Marketing is under pressure to generate and qualify leads, so it’s easy to get caught up in hype. There are literally thousands of vendors pushing software and services, all touted as the newest, biggest and best. You’ve got artificial intelligence to analyze buying habits. You’ve got extended reality (XR) that promises to leverage virtual and augmented reality systems. You’ve got more acronyms than you can shake a stick at — CDP, DMP, DAM, PAM.
In fact, one analyst mapped about 8,000 marketing technology products vying for your budget. Some martech tools are worthwhile, of course, but many are expensive and unlikely to provide the promised returns.
The good news for B2B companies is that you can market effectively without spending a lot. If you’re unsure how to start and don’t yet have a chief marketing officer or equivalent, you may want to consider a fractional or outsourced expert who can “market the problem” that your product solves. We’ll also provide a plan here that will get your company on a solid footing, with insights on hiring an agency and prioritizing efforts.
As to what you should spend, WebStrategies tracks marketing investments on an annual basis. In 2018, the average for all companies was marketing spending equalling 11.1% of revenue; that dipped to 6.3% and 6.9% for B2B product and B2B services companies, respectively. As of June 2020, that average ticked up to 12.6%, again with B2C companies spending more.
Here’s how to make the online marketing part of that investment work hard for your business.
Michael Greer, digital marketing consultant
B2B marketing is more difficult than B2C selling because it’s simply harder to get the attention of business decision-makers. Fortunately, there are tried-and-true ways to get your message to business buyers, and three of them should be where you should focus most of your online marketing spend: display advertising, social media and search engine marketing.
If your CMO can make a case that her team has mastered these basics, then it may be time to entertain some new martech. But in my experience, few B2B firms have truly squeezed all possible leads from the fundamentals.
Here’s what decision-makers need to know to tell a smart marketing investment from a waste of time and money.
Display advertising refers to the standard ads you see everywhere online, whether a banner ad or elsewhere on the page. They are ubiquitous and fall into “top of the funnel” advertising, where you’re trying to grab buyers’ attention.
Greer says developing and placing these ads seems way more complicated than it really is. There are a ton of banner-ad buzzwords and new targeting features, but the good news is that a typical B2B company on a budget doesn’t need to get fancy.
“Display is one of those products that always reminds me that the more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Greer. “Despite the myriad of targeting options out there, display still has more in common with old-fashioned billboards than many marketers are comfortable admitting.”
Yes, display ads are trackable, and the detailed audience, behavior and content data you can get access to would be unimaginable to a billboard advertiser in 1993. But take all that with a grain of salt. It’s much harder to get people to click on an online ad than it is to get them to drive past a billboard; the median click-through rate on all display ads on a Google search is only 1.55%, according to digital marketing publisher Smart Insights. That’s largely because online ads are getting ever more intrusive, and as the general population grows more sophisticated and knowledgeable about what advertisers actually do with their personal data, they are ever more reluctant to click.
Marketers can essentially follow users around the internet and target them based on their activities. They don’t need an email address or any other information to flood a prospect with targeted ads. Whether that’s cool or creepy depends on where you sit, but one thing’s for sure — it works.
Also true is that with each new iteration of display, marketers step closer to completely exhausting the public’s attention. Forty-three percent of internet users have installed ad blockers, and consumers under 40 years old are increasingly “banner blind,” according to SEO training firm Backlinko. Their eyes skip straight past paid ads and placements and go to the first organic result on Google, the next YouTube video or the next bit of content.
That said, display advertising can generate B2B buyer interest, if your team uses the right tactics. Greer has a bunch of advice on the creative methodologies behind display and, for budget-holders, a few points to make sure your marketing team is on the right track:
The size and placement of display ads make them conducive to a quick scan, not in-depth reading. It isn’t a slide projected on a wall. Your ad takes up a fraction of the real estate on a phone screen. Use as few words as possible to get the point across. “Widgets $1 Today” with an image of the widget is way better than “Widgets are great, and at Widget, Inc., we are committed to providing the best possible widgets. Click to learn more about our $1 widget sale. One day only!”
Ensure ads contrast text with the image or background and are easy to read quickly. By now you’re probably sensing a theme: Keep them dead simple.
Do not under any circumstances run just one ad over and over. Online advertising is a prime opportunity to A/B test your company’s messaging. It’s incredibly simple to run multiple ad variants, gather results, refine and develop more effective ads, and messages, over time.
