By Alex Ford
Embarking on an online marketing campaign without first having a strategy is like charging into a fire without an attack plan. You can rush in and throw a lot of resources around in the hopes something will stick, but without a clear, well thought out strategy, your chances for real, meaningful success aren’t very good.
An online marketing strategy is a roadmap for positioning your company so that those looking for your products are able to find you at the moment they’re ready to make purchasing decisions. That’s easier said than done, and it requires stepping back and recognizing that, like it or not, the Internet has caused consumers to change many of their core behaviors and habits.
Virtually everyone is online now, and many rely on the Internet as a primary source for product information. A recent study found that 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.
This shift in behavior has forced companies to adapt and come up with new ways to reach their customers. But it has also created tremendous new opportunities for a level of engagement and interaction that can’t even begin to be approached by advertising in traditional media.
The Internet has, to some degree, leveled the marketing playing field in that it’s not just big companies that are able to buy access to consumers via large advertising spends. There is a vast array of tools for all companies to take advantage of, and web savvy smaller companies have been able to achieve tremendous results by cleverly utilizing these tools to address business problems and approach their customers in interesting new ways.
The subject of how to develop an online marketing strategy is a very broad topic, one that can’t possibly be deconstructed in a single article. But at its most basic, it’s really about pairing your identified objectives with the most effective online advertising options, while adopting a consistent method for evaluating its effectiveness.
Let’s focus on the four key questions that will help you evaluate your marketing objectives and structure your company’s approach to online advertising and marketing.
Question 1: What are my overall online marketing objectives?
Simply being online isn’t enough. Before you begin spending money on online advertising, you need to first clearly identify what you want to accomplish and have a general understanding of how those objectives fit in the online world. It is important that your online strategy complements and reinforces your corporate marketing objectives and offline initiatives.
Obviously, the bottom line with all marketing is driving business and demand for your company’s products. But underneath that umbrella sits a wide range of different objectives that factor into your company’s overall success. These include:
Brand Building: A strong brand obviously can be one of a company’s most valuable resources. One of the most common mistakes we see from companies is disregarding the value of brand building. It’s true – internet advertising carries with it the benefit of being highly trackable. But there is a temptation to measure all ad results by the number of clicks or leads they drive. Yet if you don’t have an attractive or identifiable brand, it is tough to get people to click on your ads.
Thought Leadership: Positioning your company as a true expert in the market carries benefits well beyond those traditional brand building initiatives can offer. When your customers view you as an authority on a topic that relates to your products, it creates an aura of trust and reliability that strongly registers when it comes time to make a purchase decision.
The ability of the Internet to distribute information to a targeted, highly relevant audience makes it an ideal venue for thought leadership endeavors, be it a contributed article or columnist sponsorship.
Interacting with Your Customers: Customer loyalty is primarily forged through direct interaction with your customers before, during and after the purchase. But consistent, ongoing communication with them plays a big role in reinforcing that loyalty. The Internet offers very unique opportunities to get feedback from your customers, information that can be valuable for everything from product development to formulating a marketing strategy. It also offers ways to interact on an ongoing basis with your customer base, whether that be through company newsletters, blogs or promotional campaigns.
Driving Traffic, Leads or Sales: Getting people to your site and getting them to take action is a critical component to many online marketing campaigns. On your site, you control 100% of the content and messaging. And while your web site isn’t the be-all end-all of your online marketing strategy, it should have distinct and measurable objectives for customers when they get there. These can range from downloading a white paper to finding a sales rep or distributor to purchasing a product.
Launching Products: Most of us know the importance of creating a level of excitement in the market when you release a new product. There are a number of tactics that can accomplish this, but a coordinated online advertising campaign can be tremendously effective in quickly spreading the word about your product as well as communicating its benefits.
Differentiating Your Products: In a crowded marketplace, you need to demonstrate that your products offer benefits that your competitors’ products don’t. The fire market is especially difficult, with many categories of products that appear very similar on their face. The Internet is ideal for communicating detailed information about your products and why they stand out from the crowd.
Gathering Market/Customer Research: Collecting customer data is something that many companies neglect. There is tremendous value in having statistical knowledge about your target customer base; anyone willing to take the time to submit information about themselves is interested in what you have to offer, be it now or later down the road.
