Chasing Leads: Offline Lead Tracking in SEM Campaigns, Pt. 1

Tracking the source of your leads is perhaps one of the single most important elements in your overall marketing campaign. It’s the method by which you’ll gauge budget, approach, revisions, and a host of other deciding factors. Whether your reps are instructed to inquire “how did you hear about us?” or there are checkable boxes online, having a lead tracking system in place is a mighty tool and an asset to your business – bottom line. The value of an SEO campaign in terms of lead tracking is tied up with the particular search engine marketing company you select. Based on the company’s abilities, it can take your existing SEM campaigns from lackluster to high performing marketing tools that are integrated, of course, into your overall initiative.

In most non e-commerce applications, the obvious goal of an SEO campaign is to generate both a high number of leads and also a greater quality of leads. Of course, the search engine marketing company running the campaign can sometimes be frustrated since its involvement with lead data ends as soon as someone sends a form or picks up the phone to call the client company. The big problem here is that a wealth of data is being lost that could help improve the SEM campaign, and it becomes harder to follow closed leads back to their original online source. Moreover, it’s nigh impossible to track the online source of customer calls. Without help from a search engine marketing company, the client company itself is often unable to compare leads from the web versus traditional sources. On its own, reliable lead tracking becomes a near impracticality despite its importance in reevaluating future initiatives. This is a shame since the data is readily available.

As anyone who has ever done a lead quality analysis, which hopefully you or your search engine marketing company has performed, you’ll know that all leads are not created equal. That is to say that leads from some sources will be a higher quality than other sources, making frequent, detailed lead tracking a necessity. What follows are three scenarios starting from most ideal – exceedingly rare – and trending to the most common, which is unfortunately, well, common.

Three Lead Tracking Scenarios

Scenario #1: Ideal – In a perfect lead tracking scenario, leads from the website are filtered through a sales management system, such as Salesforce, which has an easily integrative tool that takes leads from the website and automatically fills in the data, adding it to a data set. A custom phone number can also be created by your search engine marketing company and used for each individual campaign that you wish to track, so that the salesperson filling in the data on Salesforce can tell by incoming numbers where the lead was generated.

If someone interested in your services or products came by a pay-per-click ad, for example, he or she could be sent to a customized landing page with a designated phone number to call. If a visitor came in through an organic SEO channel, there are off-the-shelf programs that serve up a unique phone number that a typical visitor punching in the URL would not see. Taking it one more step further, there are systems that will allow you to tell with great granularity where each phone lead came from, down to the individual ad/keyword level, etc. The phone call data from closed sales can thus offer the same wealth of integration that you can receive from online lead forms, for example. Indeed, you can track any metric that’s internally important, from which channel is bringing the highest quality leads and average dollar sale per web channel, all the way to a direct ROI correlation for each individual search engine marketing initiative (again, down to the individual keyphrase level, if desired).

Of course, only two obvious channels have been cited, SEO and PPC. You can, however, use the same philosophy effectively for any initiative, such as email marketing, banner advertising, or the like. Unfortunately, a majority of companies are not set up for this type of granularity, especially without guidance from an experienced web analytics or search engine marketing company. Rather, a number are set up to work with a proprietary CRM system that doesn’t lend itself well to web integration, leaving meaningful lead tracking by the wayside. Sometimes, companies still perform lead tracking using spreadsheets or other such simplistic methods. Often the people tasked with such initiatives are aware of the severe limitations of the current system but suffer from an inability to get buy-in to switch to something more high tech.

Transforming Your SEM Campaigns

This brings us to scenario #2, which is not 100% ideal, but still allows for significant lead tracking and data analysis. In the next installment, we’ll discover how both this scenario and scenario #3 can also be used to track sources and metrics with a high degree of success – if done properly. From ideal, we travel to workable, and finally to a common but unfortunate lead tracking scenario, which still presents some redeeming qualities for you and your search engine marketing company to work with.

