Search engines key to connect

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Not long ago, manufacturing companies relied on phone books and industry directories to find suppliers. Today, that process has in large part moved online, and companies looking to market to any segment of the manufacturing vertical must provide the information potential buyers seek with their Web browsing and buying habits in mind.

In general, manufacturing is a conservative industry, said Shari Worthington, founder and president of Telesian Technologies, a marketing communications, Web development and e-business consultancy. Consumable, commodity items such as filters or fans might be purchased on a regular basis, but larger purchases such as automation equipment tend to have very long sales cycles and require a lot of research. "[Manufacturers] take time to think things through, and there aren't too many spontaneous decisions," she said. "There are million-dollar production lines that could go askew and, if they do, somebody's head's going to roll."

Search engines as directories

Search engines have become the new product directories, she said, giving vendors an opportunity to be found and buyers the opportunity to do extensive research.

Angela Hribar, chief sales and marketing officer at GlobalSpec, a vertical search and e-publishing company that serves engineering and manufacturing audiences, said 90% of respondents to her company's most recent Engineering Trends Survey indicated they use the Internet to find components and suppliers. "In order to reach manufacturing professionals, you must be discoverable; they must be able to find you where they search, and they're typically looking on the Internet," she said.

A strong online presence can help manufacturing companies that are struggling to survive industry consolidation and overseas competition reach out to new markets and expand, said Linda Rigano, director of strategic alliances for ThomasNet, a division of Thomas Publishing Co. "You hear all the doom and gloom. So you can roll over and die, or you can get moving, figure out who's the audience that you want and design a blockbuster Web site with all the information [buyers seek]," she said.

Rigano said manufacturing companies' Web sites don't need to win design awards. "You're looking to create a site that's functional and easy for a buyer to use—one that's going to lead them in closer and closer to you," she said.

The way to do that, she said, is to incorporate tools such as interactive catalogs. "We've done extensive research with our customers and found that engineers love CAD [computer-aided design] drawings," Rigano said.

An engineer looking for a particular component could go online, find the component's CAD drawing, download it and determine if it will work with his design. That buyer is much more likely to buy, she said, because he can see how the part would fit. "[The buyer] still may need to pick up the phone, that doesn't change—and for 50% of the companies we deal with, the ultimate contact ends up in phone call—but it's initiated online," she said.

Mike Newkirk, global marketing manager, manufacturing and services at software company SAS, which sells its business intelligence and predictive analytics products to the manufacturing vertical, said the SAS Web site is a huge part of the company's marketing efforts. "We've got a very top-shelf group that manages that, and they track statistics, and the number of hits we get, and where they go and what they're interested in," he said.

Client success stories top site

To make sure the site is highly usable and pertinent to visitors' needs, SAS conducts focus groups on the site's navigation and content, Newkirk said. Client success stories are at the top of the list of must-have site content, he said, as are white papers with valuable information. "Too many white papers out there are elaborate sales pushes," he said. "We mean real white papers, where there's a business issue laid out, with challenges and solutions—not harping on your product."

Webcasts also represent an important piece of SAS' marketing efforts; the company will sponsor six this year, Newkirk said. "Customers want more than fluffy brochures," he said. "They want to hear substance. They want to hear thought leaders. They want to listen to a conversation between experts about a topic, and they want the ability to interact with those experts."

Newkirk said the thought leaders in his company's webcasts are generally not SAS executives, but academics, analysts or consultants who know a lot about the particular area that the webcast is addressing.

Though the company relies heavily on Internet marketing, offline marketing is still very important. Print advertising plays a significant role in SAS' marketing efforts, he said, as do in-person events, including smaller, targeted events as well as larger conferences, such as the Premier Business Leadership Series, an invitation-only executive event the company presents.

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