SEMA News - April 2010

Best Practices

By Steve Campbell

Proven Techniques for the Internet, Mobile Applications and Social Networking

  SEMA NEWS-APRIL 2010-BEST PRACTICES 
   
This series of SEMA News stories is based on the idea of using reliable and repeatable methods to ensure business success. In the coming issues, we will delve into a range of topics aimed at developing Best Practices through knowledge, motivation and skills. Writing for BtoB Online, Senior Editor Christopher Hosford cited a survey that indicated a 17% average increase in online marketing spending for 2010. Another survey suggested that 64% of companies plan to increase budgets for search-engine optimization, and 51% will increase budgets for paid search. The groundswell of cell-phone applications—particularly on Blackberry and iPhone devices—has led to 56% of companies planning to increase their spending on mobile marketing. And the newest darling in the online realm, social networking, has opened a panorama of possibilities.

Most experts agree that optimizing a company’s website is the most important initial element of selling online. According to Bill Leake, CEO of Apogee Results, those elements include offering a clear message about the purpose of the website; obvious calls to action for customers, offering concrete reasons for buying from the site or for signing up to receive e-mail updates; and a top-notch analytics program that allows managers to track what’s happening on the site.

Kent Lewis, president of Anvil Media Inc. added that website optimization should include strong and detailed merchandising of new products, specials and closeouts and should be coupled with customer testimonials and order and contact information. Both Leake and Lewis downplayed the importance—and even warned of decreased usability or visibility in search engines—caused by elements such as unnecessary Flash animation or framed content. “Art is pretty,” Leake said, “but what you want are dollars.”

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Top websites include clear messages and obvious calls to action for customers along with a comprehensive analytics program that allows managers to track what’s happening on the site. Discount Tire Direct augments its web presence through eBay Motors, which reaches more than 10.2 million users a month. Discount Tire Direct uses state-of-the-art part finders to help do-it-for-me and do-it-yourself users search parts on the site.  

   
Pretty or not, giving your website every chance to take advantage of the Internet’s viral nature is crucial, according to Caitlin McCabe, founder of White Label Marketing. “If you have a video, make sure that it is sharable,” she said. “If you have a blog, make sure that it can go to Facebook and that people can e-mail it to a friend. Your audience, your fans and your followers are willing to spread the word about you to other people if you just give them the tools to do it. You can have five bloggers who see something they like on your site and reprint it. Suddenly, you have 35,000 more people viewing it without having done any extra work.”

Website optimization also includes using links to make navigation easy and quickly understandable. Clear and accurate descriptions should include words or phrases that customers might type into a search engine, such as Google or Bing, when they’re hunting for either specific products or categories, such as “cat-back exhaust systems.” Using text for links rather than graphic elements also allows search engines to operate more effectively, and descriptive rather than “cute” titles and subtitles make searches more effective as well.

“Search-engine marketing may be the most cost-effective way to reach new customers, as you are able to target buyers looking for specific products and provide them a specific message or product page,” Lewis said. And “organic” searches—where Google, Bing or similar engines scour the web for keywords that match what the user has entered—are free. In organic searches, the websites that most closely match the user’s input go to the top of the returns list, but a company may also employ paid search to ensure that its ad shows up at or near the top of a search-engine results page.

In its basic form, paid search entails bidding on specific words or phrases to get a top ranking for a search item within a given engine. When a potential customer clicks on the resultant ad, the user is transferred to the company’s website, which is charged a relatively inexpensive “pay-per-click” fee. Bringing customers to a purchase point is the essence of most digital marketing campaigns. But getting a potential buyer onto the site is also the first step in creating an ongoing relationship.

“The higher you are in the rankings—natural or paid—the more likely you are to drive traffic to the site,” said Michael Kelly, director of business development at ClickMail Marketing. “That is a really good tactic to use in growing an e-mail list, which enables you to provide ongoing information to people who are interested in your products or services. You can reach out to them and pull them back to the site. But promise something of value, such as e-mail-only offers or special advance sale notices. You have to sell the process. There should be a little bit of real estate on every page of the website that asks for minimal information—an e-mail address only or e-mail with a first name; just the minimum you would need to convert a visitor to a prospect.”

