By Alex Ford, CEO, The Praetorian Group
We live in an exciting time. The way we communicate and access information has changed more profoundly in the past 10 years than during any other time in our history. Beyond the social significance, this has important ramifications for how we as companies interact with our customers and vice versa.
Whether you are a marketing manager, executive or small business owner, there is one thing that is certain in 2008: Reaching and marketing to our customers is much more difficult and complex today than it was 10 years ago. In thinking about marketing, I used to talk a lot about the “Law of 7s”, which meant that to influence behavior a marketer much touch a customer seven times before that customer takes action. I then started talking about the “Law of 11s”. But with our customers now being bombarded with more and more advertisements - an estimated 3,000 per day or more than one million per year - it is really more like the “Law of 17s”.
At the same time, the evolution of the Internet into a key form of media has made the job of the marketer tougher. It is no longer about print ads and trade shows with a little direct marketing and sponsorship mixed in. The Internet has changed the rules of the game across all industries. Marketing is simply tougher than it once was, and reaching the fire service and first responders is certainly no exception.
Introducing “Online Marketing to the Fire Service”
Our job as marketers is to answer this question: In an increasingly noisy and challenging environment, how can you capture the attention and interest of first responders and use marketing to create real and demonstrable business value?
My company, the Praetorian Group, has been marketing to first responders and helping clients reach the public safety market for nearly 10 years. This column is designed to address the complexity and challenges of online marketing and help you better understand and take advantage of the opportunities it presents. Each month, I will cover topics ranging from developing an online marketing strategy and improving your Web site design to search engine optimization and measuring your return from online campaigns. Written to educate and inform, each successive article will address more and more complex topics.
So why should you care? Isn’t the fire market still about relationships, trust and face-to-face contact? Yes, it certainly is. The goal of this column is not to tell you to move your ad budget online or forego offline options, but to highlight important trends in your customers’ behavior and product research preferences and give you the tools to effectively add online as a critical component of your marketing strategy. Used effectively, online marketing reinforces and enhances the trust and relationships you have developed offline.
Are firefighters online?
Most of us are familiar with overall trends related to Internet use. I would bet that 90% of those reading this article have researched electronics – a laptop, a DVD player or a flat screen TV– using Google, CNET or another online resource within the past 3 months. If you’re like me, you probably receive some sort of annoying email, video or link from your mother on at least a weekly basis.
Here are a few stats that illustrate the growth of the Internet:
• 71.4 percent of the U.S. population is now online, representing 126 percent growth over the year 2000.
• $34.7 billion was spent online in the third quarter of 2007 alone and as of year end 2007, more than 50 percent of U.S. consumers had bought a product online.
• 60 percent of U.S. consumers use the Internet to do product research, with 20 percent of Internet users doing so on a given day.
• 48 percent of internet users have visited a video-sharing site such as YouTube, a number that is growing at 46 percent year over year.
But it seems there is a disconnect between recognizing these trends and applying this knowledge to marketing to the fire service and first responders as a whole. I believe there are a number of reasons for this, including comfort with existing media channels, the amount of work required to make online marketing work, too many advertising options and poor customer service from many of the online media sites out there.
Perhaps the most prevalent excuse for the lack of online marketing strategies is the perception that the fire service is antiquated, backward and resistant to new technology. We tend to think of them not as mass market consumers, but as old-fashioned, traditional thinkers, beholden to forms of media such as magazines and the occasional trade show.
This may have been true in 2000, when perhaps 10 percent of firefighters were using the Internet. But things are much different in 2008; when was the last time you went into a fire department that didn’t have online access?
I can definitively say that the fire service has moved online. We estimate that 73% of first responders now regularly access the Internet. More than 30,000 firefighters are on Facebook. We have estimated that the major firefighting Web sites collectively receive more than 1.8 million unique visitors each month. Our fire sites alone receive more than 360,000 unique visits each month, which is the equivalent of roughly 11 FDICs.
What are firefighters doing online?