There are a variety of tools and methods to do A/B testing. But just remember: If the agency or marketer you’re working with doesn’t use or offer it, move along.
There are a million different types of display ads, but Greer says there’s only one that every single business, no matter the type, size or industry, should run: retargeting. It’s simply showing an ad to people who, for example, have already visited your site or proactively searched for your product or service. So to some degree, they’re already qualified, and retargeting moves them down the funnel.
“Have you ever looked at a pair of shoes and then you see ads for them the next day? That’s retargeting,” said Greer.
Remarketing is a similar tactic focused on reengaging customers who have done business with you in the past. In both cases, you’re looking to reach people with a propensity to purchase your product or service.
Remarketing and retargeting are priced on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) impressions basis, and Greer says B2B companies can expect to pay around $6 to $10 CPM. That means if you get 2,000 visitors a month to your website, you can show all of them ads enticing them to return for $500 or $1,000 per month. It’s a small investment that reinforces everything else you’re doing to bring in new business.
As a bonus, it’s easy to determine if you’re getting results, because you can see how much revenue your paid display ad is generating and if it’s hitting your ROI goals.
“If you’re on a budget, you should think hard about where and how you already get your customers, and then put together a display strategy that builds on that,” said Greer.
As an example, if you’re an IT managed services company whose client base consists largely of customers that tried virtual desktop management on their own, then gave up and hired you, try retargeting individuals who have searched for very specific relevant terms, like “stop error 0x109.” The only people who search for that term are those who, like your current client base, are fed up with a self-installed virtual desktop solution. Follow them around the web touting your hassle-free service.
Retargeting also works when looking to sell to people who have been to a certain place in the real world.
“For instance, if you get most of your customers today from conference booths, consider running a geofence campaign that only targets people and devices that have been in a specific location for the duration of the conference,” said Greer.
A geofence is a geographic boundary placed around a physical point, such as a trade show booth. When a mobile device enters this defined space, the geofence triggers an action, like sending a message through the event app saying, “Visit booth 104 now for a free business insurance evaluation.”
A brokerage could run that ad at an average-size conference for less than the airfare of the people manning the booth.
“Make display ads work to your strengths as a business,” said Greer. “Always be thinking about how to get your message in front of the right eyeballs at the right time.”
To measure the success of display ad efforts, make sure your team is documenting KPIs such as impressions, click-through rate and conversions. There’s no specific range you should be measuring against; every industry, company size, marketing budget and call to action will differ. Instead, compare snapshots in time.
What was your conversion rate before the display campaign, and has it improved? How many click throughs did you get on your last paid campaign, and your organic campaigns? Has the number increased, and can you tie that directly to new revenue?
Social media marketing comes in two basic forms: paid and organic. Its main functions are brand awareness, customer and employee retention and, if you have the skills, social selling. While social can drive a massive number of leads, the conversion rates on those leads are typically far lower than other channels because it’s difficult to adequately qualify them.
Greer says that for B2B companies, social is where organizations should spend the least amount of money — which is not the same as not doing social at all.
“The lead volume is astoundingly high, and on the surface, those leads are cheap,” says Greer. “It isn’t uncommon to to average $2 per lead on Facebook, for instance. But they aren’t high-quality leads. It’s a volume play, which can be helpful for a short-term sprint, but doesn’t make for a good long-term strategy.”
Greer cites the example of a small commercial real estate company he worked with. If occupancy fell below 90% in an office building, it was a make-or-break moment for the client. So during challenging economic times like we just saw with the pandemic, it was all hands on deck. The company used a paid social strategy to jam its funnel full of leads, then tasked the sales team with the monumental mandate to qualify all of them.
“We’d turn a campaign on for 30 to 90 days, then make the leasing agents deal with those 1,000 leads,” he said. “Maybe they’ll close 1% of them, which is a terribly low close rate. But when you’re just desperate for one client to keep afloat, sometimes that makes sense. It’s completely unsustainable in the long run, though.”
Just because you shouldn’t pay for social it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Just remember that marketing on social sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, is most effective for brand-building and reputation management. For B2B companies in particular, it’s critical that customers and prospects see you responding to complaints or issues promptly and pleasantly.
Remember that most people take to social media to complain about a service or leave a bad review, not to shower praise. It should be someone’s job to actively monitor social accounts and promptly engage disgruntled customers.
Greer points out that while reputation management is one thing that social is good for, it’s almost impossible to directly attribute any hard and fast KPIs, like leads or conversions, to any one activity on social media. This is more about risk management, with that risk being to your reputation.