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Many consumers use blogs as their primary research tool, depending on other enthusiasts or customers to tell them how easily a product was installed, how well it fit and what kinds of performance, convenience or appearance enhancements resulted. Jeff Smith, senior tech editor for Car Craft magazine, writes this blog for the publication’s website. 

As noted on the Federal Trade Commission website, the CAN-SPAM Act sets rules for commercial e-mail, gives recipients the right to stop e-mail messaging and outlines the penalties for violations. The act covers all commercial messages, including “any electronic mail message, the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service.” Ensure that you understand the act and fully comply with its stipulations before entering into an e-mail campaign. Still, e-mail offers terrific sales potential and can tie in all of the other methods of digital marketing.

“One of the ways to use e-mail is to enable the recipients to share specific articles or content with their social networks,” Kelly said. “The average user on Facebook has about 150 connections. Those connections will have similar interests to the recipient of your e-mail newsletter, and they are likely to be connected and networked with more family, friends and colleagues who have similar interests. If you enable them to share your content, your can see amazing expansion of reach. People who may not have had previous exposure to your brand will sign up for their own e-mail news feed, allowing you to grow your e-mail list organically.”

McCabe suggests having past newsletters available when soliciting new e-mail recipients so that people know what to expect from you, both in content and in frequency, and Lewis points out that it is easy to embed video and other rich media into e-mails. Because you know who you’re talking to—your subscribers—tracking is also easy.

One of the most effective ways to develop an in-house mailing list is to place a sign-up area on the homepage of your website, where people can submit their addresses, said Luanne Brown, founder and president of eTool Developers LLC. Another way is to provide a “forward-to-a-friend” option when you send newsletters to customers who have already given permission. But Brown cautions that the newsletter or offer should be correctly targeted.

“If your company sells to 10 different vertical segments within the automotive aftermarket, you can’t just be a generalist and send out one massive e-mail,” she explained. “You should focus on each niche, talk directly to that customer and create a two-way conversation so that something impersonal—the web and computers—becomes extremely personal. That’s what has happened with social networking: All of these individuals have become connected, making it more personal.”

Social networks can be highly effective at generating awareness and engaging with the marketplace, Lewis said. Rather than building a pricey custom forum, parts manufacturers might want to consider creating profiles on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and others such sites to share information about their latest products, projects and performance statistics. Such networks also allow for specific targeting of demographic profiles.

“Facebook allows you to set the demographics geographically,” Brown said, “as does Google AdWords. You can determine when and where to have display ads shown, for instance. You can say, ‘I want my display ad to show up between 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., because that that’s when technicians come home and hop online.’ You can pinpoint times and locations—Florida to Maine on one set of days and Washington state to Southern California on another set. You can use those tools to get your message to where you need it to be seen.”

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Website optimization should include strong and detailed merchandising of new products, specials and closeouts and should be coupled with customer testimonials and order and contact information.  

   
Tim Ash, president and CEO of SiteTuners.com said that one of Facebook’s advertising tools lets you say exactly what you’re looking for. “You can specify that you want males only, under 30, and that you want them to have the words ‘drag racing’ somewhere in their profile on Facebook. They’ll give you free information about how many of those people there are. It’s a great tool for judging the breadth of interest in a particular area. And when your ads come up, they’ll be extremely targeted.”

A blog (which is a contraction of the words “web” and “log”) is another web phenomenon that has exploded in the past two years. Many consumers use blogs as their primary research tool, depending on other enthusiasts or customers to tell them how easily a product was installed, how well it fit and what kinds of performance, convenience or appearance enhancements resulted.

“Consumers want to understand the product experiences of fellow users,” said Famous Rhodes, director of eBay Motors. “This content is the most compelling in leading a consumer to make a final purchase decision. eBay has seen data to suggest that 9% of traffic that came directly from enthusiast forums or blogs purchased automotive parts. That is the highest concentration of purchase intent in any online vertical. An eBay survey revealed that 16% of all online parts buyers submit at least five or more blog posts per year.”

Company-produced blogs are best used to provide expertise on a subject, said Mike Moran, author of Do It Wrong Quickly, co-author of Search Engine Marketing Inc. and chief strategist of Converseon. SEMA members might use blogs to provide their expertise to potential customers.

“If you sell aftermarket exhaust systems, your website probably has all sorts of technical information about how much better your parts are than everyone else’s,” Moran said, “but your blog should explain exactly why exhaust systems boost performance, how to install them yourself or how to choose an installer to do it for you and other information that shows your expertise on the subject.”

