The economic recovery for the U.S. industrial sector may be under way, but the turnaround has been slow and marketers in this space remain intensely focused on generating leads and proving return on investment.
Recent surveys of manufacturing companies from industrial search engines ThomasNet and GlobalSpec Inc. (see Q&A, this page) indicate the outlook is improving. Of the 1,176 industrial professionals that responded to ThomasNet's “Industry Market Barometer,” released in April, 27% reported that their business grew during the second half of 2009, up from 17% that reported growth during the first half of the year. Also, fewer respondents reported a decline in their business (41%) compared with the first six months of the year (54%).
Still, manufacturers have been slow to open their pocket books to make capital investments, said Tom Dubin, president-CEO of Manufacturers' News, a provider of industrial databases and directories. “You keep reading that manufacturers are back on the rebound, but we really haven't seen the turnaround that everybody's talked about,” he said. “It's not as bad as it was a year ago, but things are still very slow.”
Many manufacturers, particularly small and midsize companies, were just beginning to explore more involved online marketing plans when the recession hit. “A lot of b-to-b manufacturers were about to look at website upgrades and start making their sites more search-friendly,” said Russ Green, exec VP-partner at b-to-b marketing agency Godfrey. “They were starting to think about social, [and] starting to look at audience-driven content. Then the recession put everything on hold.”
Marketers are beginning to revisit those projects, he said, though the recovery has been spotty. “It's not across the board in our space,” he said. “But sure enough, we are just about drowning in Web work right now.”
Manufacturing marketers are moving online because Web advertising and search engine marketing are much more measurable, Dubin said. “They can point to return on investment, and lead generation and customer acquisition,” he said. “So much of print advertising results are anecdotal, and in these times, companies are demanding a return on their investment. In the old days, you could talk about the benefits of branding and such, but now you need to be able to point to results—a stream of leads and inquiries to make it worth their while to advertise.”
Green said Godfrey's client base is coming to terms with the fact that their previous marketing methods have to be re-examined. “There's some muscle memory around "broadcast advertising'—not necessarily TV, but putting a bunch of print ads in magazines,” he said. “It's just not possible [anymore], so people are looking at a lot of different things.”
For example, such marketers are ramping up public relations and social marketing, he said. “This year is the year for social in our space,” Green said. “People are sticking their toes in the water. They may not be doing it well or strategically, but they're starting to try some things.”
Whether they're exploring social media or mobile applications, marketers should stay focused on helping manufacturing professionals do their jobs, Green said. “Their time is so valuable that if I, a b-to-b marketer am going to break through, I better make it worthwhile,” he added. “If you can make it fun, and engaging and viral, that's a bonus, but it better be relevant to what they're doing in their work environment.”
Because a company's website is often the center of its online marketing strategy, what visitors find and experience at that site is critically important.
Linda Rigano, executive director of strategic services at ThomasNet, suggested that manufacturers treat their websites like they would a sales professional. “As elementary as it sounds, it's the best advice I can give,” she said. “Treat your website as if you were hiring a six-figure salesperson. If you were going to put them on the street, what would you do? You'd arm them with information about the marketplace. You'd arm them with information about your products and how people use them. Then you'd put that person in front of the audience and check in with them.”
Industrial buyers are sophisticated, Rigano said, spending a quarter of their workweek searching for products online. Manufacturers' websites must have any information those buyers might want, and that information must be easily searchable in multiple ways, such as by category, keyword or product, she said. She also stressed the important of making CAD drawings available and easy to download. “It's more than basic website development,” she said. “It's smart design—anticipating potential buyers' research needs and setting [the site] up the right way.” M