Buyers Knocking at Your Virtual Door

Whenever I begin a speech, I ask a series of four questions and have the audience raise their hands if the answer to a question is "yes." Consider your answers:
In the past 2 months, either privately or professionally, in order to find an answer to a problem or research (or buy) a product, have you: 1) Responded to a direct mail advertisement? 2) Used magazines, newspapers, TV, or radio? 3) Used Google or another search engine? 4) Emailed a friend, colleague, or family member (or used instant message, chat room, or equivalent) … and was the response that came back a web URL, which you then clicked to visit the website?

Over the course of a year in front of 10,000 people from dozens of groups as diverse as college students, marketing professionals, and executives at Fortune 500 companies, the answers are surprisingly consistent. Between 5% and 20% of people answer the first two questions with a yes. That means that the ways that so many companies are trying to reach people today—direct mail and advertising as well as trying to convince mainstream media to talk them up—is only effective in reaching a small portion of potential customers. However, between 80% and 100% of people raise their hands to indicate that they use a search engine to find an answer to a problem or research a product or that they link to a website as the result of a suggestion from a friend, colleague, or family member. Clearly, using search engines to be found—and providing useful website content to people once they get there—is critical for any business.

Unlike nontargeted, interruption-based, in-your-face advertising, the information that appears in search engines after someone has typed in a phrase is content that they actually want to read. How cool is that? Rather than trying to convince people to pay attention to your products and services by dreaming up messages and ad campaigns, search engines deliver interested people right to your company’s virtual doorstep. This is a marketer’s dream come true.

However, most marketers don’t know how to make use of this exciting form of marketing. While the details of search engine marketing are way beyond the scope of this short column, the most common mistakes made by marketers can be summed up very simply: Marketers spend way too much time worrying about the keywords and phrases that they want to optimize for and not enough time creating great site content, which the search engines will reward with lots of traffic and that will educate and inform visitors. Most organizations do a decent job with collecting search phrases and getting indexed by the engines, but nearly all are terrible at building a landing page, the place people go after they click on a search results hit. It’s sort of like an outdoor Hollywood movie set—beautiful facades, but if you actually went through the front door, you’d find nothing there.

OK, so that’s the bad news. The good news is that these common problems are easily solved by creating web content that actually meets the needs of your potential customers instead of search engines. The information that people see when they link to your site is meant to be the beginning of a relationship. Here’s the rule: When you write, start with your buyers in mind, not with search engines.

Marketers I speak to at many companies tell me that search engine marketing produces the highest quality sales prospects—the ones that are most likely to turn into paying customers. Unlike tire kickers at tradeshows or people who respond to bait- and-switch offers such as "win a free iPod," people who land at your site as a result of a Google search are ready to enter your company’s buying process. They are looking for what you have to offer. That’s why a focus on the landing page—the content that people will see once they arrive at your site—is so critical. When people link via search, you’ve only got a few seconds to show them that you’ve got valuable information.

Your online marketing content is meant to drive action, which requires a focus on buyer problems, and your buyers want this in their own words. Every time you write, you have an opportunity to communicate and to convince. At each stage of the sales process, well-written materials combined with effective SEO programs will lead your buyers to you and then educate how your company can help them, resulting in more sales.