The Fallacy of Search Engine Marketing Only

Allow me to offer a pre-emptive caveat – I own a successful search engine marketing company. Like most businesses, we are constantly trying to expand our client base – primarily through using the same search engine and internet marketing methods that we deliver to our clients. A quick search on terms such as “search engine optimization company” or “internet marketing company” on Google will demonstrate that we practice what we preach. As I write this, on a “clean machine” (one with all browser settings reset and cookies removed), my search engine marketing company ranks number 1 on Google for both of these phrases and the plural forms of the phrases. Based upon your past search tendencies, your specific location, and whims of the Google Gods, your mileage may vary, but you should find us near the top of the SERPs for those and hundreds of other related terms.

The Value of Integrating Different Internet Marketing Methods

The point here is not to boast – these results are due to the collective efforts of my expert team, not solely my own expertise. The point is to back up my contention that we practice what we preach and that the vast majority of our leads come from the internet marketing methods we apply to our own site. However, there has been much debate over the years in the search engine marketing community about whether it is proper or even hypocritical for a search engine marketing company to use other forms of advertising unrelated to internet marketing. The naysayers generally have a common argument: a quality search engine marketing company “shouldn’t need” to engage in any forms of offline marketing. Depending on the goals one has for their search engine marketing company, this may actually be true for some. A smaller boutique firm or an independent consultant may have all the leads they ever want from their internet marketing methods. They may even be turning business away while they make blog posts about how companies such as mine shouldn’t need to look offline for additional business opportunities.

However, this again relates directly to goals. If a search engine marketing company has capacity even after they maximize their online leads, and their business plan calls for maximum growth, what is the issue with engaging in other forms of marketing? As long as other marketing channels provide an acceptable ROI, I do not buy the argument that you “shouldn’t need it,” no matter what your situation.

The metrics are obviously what are important. It has been our experience that our own internet marketing methods provide us with, by far, the highest ROI of any of our other marketing efforts. However, this does not mean that the ROI from our online marketing efforts constitutes the baseline for what is ACCEPTABLE in terms of a return. In fact, we have done the math, and we know that we can afford to pay much more per lead.

Or, to look at this another way, we often work with companies that are embarking on online marketing for the first time. These companies almost always already have successful offline marketing campaigns in place (after all, they are successful businesses). They are obviously delighted when they discover that their cost per lead or cost per sale with internet marketing is much lower than their other marketing efforts – but does this mean that they decide to shut those other successful channels down? Of course not.

And do we, as a responsible search engine marketing company, advise them that they should shut down those channels and put all of their eggs in the online basket? Of course not. We just enjoy the fact that our internet marketing methods provide the best bang for their buck. Nobody can deny that the advent of various internet marketing methods has been a game-changer. Some forms of traditional advertising may even be on their last legs. Trade show attendance is down. Magazines and newspapers are in decline. I can’t remember the last time a door-to-door salesperson came up to my house* (except those selling a particular religion – but that’s a different story).

However, some channels, in our experience, can still provide exceptional returns. Direct mail, done properly, still works for us. Channel partnerships with offline marketing businesses can be profitable. Offline PR, when done properly, provides our search engine marketing company with exceptional exposure and returns. As long as we are achieving acceptable margins on these endeavors, we will continue to use them.

And I will continue to stand incredulous when I hear from those who tell me that we shouldn’t.

*Unless you count Girl Scouts peddling cookies.

Too Much Traffic? Too Many Leads? Try Search Engine Optimization.

Yes, you read the title right. My company recently performed extensive search engine optimization on a client website, and the results were staggering. Within a month, organic search traffic had dropped by over 60%. Inbound leads from organic search had dropped by over 50%. And the client was absolutely thrilled with the results.

So when is less organic search traffic better? And when are fewer leads from organic traffic better?

Less traffic from organic search traffic can be better when the site attracts the wrong kind of traffic, and fewer leads can better when the site attracts the wrong kind of leads.

To give you some background, this particular client offered a highly-specialized service to B2B companies. The reputation of the company and the quality of the service commanded a high dollar figure per engagement. They were THE major player in an industry that they had practically invented. However, their prior search engine optimization company did not factor in any of these very important considerations whilst optimizing the website.

The firm in question was clearly from the “traffic-at-any-cost” school of search engine optimization, and they never engaged the client with the type of questions that you would expect from a real business partner, including the most basic questions, such as “Who is your target market?” They were not a marketing partner – they were a traffic delivery mechanism. They were not actively involved in the client’s success, because to them, increased organic search traffic was the sole measure of success.

