No response. Nothing! So a few days later I politely followed up with each to prod the process along. Again, nothing. Finally, after 4 weeks of repeated e-nagging, one finally coughed up a quote. Most of the details were wrong, but at least someone at the other end was responding with minimal signs of consciousness.

Fast-forward 2 months. The work is still not done. At this point, I’m still trying to convey the specifics of the job and to get an estimated timeline. If I had an option, I’d take it. But the sad fact is, as spotty as the communication is with my contractor of choice, it’s still better than his competitors. One never did respond, even after a number of emails and voicemails. One finally sent a quote, but it was obvious he didn’t want the work. Fair enough. If the laws of supply and demand are imbalanced this much in their favor, who am I to fight it?

But here’s the thing. Market balances can change on a dime. Someday I’ll be in the driver’s seat and they’ll be scrambling to line up work to stay in business. And when they reach out to their contact list, a lot of those contacts will respond with an incredulous WTF. If you didn’t want my business when I needed you, why would you think I would give you it when you need me? A prospect spurned has a long memory for the specifics of said spurning. So, Mr. (or Ms.) Contractor, you can go take a flying leap.

If you’re going to use online channels to build your business, don’t treat it like a tap you can turn on and off at your discretion. Your online prospects have to be nurtured. If you can’t take any new business on, that’s fine. But at least have enough respect for them to send a polite response explaining the reason you can’t do the work. As long as we prospects are treated with respect, you’d be amazed at how reasonable we can be. Perhaps we can schedule the job for when you do have time. At the very least, we won’t walk away from the interaction with a bitter taste that will linger for years to come.

In 2005, Benchmark Portal did a study to compare response rates for email requests. The results were discouraging. Over 50% of SMB’s never responded at all. Only a small fraction actually managed to respond within 24 hours of the request.

I would encourage you to do a little surreptitious checking on your own response rates. Prospects contacting you need your help, and none of us like to hear our pleas for help go unanswered. 24 hours may seem like a reasonable time frame to you, but if you’re on the other end, it’s more than enough time to see your enthusiasm cool dramatically. Make it someone’s job to field online requests and set a 4-hour response time limit. I’m not talking about an auto-generated generic email here. I’m talking about a personalized response that makes it clear that someone has taken the time to read your request and is working on it. Also give a clear indication of how long it will take to follow up with the required information.

Why are these initial responses so critical? It’s not just to keep your field of potential prospects green and growing. It’s also because we prospects are using something called “signaling” to judge future interactions with a business. When we reach out to a new business we find online, we have no idea what it will be like to be their customer. We don’t have access to that information. So, we use things we do know as a proxy for that information. These things provide “signals” to help us fill in the blanks in our available information. An example would be hiring new employees. We don’t know how the person we’re interviewing will perform as an employee, so we look for certain things in a resume or an interview to act as signals that would indicate that the candidate will perform well on the job if hired.

If I’m a prospect looking for a business – especially one providing a service that will require an extended relationship between the business and myself – I need signals to show me how reliable the business will be if I chose them. Will they get the work done in a timely manner? Will the quality of the work be acceptable? Will they be responsive and accommodating to my requirements? If problems arise, will they be willing to work through those problems? Those are all questions I don’t have the answer to. All I have are indications based on my current interactions with the business. And if those interactions have required my constant nagging and clarification to avoid incorrect responses, guess what my level of confidence might be with said business?

Rethinking the Channelization of Advertising

Anybody who has been a regular reader of my column knows I very seldom write a column exclusively about search, even though it runs every Thursday under the masthead of “Search Insider.” I’ve been fortunate in that Ken Fadner and the editorial staff of Mediapost has never restricted my choice of subject matter. But the eclecticism of my column isn’t simply because I’m attention deficit. It’s because the subject that interests me most is the intersection between human behavior and technology. Although that often involves search, it also includes mobile, social, email and a number of other channels. I simply couldn’t write about what interests me if I was restricted to a single channel.

So why is Mediapost divided into the subject areas it is? Why, when you go to navigate the site, do you choose from email marketing, search marketing, mobile marketing, real time marketing, video marketing or social media marketing? Mediapost is structured this way because it’s a reflection of the industry it serves. Online marketing is divvied up in exactly the same way. We are an industry of channels.

the_rhine_color_coverThe problem here is one of perspective – the industry perspective vs. the customer perspective. Let me use another example to make my point. One of the best things about cruising the Rhine is that there is a stunning medieval castle or fortress around every bend. From Rüdesheim to Koblenz (the Middle Rhine) there are over 40 of these fortifications sprinkled along 40 miles of the river. As picturesque as they are, they were not put there to enhance the views for generations of sightseers yet to come. They were put there because the river was one of the major thoroughfares of Europe and anyone who owned land along the river had the opportunity to make some money. They exacted tolls from travellers to guarantee safe passage.