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The connections between users on Facebook, who are likely to have similar interests, can provide an amazing expansion of reach. Such social networks can be a valuable research tool and allow a company to generate brand awareness and engage with the marketplace.  

   
Obviously, a company blog needs to appeal to a specific audience, even though the users may have diverse reasons for reading and may be coming to the blog from different sources. Selecting the proper person to write and maintain a blog has its own list of parameters. The CEO or even the chief communications officer may not be the right choice.

“For some companies, it may be that the blog writer has a charismatic, humorous, controversial or just unique personality, and that comes across in their writing,” said Shelley Ellis of Shelley Ellis Consulting. “Adding controversy or a fresh approach to a boring topic can draw people in, and you can also use pictures, graphics and embedded video to add appeal to your blog. But don’t just talk about the company. Discuss topics in the industry, conferences and add user-generated content, such as pictures or stories that have been sent in.”

Blogs should be frequently updated, but the content should have a reason for being. Blogging just for the sake of adding words does no one any good and will eventually cause attrition in the audience. Effective blogs not only generate loyal readership but also help with those all-important search-engine rankings.

“We blog every two or three days,” said Kelly, “and the search engines love it. You can further tailor that by mentioning relevant keywords and search terms in the blog that catch people’s attention. That results in a greater weighting and how your brand shows up in natural search rankings.”

A blog can also be repurposed for social networks, so you should make it easy to share the blog posting. “With a social media ‘share’ button, you can send the blog posting as your Facebook status or Tweet about it or publish it on LinkedIn,” said Ash. “If you make it really easy to distribute, you don’t know who’s going to stumble onto it. It’s a diffuse activity, but it does work.”

Short message service (SMS) is a mobile phone technology that has come into its own over the past couple of years, but its use as a marketing tool is somewhat controversial. Like instant messaging, SMS (or texting) allows only a limited number of characters per transmission and, like commercial e-mail use, is highly restricted. It may also be seen as spamishly invasive by the receiver. Still, there are times when SMS can be a valuable tool.

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Paid search (shown in the “Sponsored Link” sections on this page) entails bidding on specific words or phrases to get a top ranking for a search item within a given engine. In organic searches, the websites that most closely match the user’s input go to the top of the returns list (shown in the center left of this page).  

   
Both Lewis and Kelly suggested inviting participation through e-mail, flyers, billboards or other advertising media with the promise of a reward—a free product, for instance, or entry into a VIP-only event. Encourage users to SMS text a keyword to a specific number with their e-mail address. Once a few hundred or thousand people have responded, their addresses can be moved over to an e-mail campaign for further follow-up.

Tracking the effectiveness of digital marketing campaigns is made easier by the plethora of tools available. The ultimate goal is to tie every click all the way through to a resulting sale, online or offline, said Moran.

“That way, you see exactly how each marketing tactic turns into a sale, enabling you to place a value on everything you do” he said. “Then you can use testing to vary your message and your experience to see whether a change improves your sales results. Through constant experimentation, you’ll optimize your marketing spending to produce the highest return on investment.”

Google Analytics is a free application and was the most mentioned tracking software among the experts we spoke with.

“It’s easy to configure, and it can be installed by a company’s web manager with just a few lines of code on each page of your site,” said Lewis, “and it allows you to track where visitors originated and where they left. You can even set it up for custom tracking of various marketing efforts and social platforms, such as banner X drove Y sales and Twitter generated Z contest entries.”

The main selection of Google Analytics tracking includes page views (how many times the pages on your site have been viewed), pages per visit (how many pages on your site users visited on average), average time on site (how long each user spent on your site), bounce rate (what percentage of users left after visiting only one page) and percentage of new visits (how many visitors had never been to your site before). Brown said that bounce rate is a primary indicator of website effectiveness. If the rate is high, users aren’t finding what they’re looking for and are not venturing beyond the homepage; if it’s low, they want what you’re selling. Anything under 50% is considered reasonable, she said.

The key to successful digital marketing—just as with traditional marketing—is providing a worthwhile and relevant experience for the customer. Beyond providing quality products at reasonable prices, presentation and ease of use are crucial.

“Content is king,” said Brown. “Valuable content will bring users back.”  

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