They certainly were not lacking in technical skill – they were able to deliver quality rankings for competitive keyphrases. And the methodology was not suspect, as all techniques were well within the terms of service of all major search engines. So what exactly was the client justified in complaining about?

It turns out they had plenty of legitimate complaints. Although rankings and organic search traffic were up, sales were down. Additionally, web form leads were coming in and the phones were ringing, but nothing was closing. The sales staff was spending a lot of time following up on leads that were, quite frankly, junk. Outbound prospecting had come to a standstill because salespeople had marching orders to follow up on inbound leads, which were certainly abundant.

After a brief analysis, it quickly became clear what the root of the problem was. The prior search engine optimization company, with their “traffic trumps all” mentality, had turned the site into a magnet for do-it-yourselfers, small firms or individuals with very low budgets, and visitors looking for free advice.

In their quest to obtain the most organic search traffic possible, the prior search engine optimization company had erred with the most fundamental building blocks of the campaign – keyphrase selection. Instead of carefully selecting keyphrases that were suitable to attract the high-end clientele that the client was accustomed to, they successfully (in the sense that they achieved high rankings) targeted keyphrases with modifiers such as “free,” “advice,” and “ideas.” All of these keyphrases were immensely popular, all of these keyphrases were difficult to achieve high rankings for, and all of these keyphrases should not have been utilized in the campaign in the first place.

When you optimize for low-quality phrases (“low-quality” obviously means different things, depending on a company’s goals) you receive low-quality organic search traffic in return. When low-quality traffic submits a form lead from a website, it stands to reason that the lead itself will also likely be low-quality. This was, of course, exactly what was happening to our client.

After our analysis, we broke the news to the client that the campaign had been fundamentally flawed. They were not happy to hear this news, but it did match up with their experience. We also told them quite frankly that moving forward, we would be emphasizing traffic quality over quantity, and by extension, lead quality over quantity. They were quickly convinced that organic search traffic was not the most important metric in a search engine optimization campaign, and were excited about a new, ROI-based approach.

Luckily, we did not have to throw out all of the work from the previous firm. They had laid a solid foundation in terms of tactics, which allowed us to recalibrate the keyphrases and realize results in a very short amount of time.

So, to revisit our accomplishments, organic search traffic decreased by 60%, leads were cut in half, and sales increased dramatically. The slowing pace of the incoming leads was more than offset by the quality of the leads – many leads derived from the Fortune 500 companies with whom this client was accustomed to working. Previously, visitors from these desired companies had been turned off by keyphrase modifiers such as “free” – they were serious people looking for a serious solution and they recognized that what they needed was not going to be free.

For too many people, including practitioners, search engine optimization has a very strict meaning – acquire rankings and traffic from related keyphrases. Until more companies realize that search engine optimization is a marketing tool to be judged and evaluated just like any other, there will be countless examples of campaigns deemed a huge success by those who worked on them, but as failures by those who have to deal with the aftermath.

Peeling Back the Onion: Metrics that Matter to a Good Search Engine Optimization Company

“I want to be number one on Google for (insert hyper-competitive keyphrase here).”

It’s usually the first thing we hear in terms of search engine optimization – a company wants to be in that coveted top spot on Google, Yahoo!, Ask, and MSN. No matter the industry or specialty, when companies approach us with their desired goals for an SEO campaign, it’s usually all about improving their rankings and positions – and often nothing else. Yes, achieving first page rankings or top spots on the search engines is an incredibly desirable accomplishment to many companies who want immediate and noticeable results. But with such a considerable investment in an SEO campaign, you’d think companies in need of search engine optimization services would also be concerned with their overall ROI, especially in light of the current economy.

Vastly improved (or even #1) rankings are rather easy to achieve in an SEO campaign, even by a novice search engine optimization company. I once wrote an article demonstrating that top rankings were simple – and proved it by optimizing the article for the phrase “Leprechaun Repellent”. To this day, that article, on various sites, takes up nine of the top ten spots on Google for the ridiculous phrase. The obvious question, then, is what those rankings ultimately accomplish. And so we peel back the layers of the onion until we get there.