While this build up along the Rhine probably made sense for the German land barons, it did nothing to make life easier for the poor souls who had to get up the Rhine to reach their eventual destination. Unfortunately, they had few alternatives. They were stuck with paying the tolls.

The advertising business is divided up into channels for exactly the same reason the Rhine has a castle every mile. Channels are there to show ownership of property. Advertising is a way to generate revenue from that ownership. It is a toll that customers have to pay. Mediapost is divided up the way it is because its readers are the modern day equivalent of medieval land barons and that’s they way they think. If it were published in 1224 its sections may have been labeled Pfalzgrafenstein, Sterrenberg and Reichenstein (3 of the Rhine castles).

But if you’re like me, you’re not as interested in the castles as in the journey itself. And, in this way, I think we have built our industry in exactly the wrong way. We should all be more interested in the journey than in ownership of individual destinations along that journey. If you asked a traveller from Rüdesheim to Koblenz in 1205 which they would prefer; paying 40 separate tolls or paying one guide to safely escort them to the destination, I’m pretty sure they would chose the later. That is what our industry should aspire to.

The reason our industry is channel obsessive is because we had no option previously. In a pre-digital world, all we could do is own or control a channel. But technology is rapidly allowing us an option. Today, it is possible for us to map a customer’s journey and act as a guide along the way. All that is required is a change of perspective.

I believe it’s time to consider it.

Rules for Making B2B Search Marketing More Successful, Part 2

First published October 12, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I presented the first five rules for making B2B search more successful. To recap, here they are:
1. Know who’s the buyer and who’s the influencer
2. Realize what the intent of the researcher is
3. Understand complex buying cycles and the possible touch points with search
4. Be prepared to build relationships with search leads
5. Don’t ask for too much too soon.

This week, I wrap up with the last five rules:

6. Understand the Complexity of the Keyword Universe. B2B marketplaces provide a significant challenge in determining the keywords used to find a product or service. These are often complex, non-commoditized solutions. In many cases, they’re new technology. This means that a common vocabulary hasn’t evolved around them. When you’re selling shoes, you know that everyone calls them shoes. But when you’re selling software that enables real time inventory tracking and just in time product delivery, the name tag you pin on that isn’t as easy.

First of all, there’s often a difference between what the vendor might call the product and what the potential customer might call it. And when it comes to intercepting search traffic, the customer is ALWAYS right. I don’t care what your internal rules are for referring to your product. I don’t care how you position yourself against the competitors and what your unique competitive advantage is, even if your marketing team has cleverly baked it right into your product name. It really doesn’t matter–if no one is searching for it. First match the vocabulary of your customer, and then worry about differentiating yourself.

The second challenge is that if you have a new solution, potential customers might not even know they’re looking for it. Often you have to position yourself at the pain point, or that of a more commonly known solution, and then try to divert them to your site. Just remember, the closer you can align to the customer’s thinking in your search listing messaging, the more successful you’ll be in capturing the click.

7. Know the roles of general and vertical search portals. The more complex the solution, the more likely it is that your potential customers will be researching their options online. This means that two distinct types of search portals will come into play. Early in the process, everyone will turn to his favorite search engine. And from past research, we know that the overwhelming winner in the B2B category is Google.

But complex purchases mean that prospects will want to check features and compare their alternatives. They’ll also want to see how others feel about your product and service. They’ll be looking for functionality and a depth of information that a general search property just can’t provide, and that is when they’ll go vertical.

The next step in the research process is to find the sites that list the alternatives and provide the opportunity to compare them head to head. And if you’re looking to intercept them, you should really be in both places.

To identify these all-important vertical properties, you can do three things. First of all, once you identify the right key phrases, do searches for them on the major engines, particularly Google. See which vertical reference sites come to the top of the listings. These are the ones your potential customers will be clicking through to. Secondly, ask your existing customers how they found you, and what sites they tend to refer to. Thirdly, use a service like Hitwise or comScore’s qSearch to find out what the heavily trafficked sites in your vertical are. Identify the most likely places to intercept your prospects.

 

 

8. Realize that education is a necessary evil. Much as we’d like the prospect to buy immediately, it just isn’t that likely in a complex buying situation. They’re going to be spending a lot of time researching and educating themselves on the ins and outs of your product and on what you can provide as a vendor. If you accept this as a given, then you can start tailoring your search campaign to facilitate it.

Remember that the intent of search visitors will usually be education, not purchase. Make sure you’re giving them this option. Make the education path a rich relationship development pipeline, not an obstacle path that has to be navigated. Encourage further education opportunities through your landing pages.

But–and this is vitally important–don’t offer so many possible paths that the visitor gives up and abandons the site. Use effective branching and messaging to allow users to get to what they’re looking for without having to interpret a lot of corporate doublespeak and marketing jargon.

