By Alex Ford
If you’re like me, you get indigestion whenever you review your tradeshow budget or calendar for the year. Extra travel, $100 trash barrels, convention center pizza and annoying booth set ups are not on my top 10 list of fun marketing projects. But we all recognize that despite the hassle and expense, there are few forms of marketing that provide companies with a better ability to directly and meaningfully connect and interact with their customers than trade shows. Trade shows allow you to present your product and value proposition to a targeted group of potential customers and hear unfiltered assessments of how well your products meet their needs. And of course, the direct communication is a great way to supplement your company’s sales pipeline.
Done right, online marketing can replicates many of the benefits of a trade show experience with a fraction of the hassle and the potential to reach an exponentially larger group of customers. When you (correctly) market online, you are not talking at people, as you would with a print ad or billboard. You are interacting with your customers, providing them actionable information and listening to what they have to say. It may not be the same as standing in your booth with product in hand, explaining its benefits, but online can forge a similarly meaningful connection – particularly with the rise of online video and social networking as viable marketing tools.
The trade show comparison is really far more apt than the format to which online is most commonly compared: print. When allocating their advertising budgets, some companies consider print and online interchangeable – flip sides of the same media coin, so to speak. If your concept of online advertising starts and stops with banners, it’s true – there are distinct similarities between the branding effect of a one-page print ad and a skyscraper banner. But that is a very incomplete view that only scratches the surface of online marketing and what it can provide.
Whereas print is limited, the Internet has become increasingly defined by its flexibility. Gone are the days where online marketing best practices are defined by flashy banners. Online has developed into a deep, vibrant medium for getting your message to the right people at the right time. It is unique among other advertising options in that it can take so many different forms. The scale of online is limited only by your imagination…and your media partner’s capabilities.
A toolbox, not a menu
The purpose of this column is not to sing the praises of online, but to transform the way you view online marketing. Rather than looking at online marketing as a menu of varying options, think of it as a toolbox with various instruments for improving how you do business and reach your customers.
Bottom line - if you own or run a business in 2008 and you’re not thinking about how the Internet can affect, improve or change your business, you are at risk of falling behind your competitors. If they haven’t already, competitors will soon start exploring creative ways to use online to achieve objectives that you share. The good news is that we estimate only 5 percent of companies in the fire market are thinking creatively about how to use the Internet to enhance their business, which means there is a significant opportunity to leapfrog the competition.
Truly going “beyond the banner” doesn't just mean incorporating a few different types of ad buys or objectives into your online strategy. It's using the Internet to solve real business problems, taking it from a purely marketing function and using it as a tool to achieve broader corporate objectives.
In addition to driving sales and promoting brand awareness, online has the potential to help solve a wide range of business problems related to your products. These include:
- Educating the market so they understand the conditions that necessitate the solution your product provides
- Training your customers to best utilize your products
- Streamlining the process by which you interact with your customers
- Enhancing customer service
- Supporting your sales team and making it easier for them to generate leads and close deals
There are a number of great examples of companies doing just this in the public safety space. Globe Manufacturing Company is addressing the training requirement of NFPA 1851 using online technology and educating the market through PPE101.com. Code 3 simultaneously launched a revolutionary light bar technology at this year’s IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police) conference both online and at their booth, reaching 25 times as many officers than they would have with just a simple show launch. MSA created a free, downloadable Fireslayer Challenge 3D video game that allowed users to fight fire in a simulated environment, a fun and effective way to communicate product benefits and build brand engagement among customers. Each of these examples – which would have been impossible 10 years ago – enabled the company to meet a specific challenge and meaningfully engage with its customers.
A Case Study: FireRehab.com and FireGrantsHelp.com
I’ll share one example from our experience that perfectly illustrates the capability of online marketing to drive profound business results within the fire service. Many of you are familiar with Masimo Corp. Masimo manufacturers an innovative device that – among other functions – monitors carbon monoxide (CO) levels in the blood noninvasively (ie. with lasers instead of needles). The product, the Rad-57 Pulse CO-oximeter, is particularly relevant to the fire and EMS market due to the deadly threat CO poses to firefighters related to smoke inhalation.
