How to work the 'long tail' hard, and profitably

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When 60% of your customers generate less than $1,000 a year in revenue apiece (and some as little as $30), customer acquisition can be a constant challenge. For Midwest Laboratories, an Omaha, Neb.-based analytical testing firm that faces this test, social media has been an inexpensive and reliable way to dominate the search results that deliver a steady stream of new business. Type “soil testing” into Google, and Midwest's SoilTestingOnline blog is the first commercial result and the eighth result overall. For “biodiesel testing,” it's No. 1. Type in “shelf life testing” and you will find the Shelflifetesting blog site, No. 1 for three straight years. And those are a few ingredients in the sprawling portfolio of social outposts that Midwest Laboratories has set up under the guidance of Marketing Director Brent Pohlman. In the process, revenue has grown 20% each year for the past three years. While Pohlman is the first to compliment the skills of the firm's five field sales representatives, he believes search-optimized blogs and the company's presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have a lot to do with that success. Agricultural testing is a long-tail search marketing strategy. Not many people search on the terms that define Midwest Labs' business every day; but those who do are likely to be homeowners, real estate companies, agricultural firms and other businesses in search of solutions. Some are looking for signs of contaminants in their soil or plants. Others need to know chemical composition for FDA compliance. Some simply want to know how they can improve crop yields. Each day, thousands of samples stream into Midwest Labs for analysis, more than 1 million last year alone. Online visibility has driven much of the company's recent growth. Five years ago, Midwest Labs was adding 60 to 80 new accounts per month. Today, it adds 100 to 200. As with many b-to-b companies, Midwest Labs' blog is an engine of online visibility. Pohlman posts new content to the blog almost every day, from the practical to the offbeat. Much of this content is curated from other sources that Pohlman monitors, but some originates from activities within the company. And you never know what's going to catch a visitor's fancy. For example, last year one of the company's in-house projects concerned a study that showed it was impossible to grow bacteria on a fast-food hamburger. The reason turned out to be a chemical widely used by fast-feeders (ammonium hydroxide), similar to ingredients found in cleaning products. That post “gets a wave of traffic every couple of months,” Pohlman said. “I'm amazed at how much interest there is in the topic.” The actual traffic figures don't sound like much—about 100 visits on an average weekday—but the conversion rate is high. Three to five new accounts come into the website in an average day. Success was achieved neither quickly nor simply. It took more than two years of daily tending for the blog to reach the critical mass that drove search recognition. But now Google love has become an annuity. Another winner for the company was a happy accident. Unable to start multiple blogs under the company domain, Pohlman registered targeted domain names like,, and In doing so, he unlocked one of the great secrets of search: domain names are “search engine magnets,” he said. Midwest Labs understands the beauty of being a big fish in a small pond. In fact, last year it jettisoned a 20,000-follower Twitter account because few of those people had any value to the company's business. It now has just fewer than 1,000 followers, but “they're the right people,” Pohlman said. In a long-tail business, quality is what counts.
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