The First Layer – Rankings

Rankings, rankings, rankings. This is by far the most popular metric for any SEO campaign. Occasionally, a search engine optimization company may not be concerned with your bottom line because it can offer guarantees and focus exclusively on achieving this goal (even though, as in the ‘Leprechaun’ example above, it’s really not getting you anywhere significant in the long run).

Rankings by themselves mean little, and the problem with companies obsessed over rankings is that it doesn’t demonstrate the usefulness of search engine optimization. For a company website, high rankings are great (and impressive for an SEO campaign), but they are just the first layer of the onion. As any good search engine optimization company will demonstrate, our goal is (and yours should be) to bring and/or improve the levels of high quality traffic to your website, meaning visitors who come to your website via a search are already reasonably interested in your products or services.

The Second Layer – Search-Engine Referred Traffic

Increasing search-referred traffic is not a perfect metric because, if visitors are not converting on your website, there’s not a big value proposition to be had. Alone, the metric relies heavily on the right keyphrase selection by your search engine optimization company during the beginning phases of your SEO campaign.

Say that a farming supply company who wanted to be number one on Google for “affordable farming equipment” decided to try a different tactic while attempting to improve its search-engine referred traffic. If the website had been optimized for ‘Britney Spears,’ for example, traffic levels would undoubtedly be high (if the site ranked well for the term – admittedly a huge challenge), but few visitors would be converting, and business, in turn, would be far from booming. Visitors will jump ship immediately and serve as an immediate reminder of the negative impact that poor phrase selection by your search engine optimization company can have on your long-term ROI.

The Third Layer – Take Rate

Essentially, the take rate refers to the number or percentage of search-referred visitors showing interest in your products or demos (your POA or Point-of-Action). The take rate merely signifies a visitor who demonstrates an interest in your POA, for example, by clicking on a “Contact Us” link. The data you’re gauging here is simply overall interest, since not all of the visitors will follow through and actually convert.

Fortunately, there are ways to improve your take rate during the SEO campaign – making the point-of-action blatant and clear on every page is usually the most effective (but overlooked) method. Collaborating with your search engine optimization company to make certain that the primary POA on your website is indeed the most desirable action that a visitor can take is of paramount importance.

The Fourth Layer – Conversion

Strictly speaking, “Conversion” is the percentage of visitors to your website that actually follow through with your POA. Once your search engine optimization company has helped you improve your take rate, you should work on getting more of those people to actually convert. Is your form too long? Do you show a prominent privacy policy promising not to use or sell personal data? Is it a quick, easy process or do people have to jump through hoops? A good search engine optimization company will be able to help you identify the elements that are serving as barriers to conversion.

The Fifth Layer – Offsite Metrics

If a client allows it, we like to get involved in the nitty-gritty of offsite metrics as part of the SEO campaign. Though the usual search engine optimization company doesn’t go this far into the process, this area alone proves invaluable to demonstrating your ROI.

By analyzing offline metrics on a granular level, your search engine optimization company can examine and report on your average dollar sale for search-referred traffic, the average dollar value of each search-referred lead, the average lifetime value of each search-referred lead, and much, much more.

A software system is usually required to report the data acquired during your SEO campaign; we use Salesforce, a leading CRM (customer relationship management) solution that can be implemented to track these statistics for you. Though it requires diligence to analyze (as well as follow leads from cradle to grave), your company can analyze which engines attracted the most visitors, which keyphrases were the most profitable, the value of customers, and retention levels.

More than Rankings

All layers of the onion, so to speak, are important to an SEO campaign, but the closer you get to the actual dollar return, the more accurate your assessment of success or failure will be. Rankings alone are no indication of success. For that matter, neither is search-referred traffic if the visitors don’t take an action on the site that can lead to a sale. And when the lead finally comes in, there is no way to track the value unless you follow up with offline metrics to determine exactly how much leads from your website are worth.

These are all base metrics – many campaigns are much more involved and use thousands of different data points. But if you are new to the conversion/ROI game and are thinking about hiring a search engine optimization company, make sure that its goal is to be attuned to your bottom line.