Masimo faced two significant business challenges in penetrating the market when they launched the product in 2005: lack of knowledge among firefighters of the dangers of CO, and lack of department funding to purchase their $3,000-plus device.
Part 1: Educate the Market
To address the first challenge, we worked with Masimo to conceive of and launch FireRehab.com, a site dedicated first and foremost to providing legitimate information and education about various fireground threats – including CO – and how to both prevent and deal with them. With FireRescue1.com as the underlying platform and featuring free educational programs, expert columns, news, video and tips, FireRehab.com was constructed to stand on its own as an informational resource for the fire service about topics ranging from heat exhaustion and cyanide poisoning to dehydration and CO.
While content-focused, the site allowed for the integration of branding and product messaging, positioning the Rad-57 as a solution to the problem of CO poisoning. Masimo wisely kept this product and branding subtle, knowing that an overwhelming advertising presence would work against them and detract from the educational mission of the site.
FireRehab.com quickly became the focal point of Masimo’s fire and EMS online marketing strategy, generating 20,000 unique users per month right out of the gate. The company’s sales team began actively driving prospects to the site rather than the company’s own Web site, and it served as a key supplemental resource during the sales process. The implementation of a Sales Info Request mechanism on the site affected the sales process more directly, generating a steady flow of qualified sales leads that the company’s inside reps described as “the best they’d ever seen”.
With FireRehab.com, Masimo was able to foster an understanding of the fundamental issue their product addresses. A department decision maker educated on the CO threat by the information on FireRehab would be driven to one solution: the Rad-57.
Part 2: Address Funding
Once Masimo successfully introduced education into their marketing strategy they quickly realized they had a second, more serious challenge – funding. The RAD-57 device is expensive and despite its utility, few fire departments had a capital expense line item for rehabilitation.
Recognizing this, we worked with Masimo to develop a solution that would connect departments with the single most accessible form of funding: grants. Together we launched FireGrantsHelp.com, a singular resource for fire grant news, available grants and resources for grant writing that was designed to help departments navigate the grant process and secure funding. In addition to providing a much needed general informational resource for the fire service on an important topic, the site incorporated a “Direct Assistance” request function allowing departments interested in purchasing the Rad-57 to directly request help from Masimo in writing grant applications for the product. The logic was simple: use the Web to ease the pain of the grant process and create a win-win scenario in which the department gets new equipment and Masimo increases its sales.
As with FireRehab.com, the mission with FireGrantsHelp.com was to create a genuine resource for the fire service that would simultaneously serve as a 24-7 generator of qualified sales leads.
The program was ambitious and visionary on the part of Masimo. It required the clear identification of their fundamental challenges and the commitment to explore the Web as a solution. It also required coordination of various teams within the company to ensure they were properly using the sites as the tools they are as well as a marketing partner who could move quickly and do the heavy lifting.
The results speak for themselves.
As of August, FireGrantsHelp.com had generated more than $8 million of grant requests for the Rad-57 since the site’s launch. At a conservative estimated success rate of 35%, that means $2.8 in sales generated by the program – a tremendous ROI for the modest level of investment in the sites.
Addressing business problems online
While the Masimo project was lengthy (at two-and-a-half years) and had a number of moving parts, it was incredibly effective at not only driving brand awareness and educating the market, but in building a platform to support all of the company’s fire and EMS sales and marketing objectives. And it was accomplished for the cost equivalent of sending a team and having a strong presence at a couple of trade shows.
As you reflect upon this case study, consider the larger challenges you face as a business. If you could pick one thing that would have the greatest impact on your company’s success, what would it be? If the online solution to your problems doesn’t immediately jump to mind, that’s OK – there are plenty of creative media partners and consultants who can help you figure it out. The important thing is to start thinking about the Internet not as a place for banner ads and email blasts, but a tool for solving business challenges.