The Internet has become the center of the buying process for many products and services. In today’s business conditions, understanding this new buying process is more important than ever.
Web sites used to be narrowly focused on awareness. Web site design was all about creativity—because the goal was to interrupt the browsing experience by catching the prospect’s attention. Web sites didn’t need a lot of content; Web site inventory was simply another form of advertising. The call to action directed the prospect to the sales force. Interacting with a sales person was how the consumer considered purchasing a product prior to the sale being made.
Today, there is an ever expanding volume of information available online. The Internet is the place where we all go to learn about the world and to explore the options available. A buyer’s activities have moved away from the sales call and are almost entirely online. Today’s customers use the Internet for research, not just for discovery.
The goal of your Web site is to educate the buyer during the consideration process using a simple, easy to read, content-centric format. Content is king. Content drives action. Superlative phrases consisting of adjectives layered on adjectives are not what prospects are interested in reading. They want real information they can use. They want to be educated. They crave knowledge. If you are not giving it to them, they will quickly go elsewhere.
Do you have clear calls to action, such as requesting more information or purchasing your product? Do you track how many prospects land on your site, how long they stay, and whether or not they perform the call to action? Not tracking site performance is akin to investing thousands of dollars in a certificate of deposit without knowing the interest rate—and hoping for a high rate of return.
Your Web site is only one part of successfully marketing your company online. The explosion of user-generated content in the form of message boards, forums, reviews, blogs, micro blogs and video means that any attempt to exclusively control the information about your company during the consideration phase is a lost cause. Unless you have a really boring product or service, someone has posted a message on a forum about it, or created a video of what it is like to use it, or mentioned it on Twitter. These people don’t care about your corporate communications policy, regulatory environment, or non-disclosure agreements. You may have a fan site created by evangelical, enthusiastic customers. You may have a hate site just as enthusiastically created by a disgruntled customer or former employee.
You must actively monitor user-generated content. Google Alerts is one easy way to do this, and it is currently free. A weekly search of all the major social media search engines such as Technorati, Google Blog Search, Twingly, Digg, Reddit and so forth will alert you to the information your prospects are reading. When you find user generated content about your company, don’t be passive. Engage in the conversation by stating your case in a respectful way. And don’t forget to come back every few days in the event you ignite a debate.
The content that you create in the social media sphere is just as important as the content on your Web site. Unlike your Web site, where formal statements are presented, user-generated content is a conversation between ordinary people. You need to respond in a genuine, authentic and human way. Individuals have an innate distrust of institutions; on the social Web you are a person, not a corporate spokesperson.
If there is any amount of online chatter—good or bad—about your company, your management, your products, your services, you should give serious consideration to empowering these individuals to have these conversations on your company Web site. Facilitating and encouraging authentic two-way conversations online with your customers and prospects sends a clear message that you are trustworthy, transparent, authentic, genuine and fair. Who wouldn’t want to buy from a company with those attributes? (The only exception would be those products and services where the information on your site could expose you to significant liability or regulatory compliance challenges.)
Hosting a product forum where comments are screened before they are posted—or having a negative comment show up one day only to disappear the next—sends the clear message that you cannot be trusted and probably have something to hide. Your customers realize that the reality of doing business is that a few customers will complain no matter what.
A simple, easy to use Web site—packed with useful educational content that doesn’t blast the user with interruption-based advertising messages—combined with a positive, genuine presence in the social media space will accrue a significant return on your marketing investment dollar. Proper analytics will help you to measure that return and finely hone your Web inventory into a laser-focused tool that converts leads in prospects, and prospects into sales. Even if you’re not doing these things, you can be assured that your competitors are.