So many channels, so few quality leads

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So many channels, so few quality leads
So many channels, so few quality leads

Want to reach prospects and cultivate leads?

The choices are overwhelming. Surveys and anecdotes extol everything from Pinterest boards to sandwich boards as the best way to attract new business. Even radio logged back-to-back years of overall spending growth in 2010 and 2011 after falling from 2007's record levels. Simply put, there aren't enough hours in the day or enough dollars in anyone's marketing budget to take full advantage of every lead-generation opportunity available today.

Marketers have to make educated choices—and the occasional leap of faith—when prioritizing their lead-gen activities, and take great care not to be blinded by the shiny trappings of the latest social channel. “When someone says that a new channel is the only one to bet on, that's silly,” says Mark Organ, cofounder and CEO of advocacy marketing provider Influitive. “It's always been about finding the right mix.”

Linking up with social signs

One consistent sentiment from marketers looking to get more out of their lead generation budgets is that they're consistently getting less from broad-based list purchases and rentals. “The concept of list buying is slowly becoming irrelevant,” says Lisa Richardson, senior product marketing manager at system management appliance brand Dell KACE.

Electronic signature provider DocuSign stayed clear of large list buys when it worked to generate more enterprise customer leads. White paper syndication and traditional email lists cast a wide net that helped fill the general B2B sales funnel, but the brand knew exactly who needed to hear its high-end message: executives at large enterprises describing themselves as VPs of direct operations and field operations.

Instead of trying to buy a list and filter those individuals, DocuSign looked at social media options. Facebook is reserved for the consumer and prosumer segments of DocuSign's business, but LinkedIn—where professionals volunteer their job titles—quickly showed promise. “InMail is more expensive than sending an email, but it's a channel that isn't noisy yet,” says Meagen Eisenberg, DocuSign's VP of demand generation. “You can put a very targeted message in front of the right person at the right company.”

While DocuSign could have opted to have its sales team reach out to prospects on a one-off basis, the San Francisco-based company needed the greater efficiency and measurability that could only be attained by automating and tracking each conversation. Thus, DocuSign developed a LinkedIn Partner Messages bulk messaging campaign, inviting recipients to an online roundtable led by the same executives whose names were on the LinkedIn messages.

An added benefit to using the Partner Messages feature is that LinkedIn designed it to keep companies from inundating prospects. LinkedIn won't deliver more than one Partner Message to a user in any 60- day window—a fact DocuSign used to great  advantage by developing a three-step messaging campaign, effectively blocking competitors from reaching prospects for almost half a year.

DocuSign used Eloqua's marketing automation technology to associate subsequent lead activity with the InMail campaigns through landing pages and registration tracking. Without the solution, attribution can be tricky because LinkedIn protects the email addresses of InMail recipients. Since one quarter of respondents confirmed attendance for the roundtable with their LinkedIn ID, DocuSign would have had difficulty measuring the results of the campaign and correctly sorting LinkedIn leads into the brand's more than 30 prospect nurturing programs.


Social media engagement as a lead source

While there are clear lead generation opportunities within a social network designed for the business community, less evident are lead generation opportunities within consumer-oriented social sites like Facebook.

The brands interviewed for this article generally agreed that consumer-facing social channels play an important role in brand awareness, but not all could place a tangible value on a “like” for lead generation purposes. “People could ‘like' a story 50 million times, but if it's not bringing people to [our] site, I'm not interested,” says Joseph Gordon, director of research at the San Diego Union-Tribune (U-T San Diego).

Companies that try to create loyalty around consumer products tend to see more success. Online ski shop Skis.com, for example, uses contests and giveaways to turn Facebook “likes” into business opportunities. The company launched a contest to find a female model for its twin-tipped ski product category, which created two stages of lead generation opportunities. By registering for the contest, the models identify themselves as prospects—young, energetic, enthusiastic skiers the brand wants to reach.