Guide to Social Media Crisis Management: Showcasing your business on social media needn’t be intimidating. Boost confidence by preparing for a social media crisis, a major issue that impacts a large group of customers and requires a special response.
B2B companies can really make an impact with video, and in fact, YouTube campaigns are the only area where Greer shows true enthusiasm for paid social. The key is to create videos that customers want to watch rather than focusing on what you want to say.
The first is a lead-generation tactic. The second is a vanity play.
The most successful video campaign Greer has ever run was mainly just a puppy running through an office for that same commercial real estate client.
“Sixty-seven percent of people who clicked on that video watched it through to the end and to the call to action, which is a fantastic number,” he says. “Contrast that to a video of a company representative droning on about a list of features for a product or service. Very few people will watch that to the end.”
That CTA will change depending on what you’re selling and the method you’re using, but in general, you want people to download your content or visit your site so you can turn them into a marketing-qualified lead, or MQL.
With video, the KPIs you want from your team are view-through rates and cost-per-view.
What makes a “good” cost-per-view, view through or really any metric is very individualized. Your marketing team should use comparisons to your previous activity as a way to predict desirable results, and thus define ROI goals.
Where Facebook is good for B2B business reputation management and YouTube is good for brand awareness, LinkedIn’s primary value proposition for B2B is through social selling, where sales reps engage prospects through LinkedIn activity.
LinkedIn is often praised as a valuable tool for B2B, but in Greer’s experience, paid advertising there is generally very expensive compared with other channels, like PPC or display advertising, which are generally more predictably profitable.
LinkedIn Video as a B2B Marketing Tool: At 2.74%, LinkedIn’s visitor-to-lead conversion rate is almost three times those of Facebook and Twitter combined. Learn the basics of LinkedIn video marketing — it may be easier than you think.
Social selling via LinkedIn, though, is a different story.
“There are a billion articles and guides out there promising to teach you how to do social selling, but the truth is that it’s really, really hard and takes quite a bit of time,” he said. “To be effective, it needs to be someone’s full-time job, which not all companies can afford to support. People also underestimate how long it takes to see any tangible benefit. In many cases, it’s a longer sales cycle than traditional sales, so it can be six months to a year before you really see any ROI.”
Keep your LinkedIn company profile up to date, promptly respond to customers and make sure your executives are interacting with their networks. Save your spend for other areas.
Entrepreneurs need to choose a trustworthy marketing partner, set a realistic budget and ensure the agency is delivering expected results. Rachael Hoerauf, digital marketing manager at NetSuite, offers some tips:
Choosing an agency:
Setting a budget:
Overall, agencies can be great to work with and help you reach new levels of performance that wouldn’t be possible without their expertise. But you can’t take a back seat. They aren’t managing it for you, you’re managing it together.
Search engine marketing, or SEM, is really two sides of a single coin: pay-per-click (PPC) advertising on one side and search engine optimization (SEO) on the other. Both inhabit the top of the marketing funnel and are essentially two different ways to get your business to show up on the SERP (search engine results page) — that is, in a perfect world, the first page of Google search results.
Ninety-three percent of all online experiences begin with search, and 81% of all purchases are researched online, according to marketing agency Imforza. Showing up in search is incredibly important for any business. Not being there is akin to a plumber refusing to be in the yellow pages pre-internet, Greer points out.
One of the biggest misconceptions about SEO is that it’s free. While there are tricks to raising your search ranking organically — meaning using non-paid tactics — the truth is that you will have to devote money and resources to rank on the first page of the SERP for popular and competitive search terms.
For starters, you’re going to need to build and maintain a solid website that appeals to Google’s index ranking. Google has an SEO Starter Guide, but at minimum, companies need to follow these rules:
See why we pay for marketing and web developer talent?
Another huge factor in SEO is link building, or getting other sites to link back to yours. This is where Greer sees most businesses start to stray from “white hat” to “black hat” practices.
“White hat” SEO is fundamentally doing the work of building a great website that makes for a good experience, which should in turn result in more and better links. “Black hat” is the practice of building a website and approaching link building in a way designed to game the search engine algorithms.
Google detests black hat practices and updates its algorithm hundreds of times a year to combat gaming of its system. If Google catches you applying black hat practices, forget about landing high in search rankings for years to come. Some marketers will want to game the Google system. Don’t ever let them.