Prepare for Successful PPC Campaigns Before You Pay for a Single Click

As a PPC management company, we are often called upon to “fix” PPC campaigns that are not performing at an acceptable level (or are not performing, period). What we often discover is that these campaigns cannot be “tweaked” into success, because they were not built on a solid foundation from the outset. Without taking the time to craft a clear PPC strategy before you even log in to Google AdWords or Bing for the first time, you are putting yourself at a severe disadvantage.

Below are some important initial considerations that are often missing from the PPC campaigns our company encounters.

What is your Point-of-Action (POA)?

This seems simple enough. What is it that you want people to do when they arrive at your site or your dedicated landing pages? Do you want them to fill out a contact form or would you prefer they pick up the phone and call your business? Do you have an online demo that you’d like people to try? POAs can take many forms, and there can be more than one desirable action that people can take once you have their attention. But which is the most desirable? Which is the most likely to lead to a sale?

A recent client of ours was sending PPC traffic to their website hoping to increase business, but the most prominent POA on their website steered visitors to sign up for their newsletter. Upon investigation, we discovered that this was actually only the fourth most desirable action – less important than persuading visitors to complete a contact form, call the business and download product specifications. Addressing these simple changes had a huge positive impact on the client’s PPC campaigns; however, thousands of dollars were wasted in the meantime.

Know Your Acceptable Cost-Per-Action (CPA)

A PPC management company is often asked to “rescue” PPC campaigns that have not established an acceptable cost-per-action. This is extremely difficult to do, except in the most basic branding-style campaigns. People are often deterred from coming up with an acceptable cost-per-action because the formula to determine it can be so complex and requires a great deal of data. What is the average sale? What is the internal sales conversion rate? What is the internal cost of the product or service? What is the desired profit margin?

However, it doesn’t have to be so complicated. If these numbers are not readily available, a quality PPC management company can help you come up with reasonable approximations that should give you a starting point. At this point, you can begin to collect the actual data required for a sophisticated analysis while knowing that your cost-per-action will not go through the roof. As the data begins to pour in, the cost-per-action figure can be honed according to the realities of the campaign, and you will save a great deal of money in the process.

Know Your Differentiators

Any quality PPC management company makes it a point to ask every new client this question prior to working on their campaigns: If you don’t know why people should choose your company, how will they know why they should choose your company? Whether you are sending people to your website or (often preferably) designated landing pages, you have a very short window of opportunity to explain to people why they should do business with you and not your competitors, who are only a few clicks away.

And when you are considering your differentiators, it’s important to consider what actually resonates with your clients, not what you assume should resonate with them. Our company recently held a discovery meeting with a new client, and we noted that the primary differentiator emphasized on the client’s landing pages and website was the fact that they had been in business for more than 25 years. When we asked if this was what really “sold” the company to potential clients, our client sat back and said, “You know, come to think of it – I don’t think our clients care about that at all. What really sells them is the ease of integration with our product.” Again, a few simple changes in approach paid huge dividends in their PPC campaigns.

Establish Your Budget

This tip seems like a no-brainer, but a good PPC management company will always ask you whether your goal is to get as many people to take the point-of-action using a fixed budget or if the budget is flexible as long as you are achieving a specific cost-per-action. The importance of this question cannot be overstated, because it calls for two distinct approaches in managing your PPC campaigns.

For instance, Client A may have a fixed budget of $10,000 per month, and this budget will not change in the foreseeable future. In this case, our company will try to get as many prospects as possible to take the POA at an increasingly lower cost for each – in other words, to “squeeze” as much out of that budget as possible. On the other hand, Client B may have a starting budget of $10,000 per month, but is willing to increase that budget substantially, as long as they are achieving their acceptable cost-per-action. The approach to these types of PPC campaigns is decidedly different – we are trying to dramatically increase the volume of prospects while maintaining an acceptable cost-per-action for each.

The common thread with each of the discussion points above is that they should all be considered and resolved before your company spends a single dime on its PPC campaigns. They will fundamentally shape your campaign and set it on a solid foundation geared for long-term success. This approach may take a bit longer to get the ball rolling, but when it starts rolling, it will almost certainly be in the right direction.