Skis.com hoped to reach 100 candidates before the contest closed, but the retailer had that many halfway through the entry period. The $500 in free gear going to the winner is peanuts compared to the potential lifetime value of the skiers identifying themselves to the brand. “Skiers tend to be life-long skiers, but the products have a long lifecycle, so we want to get a younger demographic engaged with our brand early,” says Brad Kopitz, Skis.com's director of e-commerce marketing.

Although the winner will actually be declared by Skis.com and its print media partner, visitors to the contest site are invited to support their favorite model with a Facebook “like.” Some models attracted hundreds of votes before the entry process was even completed, and overall Facebook “likes” for the brand itself are up by 10%. Skis.com believes that social engagement and contests directly translate into bottom-line results. “We like lead generation that can get people excited about our brand instantly, and we've had really good luck with contests and promotions,” Kopitz says. “The people we migrate into our email list from a contest have five to eight times the engagement of a typical email subscriber.”

Not every brand can give away product in quite the same way, but even if a brand's service is inappropriate for a contest, putting something in a prospect's hands is still appreciated in this always-on, globally connected marketplace.

Analyzing content to drive leads

Flashy modeling contests aside, content is still a mainstay for generating leads. As a media brand, U-T San Diego's Sign On San Diego site has a dual lead-generation mission: generate leads for its paid subscription content (a paywall blocks users after 15 free articles per month) and for potential advertisers. Unfortunately, the newspaper had little insight into how valuable each story and writer was as a lead-generation tool. “We had all these excellent authors and contributors, but no idea who was contributing what [to Web traffic],” Gordon says. “Now we're holding authors accountable…for what they're contributing to our organization.”

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Implementing analytics from Anametrix produced immediate results, particularly after the brand began exposing page-view reports and real-time dashboards to writers. With a stronger understanding of how readers are reacting to content, writers began to tailor headlines on the fly and even changed their approach to story structure to generate more traffic. One prolific but poorly read writer increased his monthly traffic roughly 500% after the analytics rollout.

Traffic improvements were a start, but when it came to enticing advertisers, Sign On San Diego had to improve its article-tagging, as much of its content was generally categorized as “local news.” This reduced the value of otherwise high-profile categories, such as biotech, because a reader paired with a biotech topic would not be recognized as a biotech reader and shown an appropriate, high-value advertisement. “Not only are we doing better at getting people to our site to read articles, but we're creating more targeted opportunities for advertisers,” Gordon says.

While media paywalls typically enhance up-front revenue but reduce page views, U-T San Diego's content and site navigation improvements helped the newspaper experience only half the industry average traffic decline after instituting its paywall. The brand is so confident in its ability to expand traffic that its authors are expected to increase their individual article traffic 30% year-over-year. Writers are adapting their content now that they can see how deeply readers view stories and how they react to headlines. “The salespeople love me, because they have better lead prospects,” he says.

Leading an audience to content and making them drink

Similarly, hotel operator Great Lakes Management Group (GLMG) coupled relevant content with an organic search strategy when it realized that its pay-per-click strategy was going nowhere. “We were at the top for five years, but it wasn't a relationship, it wasn't helping our business grow. It was just getting us the contracted number of clicks per month,” says Neil Densmore, GLMG president.

After consulting with agency CloudTactix, GLMG realized it could do far better by attracting leads organically by starting conversations about local business and social events that draw customers. The company built a new site that consolidated its 10 individual hotel sites and filled its content with calendar events and blog posts. “The hotel franchise companies take care of their brand name, but they don't dial down to snowmobile races and individual festival activities,” Densmore says. “We're blogging these local activities and getting number one [search] rankings on events even locals aren't aware of,” he adds.

GLMG reduced its pay-per-click advertising budget by 72% after the organic search strategy showed its worth, and the remaining keyword buys are focused on event keywords rather than more expensive and lower-quality generic city name terms. Bookings are currently up at nine of GLMG's 10 Midwestern properties since the shift.

While the nature of the content is important, so is the manner in which it is delivered, as GLMG discovered when it revamped its website. This is also true of webinars, a traditionally reliable lead generation forum. Increasingly, companies seek solutions that enhance webinar content to increase prospect interest.