Educating the Market: Often, the single biggest hurdle you’ll face in selling your product is getting your customers to appreciate why they need it and what problem it solves. This is especially significant in the fire market, where many departments are rooted in tradition, have small budgets and may be reluctant to embrace new technologies. Being able to communicate what the problem is and how your product solves it is vital, and there are excellent tools across the internet – from microsites to contributed articles – for accomplishing this.
Question 2: Which online marketing tools and tactics best match my marketing objectives?
After identifying your objectives, it’s time to survey the online marketing toolkit and determine which best accomplish them.
Below I have included a subset of some of the most popular tools and which objectives they address:
Banners: Banners are easy – they can be quickly created, easily deployed, and bring straightforward statistics. Think of them as the billboards on the site of the internet highway. Banners are visually appealing and reinforce branding, but communicate very little specific information about your product and generally offer little incentive to click on them. And the fact that banners often aren’t configured to appear in content-specific locations means many of the clicks they do receive are not especially targeted.
That said, banners are a useful tool for creating visibility for your company and products. Whether they are clicked on or not, banners allow site visitors to see your brand displayed prominently, creating name recognition that helps come purchase time.
Objectives Addressed: Brand Building, Product Launches, Product Differentiation
Cost per Click (CPC): A “CPC” campaign simply involves placing advertisements on the results pages of search engines (Google, Yahoo and MSN). In essence, you open an account with each, develop a list of relevant keywords (eg. “fire apparatus” or “fire vehicles”) and create ads for those keywords.
While CPC advertising offers little brand-building benefit, it is great at driving measurable clicks to your site. It begins driving traffic to your site immediately, it’s easy to make changes on the fly, and it serves as a good diagnostic tool to test the ability of your site to convert traffic into dollars. If conversions are low, you can modify the site and get immediate feedback.
Objectives Addressed: Driving Traffic, Sales or Leads
Email Blasts: Blasts typically aren’t especially targeted unless your marketing partner has closely segmented its email list, and they can be expensive. However, they reach a wide audience directly, drive clicks and sales, and are a good way to achieve the “big splash” effect with an announcement, promotion or product launch.
Objectives Addressed: Driving Traffic, Sales or Leads, Product Launches, Gathering Market/Customer Research
Email Newsletters: Communicating regularly with your customers via e-newsletters is a great way to foster loyalty and brand engagement. This can be done by advertising in an existing e-newsletter or through your own company newsletter. If you’re collecting customer emails in an organized manner (which you should be), you have the foundation for an e-newsletter campaign. The effort required in consistently creating and distributing e-newsletters can be significant, but it pays off by engaging your customers with the latest product and company information.
Objectives Addressed: Interacting with Customers, Market/Customer Research, Launching New Products, Driving Traffic, Sales and Leads
Product Content Sponsorships: Anytime you can position yourself next to resources your customers are using to make purchase decisions, it is enormously beneficial. By being visible in a product research section that relates to your product, you are connecting the dots for them between a product need and a product solution – namely, yours. People seek out specific product informational resources because they are genuinely interested in purchasing or researching those products, so you are not only receiving highly targeted clicks, but you’re also associating your brand with products they’re interested in.
Objectives Addressed: Product Launches, Differentiating Your Products, Driving Traffic
Press Releases/Contributed Articles: Write and distribute press releases whenever you have news to communicate to the market. Many firefighting media entities will post them online at no cost to you, and they achieve the dual benefit of both communicating your news and also generating search engine value.
Contributed articles aren’t directly promotional like press releases in that they don’t mention your product specifically, but by demonstrating expertise in a subject relevant to your product, you position yourself and your company as an authority.
Objectives Addressed: Thought Leadership, Product Launches, Educate the Market
Microsites: A very narrowly focused Web site that addresses a specific business problem and offers specialized information or promotions. While they fall on the more expensive side of advertising options, microsites have the potential to reach customers in a unique, engaging way with specific content that also reinforces your marketing objectives. For a fire service-focused microsite example, check out www.PPE101.com.
Objectives Addressed: Microsites are so flexible, they can address any objective; however, they are particularly well suited for Thought Leadership, Product Differentiation, Educating the Market and Brand Building
Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Search engine optimization (SEO) simply refers to taking steps to make sure your site appears high in non-paid search results on Google, Yahoo and MSN. SEO is a longer term strategy; if you operate in a crowded marketplace and are battling for highly competitive keywords, it could take a long time to move up to the top rankings, so be patient and diligent.