9. Be prepared to lose control. This one is a tough one for the sales department. Accept the fact that you’re not at the wheel, your prospect is. The fact that this is a complex sale, the fact that they’re looking for more information, and the fact that they’re going to be spending a long time in making their decision all indicate they’ll be setting their own pace and contacting you when they’re ready.

Embrace and facilitate this. Understand where a search-generated lead will be entering your pipeline. Know what they’ll be looking for. Be comfortable letting them guide the relationship and give them every opportunity to build that relationship. This is much more like farming than hunting. Plant the seeds, nurture them and let nature take its course. If you try to force the prospect’s hand, you could push them right into the arms of your competitors.

10. Understand the buying process of your prospect, but don’t surrender to it. The bigger and more complex the sale, the more cumbersome the buying process. The better you understand this process, the more likely you will be to make the process work in your favor.

If what you sell typically goes to RFP, help facilitate the process, but stack the odds in your favor. Help the prospect define the core set of criteria, ensuring that your unique competitive advantage is on the list. If they’re coming to you after they already have their preferred vendor, redefine the pain in a way that puts you at an advantage. This means maintaining a tricky balance between being helpful and not being too obvious in pushing your sales message. The best way to maintain this balance is to step through the paths you’re presenting to your prospects in their mindset. Be mindful of the process they’re going through, and see if you’re presenting a path that’s helpful and believable.

Using search as a B2B lead-gen channel provides some unique challenges, but it can be very powerful. These are purchases that require a significant amount of online research. We know that’s a perfect fit for search, but just be prepared to be patient for the payoff.

A Place for Pay-Per-Call

First published September 27, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

People who buy radiators online are unique. For one thing, they don’t really research their purchases beforehand. When your radiator blows up, you know you need a new one–fast! Secondly, when you’re shopping for a new radiator, it’s not a click and buy type of item. You pretty much need to talk to someone who knows their stuff, because every single make and model of car may have two or three radiators that could fit. As John Thys, president of Radiator.com says, it’s a different market. And for this market, pay-per-call is just the right thing.

“Every lead for us ends in a phone call,” says Thys. “It’s always what we’re driving towards. We need to speak to our customers. So pay-per-call is by far our most cost-effective channel. The quality of these leads is way ahead of pay-per-click.”

Pay-per-call is an alternative channel that’s growing rapidly. The Kelsey Group estimates this market will more than double for the next five years, with revenues topping 3.7 billion by 2010. That makes it a revenue producing opportunity which more and more online publishers are beginning to pay attention to.

Ingenio really pioneered the idea of the search-based pay-per-call market, and I had a chance to chat with CMO Marc Barach. “We seamlessly bridge the Internet and the telephone,” Barach says. “And for a lot of businesses, that’s a perfect match.” The pairing of old and new communication technologies does open four distinct opportunities for both Ingenio and advertisers.

Four places for pay-per-call:

First of all, businesses that don’t have a Web site. Pay-per-call allows them to tap into search as a source of lead generation, yet field the lead in an effective way (conversion rates in some categories are eight times what are typical for pay-per-click ads). And for Ingenio and its competitors, that’s a vast market. InfoUSA and the Kelsey Group estimate there’s about 350,000 Web-based businesses, with another 4 million businesses with so called “brochure-ware” sites. That leaves almost 10 million businesses with no Web site at all, many of them local businesses.

The second opportunity takes advantage of the nature of longer buying cycle. At certain points in that buying cycle, consumers appreciate different options in contacting vendors. Early in a high-consideration purchase, consumers prefer to remain anonymous and quietly kick tires on Web sites. But at some point, they may search online with the intention of finding a way to contact a vendor, and in that case, a pay-per-call ad provides them with exactly the right message at the right time.

The third opportunity is moving lead generation off the desktop to a phone near you. Pay-per-call adapts nicely to 411 directory assistance platforms and mobile use. Other potential expansion markets include podcasts, radio and TV.

The fourth opportunity is the one that Thys at Radiator.com is taking advantage of. There are certain items or services that are needed suddenly, without advance warning. And by their nature, they require interactive contact with a knowledgeable service representative. This is prime yellow page territory, but increasingly, the bulkiness and geographic limitations of the printed directory are being supplanted by online versions. While Radiator.com acts like the local radiator wholesaler, it does business around the country. Pay-per-call is the perfect match.

Calling all search engines!

While Thys still does pay-per-click because of the sheer volume of leads it produces, he also loves the effectiveness of pay-per-call. “There’s no comparison. Pay-per-call’s conversions and quality of lead blow pay-per-click away. If I could get pay-per-call leads from where I’m getting pay-per-click ones, I’d be in a much better place,” he says.