“Webinars work very well if you have content that's relevant or thought leadership in your area—when someone is willing to be in a webinar for 30 to 60 minutes, we see high conversion rates from them,” DocuSign's Eisenberg says.

Webinars have been particularly fruitful for one large insurance company, which worked with marketing automation software vendor Act-On to aggressively expand its lead-generation activities. Online seminars are up more than fourfold, with as many as 40 events targeting independent insurance agents every month, so getting registrants can be challenging. By customizing webinar content and invitation messaging with embedded video and calendar synchronization, the brand has boosted prospect attendance 20%, even with the busier presentation schedule. “Something as simple as the embedded feature to add the event to [the prospect's] calendar gave us a lift,” says Paul Booyens, project manager in the insurer's distribution channel. “And we can cost effectively reach these independent businesses with as many as nine events in one day.”

Leading with advocacy

Tools like webcasts connect marketers and prospects, but other technologies help marketers use the power of influencers by connecting customers who are brand advocates with qualified prospects while they're actively considering a purchase.

Dell KACE worked with Influitive to introduce the KACE Konnect advocacy hub, which rewards volunteer customers for engaging with peers about the brand. KACE has used the Influitive “challenge” system—in which customers earn loyalty points for answering calls to action—to identify case study candidates and generate brand-referral tweets and blog posts. But it's in real-time advocacy that the strategy truly shines.

When KACE finds a likely prospect discussing IT management problems on social news sites like Reddit or on more professional forums, the brand challenges customers to chime in on the discussion. “Within 24 hours we have seen people change their position from feeling that KACE was off their radar, to downloading our trial software,” says Richardson, the company's senior product marketing manager. “We can't be in every single conversation, but when we can focus [on] people who are really passionate about our product,” she says, “the quality of the lead is much higher than buying a list or attending events or hoping somebody downloads a whitepaper.”

Uptake of the advocacy program is high—30% of KACE customers invited to the advocacy hub have accepted, and since the beta rollout of the program in June, the average participant has completed nearly seven advocacy “challenges.” Rewards are experiential rather than tangible, ranging from special community badges to private roadmap sessions with product management executives. “The experiential rewards help our customers feel more connected to the product and brand, and the more they feel that way the better advocates they will be,” Richardson says.

Although it may be tempting to view the advocate channel as a strictly pay-for-play opportunity and simply toss money, discounts, or iPad giveaways at established customers for supplying qualified leads, that tactic can have a hidden cost. Pay-for-play risks attracting tepid advocates who won't be bringing their A-game to the endeavor—and, as a result, won't be generating A-list prospects. Even worse, Influitive's Organ warns that such tangible compensation can actually undermine the joy advocacy brings a brand's most fervent fans. “We don't ban financial rewards, but…when you pay people for something they like to do, they stop finding it pleasurable in itself,” he says.ski

Channel surfing

Despite the new opportunities online channels present, sometimes the best channels are the more traditional ones, like direct mail.

“Now I'm giving away the big secret,” says Lisa Dreher, VP of marketing and business development at IT solutions provider Logicalis. “Online marketing has made direct mail marketing more effective than back in the day when it was one of the only methods.”

While some companies like DocuSign use direct mail mostly for high-end C-level prospects, Logicalis remains a firm believer in high-touch direct mail content. Prospects can become inured to all the online flash begging for attention, Dreher says, which means interesting creative coming through the mail can be truly attention-grabbing. So, to promote a five-week webinar series to a brand-new audience, Logicalis mailed a small “book of secrets” designed by agency Sudden Impact to prospects with tongue-in-cheek facts and trivia—but nothing about data centers. Registered participants later received a laminated webinar guide and a branded desk coaster set in the mail.

Channel choices will continue to multiply, and despite the glut of online options, no single channel has risen above the rest. As always, brands must experiment, measure, and maintain perspective. Alluding to John Wanamaker's famous quote, GLMG's Densmore quips, “We all know 50% of marketing is a waste of money. We just don't always know which 50%.”

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