OK, enough stats - you get it. Firefighters are online. But you’re likely asking, “Yeah they’re online, but what are they doing that is relevant to me as marketer?”
When thinking about online behavior, we Internet guys use the term “Use Cases”. Use cases describe the set of needs, behaviors and the related activities that drive the use of a specific Web site. For example, if you use an online banking site, your use cases could include transferring money, checking your balance, or researching additional products like mortgages and lines of credit. For firefighters, we have identified the following four primary use cases that drive their online activity:
Product Research – More and more, firefighters have embraced the internet as a tool for product research. We have found that close to 60 percent of visitors to FireRescue1.com, our fire portal, are driven by their interest in researching product purchases. Fire products are often complex, highly specified and mission critical. Many require education and ongoing training as part of the sales process. The online environment is ideal for this process and sites like FireRescue1, Firehouse.com and Google are becoming first stops when a firefighter or department needs to research products.
Breaking News/Current Events – Due to the local and regional nature of firefighting and the low frequency of calls, current events are an important tool for training and staying informed. Incidents and trends that are seen in one part of the country are directly relevant to most others. That, combined with the need to stay informed of homeland security threats in a post 9/11 world, has made staying abreast of current events essential. Before the Internet, “current” meant reading about an incident in a magazine three months after it occurred.
Training Information and Research – Firefighters spend a majority of their time training and only a fraction responding to calls, which means firefighting is decidedly a training-focused business. For the fire service, the Internet has become a 24-7 training environment. Access to video, online training tools, research, articles and case studies has been a major factor in driving firefighters online. For example, in a recent FireRescue1 survey, roughly 70 percent of the respondents said the site’s resources had directly helped to improve their performance.
Community and Interaction – We all know that the fire service is an incredibly tight-knit community, but it is still fragmented across more than 30,000 departments, most small or volunteer and lacking significant resources. The Internet is ideal for connecting disparate groups of people and facilitating interaction. Whether they are discussing extrication techniques, new products, analyzing incidents or sharing photos of their pets, firefighters are communicating online in record numbers. The Firehouse.com forum has more than 850,000 posts and our video site, FlashoverTV.com, has received more than 800,000 video views in just 6 months.
What does this mean?
The bottom line is that the Internet is here to stay and the activities firefighters are engaging in online are DIRECTLY relevant to your company. Some of you have started to interact with your customers online in a meaningful way, others are dabbling online, and some are still hoping it will go away. Let me be blunt: If you are not incorporating online advertising into your marketing mix, your strategy will be incomplete and less effective at best and, at worst, you will lose sales opportunities and customer relationships to your competitors.
So what are the basics? What are next steps?
1. Learn the Vocabulary
Online marketing utilizes a rich – and sometimes confusing – lexicon. One of the first steps is figuring out what the various terms and acronyms mean. Here’s a brief dictionary of some of the most relevant ones:
Unique Visitor: Individuals who have visited a Web site (or network) at least once during a fixed time frame, typically a month. For example, you can visit Yahoo.com 100 times in a month from your home computer, and it will still only count as 1 unique visit for that month. We have found monthly unique visitor statistics to be the best measure of a Web site’s traffic.
Click Through Rate (CTR): The average number of click-throughs to your web site per hundred ad impressions, expressed as a percentage. For example, if your ad appears 100 times and 10 people click on it, your CTR is 10 percent.
Conversion Rate: The percentage of visitors who take a desired action such as make a purchase or register for a site or service after clicking on an ad.
Cost Per Click (CPC): A pricing formula for online ads whereby advertisers pay based on the number of clicks a specific ad receives. CPC is most often used in search engine advertising.
Cost Per Lead (CPL): A pricing formula for online ads whereby advertisers pay per lead delivered. For example, a user clicks on an ad and is directed to an online contact form on the advertiser's website. If the form is then completed, a lead has been created and the publisher is paid a predetermined amount for that lead.
Cost Per Thousand (CPM): Cost per thousand impressions or times your ad is seen. For example, a $20 CPM means your banner is shown 1,000 times for each $20 you spend.