And that’s the current challenge for Ingenio. As Thys says, “It’s all about the networks.” You need to get these compelling calls to action in front of a critical mass of motivated consumers. Currently, Ingenio’s distribution network includes online yellow page directories and AOL. The AOL deal was a major turning point for pay-per-call, especially since AOL carved off the prime real estate of the search results page for Ingenio, right at the top of the listings. But Barach has his sites set on expanding that network substantially over the near future. He won’t be alone. Google is quietly testing pay-per-call as well, and it would make tremendous sense to incorporate it in its local listings.

Pay-per-call has its feet firmly set in both the new and old worlds of marketing, and that makes it very appealing for a large number of consumers and marketers. For consumers, it gives them a quick way to connect with a vendor and start an old-fashioned dialogue. And for marketers and sales professionals, it gives them a sense of control. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the comment from a traditional salesperson: “I just want them (the consumer) to call me. Once I get them on the phone, I can sell them.” The balance of power on pay-per-click ads is far too much on the side of the consumer to make these sales professionals feel comfortable. With pay-per-call, the ball’s back in their court.

Search Will Get You the Lead, But the Rest is Up to You

First published June 23, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Let me tell you a story. In my company, we recently decided that we would invest in bringing a new service in-house. The cost to do so, with required hardware and software, will be about $34,000 U.S. Having more than a passing interest in this particular expenditure, I did some preliminary consumer research. In the textbook case of how we all say search works, I turned to a search engine. I did my search and ended up clicking on a sponsored link because it seemed to be the most relevant one.

So far, a text-book example of search marketing at work, right? Here’s where it starts to go off the rails.

Is Anybody Home? I clicked the site and while it was a little skimpy on product information, it got me sufficiently interested to want more. One thing I needed was pricing, because the site didn’t offer any details on cost.

So, we filled out the form on the site requesting more information. In fact, we clicked the little box saying we wanted to be contacted by a sales rep. Two days later, we still hadn’t heard anything. So we e-mailed the sales contact and 24 hours later, still nothing. This was a European company, with a North American sales office. I called the North American 800-number and left a slightly brusque message. Two days later, nada. I finally called the European head office, on my dime, at 7 in the morning because of the 9-hour time difference, and got someone who spent a few minutes on the phone with me. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much of the information I was looking for. I was told I had to call the North American contact. I explained that I tried this and got no response from my voicemail message. Without the faintest hint of an apology, the person told me, in a tone that indicated that I should know better, the North American sales rep, Ken, was currently in Thailand. Of course he wouldn’t be returning my call. I asked when I might expect a return call. “Oh, in about a week or so. I’ll get Ken to give you a call.”

That was three weeks ago. Guess what? No Ken, no return call, no contact. No sale. I guess they don’t really need the money, not if Ken can keep jetting off to Thailand for weeks at a time.

Ken’s Not Alone… I wish I could tell you that this is an isolated incident, a ripple in the smooth seas of online commerce. But according to a recent study by BenchmarkPortal, 51 percent of North American small- and medium-size businesses (SMBs) studied ignore e-mails from potential customers. The study evaluated 147 SMBs in a number of sectors. It was a follow up to a similar study done with enterprise-level organizations. In that study, 41 percent of the e-mails were ignored.

So, about half of the e-mails from hot prospects were outright ignored. But it doesn’t end there. Of the responses that were received from SMBs, 70 percent took longer than 24 hours (61 percent for enterprise-level organizations). And 79 percent responded with inaccurate or incomplete information (83 percent for enterprise companies).

So let me get this straight. If I’m really interested in a product, there’s only a 50/50 chance I’ll get any answer at all. If I do, there’s a two in three chance I’ll be waiting several days. And when I do get it, it will only give me the information I’m looking for one out of five times. Add it up and my odds of getting a prompt, accurate response are about one in 10.

Why don’t you just hit your prospects over the head with a baseball bat? It will be less painful and over a lot quicker.

Consumers Anonymous In our first research on potential customers using search, we identified something called the Anonymity Threshold. It means potential customers who are researching online won’t volunteer information that would allow contact until they’re serious about buying. They browse anonymously until that time, gathering information and weighing their options. This is why it’s important to give them the information they need to make their buying decision.

Remember the lack of pricing information on the site I used as my first example? The only reason I bothered to initiate contact was that this company has unique technology. They don’t really have a competitor in their niche, and we like their product. I was an extremely motivated consumer. If there were more comparable competition that offered more information on their site, I might never have contacted them.

So, if someone is reaching out to you, they’re motivated. Their money is sitting on the table. They want to buy. You don’t want to give them any more time than necessary to find someone else to buy from. A response should be received in an hour. At the absolute maximum, don’t let these leads go longer than 24 hours. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get the lead. Don’t throw them away.