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What Works Now in B2B Lead Generation: SEO and SEM

MarketingSherpa has just released its 2008 B2B Lead Generation Handbook (that's a link to the free executive summary PDF; the complete report will run you a cool $500). The 22-page executive summary contains some useful information for B2B marketers and CEOs (plus a little bit of misinformation best disregarded).

B2B Marketing Has Changed Dramatically

The report authors spend considerable ink on the changes that B2B marketing has undergone since 2000. Parts of this analysis are very helpful, for example, "The easiest way to save money (during the 2000-2002 recession, when marketing budgets were being slashed) was to replace old media with cheaper new media. That meant replacing print brochures with PDFs, post-mailed newsletters with emailed newsletters, road shows and seminars with webinars, and print ads with online advertising, including search."

However, the coverage does have an element of navel-gazing: "Since the year 2000, B-to-B marketing has undergone dramatic changes—in strategy, budget, measurement, philosophy and tactics...the Internet has certainly been a big part of these changes." Yes it has, and so have the other factors cited in the report, but there isn't anything really magical about the year 2000—except that, as the report also reveals, that's the year MarketingSherpa first started paying attention to B2B marketing. There's a strong case to be made that B2B marketers have always been more aggressive than their B2C counterparts in adopting new technologies, due to their smaller budgets and more tightly targeted audiences, or at least that this has been case for the last two-to-three decades.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, B2B companies were aggressive at moving print materials to CDs, then moving CD-based content materials online. B2B companies were building websites, sending out email newsletters and buying ads on trade publication websites well before their B2C counterparts in many if not most cases, and were certainly active in all of these areas before 2000.

It's Critical to get SEO and SEM Right

As the chart below shows, buyers are far more likely to find vendors when they are ready to buy than to respond to vendor outreach that may or may not hit them at the right time.

That's why it's crucial that vendors be "findable" when buyers are looking, and why spending on search engine optimization and search marketing have become a significant portion of B2B marketing budgets. Social media also plays an important role here, and the report provides some tips in this area.

According to MarketingSherpa's study, a typical B2B company spends about 30% of its total marketing budget online, and about 30% of its online budget on pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. About 5% of online marketing spending is dedicated to SEO.

For Best SEO Results, Seek Professional Help

SEO is a no-brainer; even a moderately well-done effort will improve a company's online visibility and site traffic at a relatively low cost. According to MarketingSherpa, in-house SEO programs generally produce about a 40% increase in traffic over six months. But hiring an outside expert can grow visitor count even more dramatically: external programs led to 100%+ (i.e. more than doubling) increases in traffic within half a year.

However, the report's advice on hiring an outside expert is disastrously off base. "When hiring an agency or consultant, B-to-B experience is not as important as is dedicated SEO experience. You don't want to hire a team that does SEO 'on the side' as an addendum to online marketing activities...Many marketers hire two different agencies for PPC versus SEO and make sure the two teams play well together to take advantage of measurement and keyword synergies." MarketingSherpa rarely misses, but that may be among the worst pieces of advice the publisher has ever provided.

Separating SEO from broader marketing and PR activities is a really bad idea for several reasons. First, SEO and PPC efforts go hand in hand and need to be coordinated, from keyword selection ("head" terms for PPC, longtail terms for SEO, mid-length terms for both) and testing all the way through reporting (e.g. comparing PPC to SEO conversions, with a goal of maximizing both). Hiring two separate firms to do PPC versus SEO work is like having two shortstops on a baseball team, one to scoop up ground balls and the other to throw over to first base; it just doesn't make any sense.

Second, SEO efforts need to be aligned with PR and social media outreach efforts, both of which are key link-building activities. Having one agency in charge of a coordinated effort assures that all components are working together; hiring an SEO "technician" from a separate firm, who knows nothing about the bigger picture of B2B marketing and PR, greatly increases the likelihood of missed opportunities and synergies.

Third, SEO and PR/marketing shouldn't work at cross purposes. For example, any company offering insurance or financial services to Fortune 1000 enterprises needs to build and maintain a reputation for quality and trust. Having an SEO firm blast out spammy link requests, and worse, add a collection of questionable links to the company's website, can instantly nullify years of credibility-building efforts.

Finally, getting SEO and marketing assistance from different providers can lead to inefficient duplication of effort. One tactic commonly employed by gray-hat SEOs is to write keyword-rich "articles" designed more to get high ranking from search engines than for actual human reading. A marketing/PR firm, however, can write thought leadership content that appeal not only to search engines but also enhance your image among prospective customers, and can also help get value out of the article (through social media, for example) beyond simply publishing it to your site for SEO purposes.

SEO Must be Sensitive to IT

Your webmaster or internal web team will be understandably nervous about any outsider touching your site, particularly if it is also hosted internally. A good SEO firm should meet with your technical team first, explaining exactly what is going to be done (transparency is critical factor in selecting an SEO agency), when and how—as well as what won't be touched. For significant changes, such as modifying the URL structure, the SEO should be able to explain, in plain English, why the change is a high priority.

More to come...


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