Organic or Natural Search Results: The results a search engine such as Google returns based on the natural indexing of the Web site, as opposed to those that are returned based on or influenced by paid advertising.
Contextual Advertising: An advertisement that is embedded in or appears next to editorial content, such as an article or video that is related to or within the “context” of the product being advertised.
Self Segmentation: The behavior by which site visitors sort themselves into communities or groups or customer segments based on their activities while on the web site. If a firefighter chooses to visit a section of a Web site focused on boots, they have self segmented themselves as being interested in that topic and relevant to those advertisers.
2. Understand Your Online Toolbox
A critical step to putting together your online marketing strategy is having a solid understanding of your “toolbox”, the advertising options available to you. While there are many variations and alternatives, here are some of the most essential:
Banners: Good for brand exposure, you can be selective in where your banners appear by running them only in targeted locations or simply aim to get them in front of as many eyes as possible. They are the billboards of the internet highway.
Paid or Sponsored Search Engine Marketing: A type of contextual advertising where advertisers pay a fee, usually based on click-throughs or ad views, to have their Web site search results shown in top placement on search engine result pages. Although pricing can vary based on keyword terms, search engine marketing is effective in driving qualified traffic to your website.
eNewsletter ads: Email newsletters reach a wide readership and feature varied content, enticing recipients to read through them. By positioning your ad within this content, you increase the likelihood that readers will notice and be receptive to your message.
Content Sponsorships: Content sponsorships, such as special editorial coverage or a regular column written by an expert, help position your company as an industry “thought leader” by associating your brand with top editorial coverage or specific topics.
Email Blasts: A good way to directly reach a large audience with an exclusive, targeted message. Blasts are particularly effective for product launches, advertising a sale, or getting the word out about your booth location at an upcoming trade show.
Microsites: A very narrowly focused Web site that addresses a specific topic or offers specialized information or promotions. It usually has a separate URL from the main web site it is related to. While they are a more ambitious – and expensive – advertising option, microsites are a great way to create a genuinely useful online resource that also reinforces your marketing objectives. Microsites essentially serve as 24-7 sales reps and are a good source for generating qualified sales leads. For a fire service-focused microsite example, check out www.FireGrantsHelp.com.
Podcasts/Webinars: Sponsorship of a featured podcast or webinar, defined as a video, audio or Powerpoint presentation by an industry expert that is presented online, carries with it several benefits, including the ability to capture qualified leads from a captive audience and considerable, prolonged brand exposure within the presentation.
Online is a unique and rapidly evolving media channel and form of advertising. It offers marketers a highly flexible and complex environment that goes well beyond the traditional “About Us” corporate web site. This flexibility means the Internet can meet a wide range of marketing objectives, many of which we will be covering in this column:
• Build brand exposure
• Create a thought leadership position
• Launch new products
• Differentiate your products
• Drive leads
• Conduct PR
• Manage your corporate presence
• Train your customers
• Educate the market
• Address business challenges
• Get feedback from customers
• And, of course, sell
The Internet is not limited by time or geography. It is a 24-7 environment where creative can be changed at a moment’s notice. Savvy companies are using this flexibility to find new ways to reach out to and, most importantly, interact with their customers and potential customers.
There’s no way around it - online advertising requires work. It’s not as simple as creating a one-page print ad and running it in three publications 12 times per year. Creative needs to be changed quarterly, if not monthly, results measured and objectives refined on an ongoing basis.
The upside is that a good general command of the basics of online marketing and the various options available to you puts you in a good position for success. Also, online is measurable and can be tracked, meaning you have more flexibility to experiment with different online advertising choices. Right now, online advertising is significantly less costly per impression and per lead than traditional print or trade show marketing. It’s easy to run a couple of test campaigns and then refine.
Your customers and potential customers are online in rapidly growing numbers. As one of our top clients likes to say, “Fish where the fish are.” This column is design to help you do it right and take away a lot of the mystery around the Internet and online marketing. Grab your pole and let’s do some fishing.