Search marketing has been transformed into much more than simply a way to lure Web site traffic and fill e-commerce shopping baskets. Especially for b-to-b companies, search can be seen as a critical lead-generation tactic.
“Search marketing is one of the greatest tools in our lead-generation toolbox because it allows you to reach your prospects at the precise moment they're interested in your services or products,” said Robert Coats, senior search strategist with Seattle-based b-to-b agency Hodgson/Meyers.
When done right, search can have a large and immediate impact on lead-gen.
“We've been taking part in paid search for three or four years and spending well into six figures with middling results,” said Blaine Mathieu, CMO at online marketing company Lyris Inc. “A year ago, we decided to focus on it as a key to lead generation, and the results have been incredible.”
With the help of a newly hired in-house search expert and continuously “tweaking the dials,” Mathieu said, Lyris has increased top-tier, high-quality leads from paid search fivefold.
Along with its paid search efforts, Lyris search-optimized its Web site, making sure titles, tags, keywords and links appeared appropriately and could be found by search engines. Over the past three or four months, the SEO work increased traffic 10% per month, Mathieu said.
Using search for lead-gen has its issues, however. Competition for popular query phrases is driving keyword bids higher, and search engine optimization is complicated, requiring skilled (read, expensive) employees or agencies.
Before searchers arrive at the site, of course, landing pages must be built and tuned, and a process for capturing and nurturing these prospects must be put in place.
“There are so many things you can do with search as a lead-gen tool, and a thousand ways to approach it,” Coats said. “The key is, it's not so much how you want to be found as how your prospects are searching. It's understanding psychology, and human nature and how people begin their searches around issues they're trying to resolve.”
One notable feature of search as a lead-gen tool, Coats said, is that searchers self-qualify themselves. They alert marketers as to what stage they're at in the sales funnel by the keywords they search for—whether, for example, they're doing initial research or are ready to buy.
“My philosophy is, you look at the keywords most relevant to what stage the prospect is in,” Coats said. “For that early awareness stage, you want your entire message—from keywords, to ad text, to landing page, to material they walk away with after filling out that lead-gen form—to be centered on that early stage. The same must be true for later-stage buyers.”
“You have to make sure each part of your search campaign is stage-specific,” he added.
Marketers are finding that many disparate elements of search marketing—paid search, organic search, keywords, landing pages, offers and premiums—must be complementary to maximize lead-gen.
“We feel we have maxed out paid search as our primary lead-gen tool, but we haven't spent a lot of time on our landing pages,” said Jeremy Farber, president and founder of PC Recycler, which markets its environmentally friendly and secure computer-disposal services to large companies, nonprofits and government departments in the Washington, D.C., area. “And there is a whole new opportunity for conversions out there in the SEO field that we're only getting 10% to 15% of now.”
Farber—a customer of Lyris' e-mail and content management services—hasn't bothered so far with special offers like white papers, although he does plan to develop a case study soon. He considers a conversion to be when a prospect picks up the phone and contacts the company directly.
“If we can't convert a prospect to a customer in 60 to 90 days, we'll stay in touch with occasional direct mail,” Farber said.
Most marketers, however, consider the offer a key to success—a strategy that informs their search marketing approach, too.
Brent Shean, senior manager-audience acquisition at IT Business Edge, an online publisher of business technology topics, makes sure offers such as white papers or tech management e-books are mentioned in the headlines of his paid-search ads. That, he said, drives visitors to the company's Web site, where they get their premium only if they register and sign up for one or more of the company's newsletters.
“We find that getting people to sign up with a newsletter is key, a lifetime value, so we're nurturing people along as best we can,” Shean said.
Industry observers say the future of search marketing as a lead-gen tool will involve organic search and SEO, which will complement the already well-understood paid-search part of the equation.
The reason is mostly financial: Paid search budgets are being reduced.
Pay-per-click search ad spending across all search engines in the U.S. was down 21% in the second quarter this year compared with the same period a year ago, according to a study released in July by search engine marketing technology company Efficient Frontier. That, in turn, followed a first-quarter year-over-year decline of 23%.
By contrast, organic search is on an upswing.
According to a survey by eMarketer, 55% of marketers will increase spending on SEO this year, more so than any other advertising channel. With total U.S. search marketing outlays expected to reach $23 billion by 2014, SEO expenditures are forecast to total $3.9 billion, overtaking contextual advertising in the process.
“CMOs need to be able to track, measure and understand the returns associated from investments in organic search,” said Gregg Makuch, CMO of Enquisite Inc., a provider of search marketing measurement and optimization solutions.
“In order for organic to be on the same plane as PPC or other direct-response media, marketers need to be able to link investments with actual results, such as more online traffic, leads and conversions into customers,” Makuch said. “CMOs need to understand their ROI from organic search and easily compare it with PPC, e-mail, direct mail, etc., to better allocate media budgets.”
Mathieu echoed that observation: “I do believe there is a continuous cycle of improvement,” he said. “As tools get better, people get better, learn more and optimize not only their Web sites but their own marketing skills as well.” M