There are a few basic SEO tips, such as using popular and relevant keywords, generating content for your site and participating in link exchanges with other web sites. But given the complexity of SEO, it’s highly beneficial to either hire someone with specific knowledge or work with an SEO firm.
Objectives Addressed: Driving Traffic, Sales or Leads
Question 3: Which media partners are at my disposal and how do I evaluate them vis-a-vis my objectives?
Anytime you’re marketing to a trade audience, it limits the number of media partners available to you. But the fire service does have a decent number of different options that reach various segments of firefighters and EMS professionals, and Google and Yahoo! offer cost-per-click options for fire service-related keywords.
Depending on your budget, it may be beneficial to try limited campaigns across a number of different sites. But before committing to any significant level of spend, be sure you’re confident that your media partner is able to meet your objectives.
Here’s what you should be looking for from your media partners:
Reach: It sounds like a no brainer, but it is important to make sure that your media partner reliably reaches your target customers. Just because a site has a recognizable brand doesn’t mean it has an engaged online audience. How many unique visitors per month do they receive? What is the makeup of their audience? How many page views per visit do they receive? Are they visited by a high percentage of decision makers? Do they have narrow content on their site that the people you are trying to reach would find interesting or compelling?
Track Record for Creativity: Any online advertising beyond banners or blasts requires creativity and an eye toward current trends. What types of projects have your potential media partners completed successfully in the past? Chances are the more interesting and innovative advertising options a site offers, the better handle on internet marketing they have.
Breadth of Offerings: If a site offers nothing but banners and directory listings, it limits your ability to reach your customers in a meaningful way. The best media partners have a wide range of options for online advertisers and will work with you to match those options to best fit your objectives.
Customer Service: Online advertising requires close monitoring and optimization. The level of immediacy and flexibility of the Internet creates exceptional opportunities to get the most bang for your buck. But this doesn’t happen without exceptional customer service on the part of your media partner. I personally believe that any vendor offering online advertising needs a dedicated customer service group that regularly communicates with all sponsors and not just a sales rep who takes orders and manages campaigns. Also, online advertising is still relatively new and a good media partner should go above and beyond in helping to provide education on the subject. Don’t be shy - ask questions of your partners and see what they have to say.
Question 4: What is the right level of spend?
Executing an online marketing strategy is going to be resource intensive whether you’re investing internal resources like time or new hires or spending money with online media partners. One of the best salespeople I know had a technique he used when negotiating with customers. He would say, “You can pick two of the three – cheap, fast or high quality. If you want it cheap and fast, it isn’t going to be high quality. And if you want something high quality and fast, it isn’t going to be cheap.”
This analogy applies perfectly to online advertising. You can execute incredibly successful campaigns with little or no money by using content and taking advantage of viral marketing, but it takes time and is not easy due to the level of expertise and internal resources required.
Although your marketing options online are far more cost effective than those in traditional media, highly successful campaigns that quickly create exceptional results cost money. If you’re having a hard time committing large chunks of budget to online advertising, that’s OK – you have the ability to test drive a lot of different options without going headfirst into any one item.
I recommend testing strategies and creative at a low to moderate level of spend to see how they fit your objectives and then being ready to quickly increase that spend as you become comfortable with results and performance. Although level of spend differs based on your objectives and strategy, current best practice (taking into account the shift of budgets across all industries from print to online) suggests that companies should spend between 20 and 35 percent of their marketing budgets online.
As you can see, there’s a significant amount of thought that needs to go into developing your online strategy. The most important point to take away from this article is that a successful online marketing strategy MUST complement and support your overall company objectives and marketing strategy. There are so many options to consider as you decide where to invest your resources. These range from your own web site to search engine optimization to advertising on a leading industry portal. If you do not have a clear understanding of where your company wants to go, it makes it very difficult to sort through and maximize your investment online.
As they say, the devil is in the details. We’ll begin drilling down into specific tactics starting with the next column, Online Video as a Marketing Tool.
And feel free to contact me with any specific questions about how to develop or refine your online marketing strategy at email@example.com
If you didn’t read my previous column, The Basics of Online Marketing, you can check it out at www.firerescue1.com/news/425907-The-Basics-of-Online-Marketing-to-the-Fire-Service/