“Even if you are engaged in white hat SEO, your site and where it indexes is probably going to fluctuate as a result of those updates to prevent black hat tactics,” says Greer. “Keeping up with all of it is a huge endeavor and usually costs in the thousands of dollars a month depending on the size of your site and traffic volume, particularly if you are chasing links. It also takes time to improve your page rank; how long depends a little bit on luck and a whole lot on how popular and competitive the term is.”
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All that brings us to PPC, the paid side of the SERP. Greer explains that PPC is going to help you rank in the SERP almost immediately and have the ability to show up for a nearly unlimited number of search phrases. It’s instant gratification to SEO’s long-term investment.
It’s also the hardest easy thing to do right. Keyword choice is daunting, and for a B2B, it’s expensive if you get it wrong. However, it’s one of the only places in B2B advertising where your target consumers are literally self identifying and asking to purchase, so it should be a primary point of spend.
There are four mistakes Greer sees over and over in B2B PPC setup:
Here’s an example. A wholesale office supply company is bidding on the term “pencils.” Enterprise customers might be conducting that search when they’re out of supplies, but the majority of searches are from parents looking for school supplies online. Now, you aren’t just out the cost of the click. Because everyone is looking for that deal, your sales team is going to find itself fielding inquiries (qualifying leads) from consumers who will never purchase pencils in wholesale quantities. Greer cannot stress how important — and difficult — it is to identify and eliminate ambiguous terms from your keyword list.
Putting the time and effort into doing this level of research can pay huge dividends. Here’s an example. Greer was recently working with a client spending a fair amount of money on the term “DaaS as a service.”
The problem: “DaaS” is an acronym for “desktop as a service.” So this client was essentially bidding on “desktop as a service as a service.”
There were, unfortunately, very few conversions. A better choice to find bottom-of-funnel leads: “DaaS provider.” The target customer here is IT managers, and they don’t need the “as a service” qualifier.
The people searching for “DaaS as a service” might be future customers, but today, they are in research mode. Here’s where you want to bid as little as possible and send them to, let’s say, a white paper that explains DaaS. When they see your ad a month from now while searching for “DaaS provider,” they’re going to remember how helpful you were when they were learning. Research-based keywords are great for brand awareness and top-of-the-funnel efforts, but they aren’t going to translate into a qualified lead anytime soon.
If you’re bidding on a term, your site needs to be crystal clear that you offer that product or service. Greer says online marketers can send you as much qualified traffic as your site can handle, but it won’t amount to much if your website doesn’t uphold the promise of your keywords and ads.
Make sure you’re thinking about your target audience and how they will digest the content of your site.
“All too often, especially in technology or marketing services, I see businesses either overestimate or underestimate their customers’ expertise,” he says. “You can’t talk to them like they have a PhD in your specialty, but you also can’t assume they’re idiots. I like to assume that consumers for a given product or service have achieved conversational mastery.”
PPC is a form of direct response advertising and works only if your offering is fairly well known and buyers are actually searching for it. This is why terms like “edge computing” and “5G” are more expensive today than three years ago: Customers know what they are now.
Remember that trade names are far harder to make work than generic, well-known terms. If a consumer wants a cotton swab, they search for “Q Tip.” If they want a tissue, they search for “Kleenex.” Not Q-Tip or Kleenex? Stay away from PPC bids that include your product name.
On average, you want about 20% of clicks to turn into leads to hand over to the sales team, and 20% of those leads should convert. While that can vary, generally, the 20/20 rule is a good one to follow to judge ROI.
Years ago, Greer created the acronym $.T.A.L.K to help PPC analysts new to the industry set up campaigns and troubleshoot problems. It’s also a good benchmark for business leaders who want to make sure these efforts are paying off.
$ = Budget
Does the campaign have an adequate budget to get in front of the correct audience while also making sure you aren’t spending more than is needed?
T = Targeting
Make sure you’re targeting both where your customers might be and the areas you are prepared to service. This is good to keep in mind for companies wanting to move into new markets.
A = Ads
Does your advertising accurately describe your business? Look at the points above, and compare them with your ideal buyer profile. Are your ads written to both draw in qualified customers (enterprise office supply buyers) and dissuade unqualified ones (parents shopping for school supplies)?
L = Landing page
Does your site reflect the keyword, geographic area and product offering described in the ad? Is it easily navigable and memorable?
K = Keywords
Per the points above, make sure your keywords are accurate, well-thought out, affordable and result in qualified leads.
Greer says that, accurately applied — which is what you pay your marketers to do — $TALK gets you to about 90% of your PPC potential.