Lately I’ve been hearing more and more from customers about “SEO and SEM”, which are short for “Search Engine Optimization” and “Search Engine Marketing” respectively. This topic is often misunderstood, and can be frustrating to business owners and marketing departmets in the solar industry. Our core business is not about understanding the nuances of meta-tags, Alt-Text, page rank, rich media, etc, it’s about selling solar, and most companies would rather be out selling, (which is music to my ears by the way).
With the growth of solar contrasting the overall backdrop of a slow economy, agencies are aggressively rushing to go after solar companies. Using lots of high-minded “agency speak” they set out to convince us that they hold the magic key to more leads, higher sales, and world class brand recognition.
Unfortunately, once a contract is signed the results often look the same. Yes, your website gets a makeover, maybe you rank a little higher on search engines, maybe your company even gets a Facebook page. Still, the highly qualified leads and increased inbound sales volume remain sluggish… Magically creating a need for more in-depth services and paid advertisements, which the agency is happy to provide.
Here’s the hard reality… Your website is only as good as the content you have on it. What’s more, very few agencies have the solar industry knowledge and expertise needed to take you much further than you can get using traditional advertising and lead-generation solutions that spare you the agency speak.
Although we all want to become the go-to solar company, it’s very important to use existing business sense before venturing into online marketing. It’s up to us to understand who we can best serve, what we have to offer, and why we are the best choice for customers. This often requires a little more thought and discipline than it would seem, and it is absolutely critical to your online marketing success.
Understanding and planning around the three points outlined above makes online marketing fluid and seamless. Your web presence becomes an additional sales person, creating more time for you to work with the most qualified leads. Unfortunately, for many companies, their online marketing exposes a half-baked effort to potential customers, it actually makes them look worse than simply not being there at all.
Before moving forward with an online strategy, consider the points above and build your strategy around them. Once you’re ready to take charge of your online presence, use these 7 relatively simple steps to produce quality results.
The 7 Elements of Great Online Marketing
1. Define a Keyword Strategy
Create a list of 3-5 keywords a qualified prospect would search with.
Think as a qualified prospect looking for your services. To attract customers, you need to think of the terms that they would use to find information as a layperson. Focus on getting to the core of what the customer is looking for and avoid terms well known by industry insiders as they could draw unqualified visitors.
The keywords you choose should be based on difficulty and relevance.Some very general words such as ‘solar’ or ‘green’ are very competitive, making it harder to rank well for them. As a small or medium-sized business, you probably want to choose less competitive keywords more specifically related to your business. The greater the volume of searches on a keyword, the more competitive it is.
Now that you’ve identified your keywords, you should incorporate them into your website. We will talk more about this in the upcoming section on website optimization.
*Note that keywords do not have to be perfect at first. You can test different keywords or phrases to see which get the best results. More on this in a later section.
2. Optimize Your Website
Once you’ve found your keywords, you can develop your website to rank highly in searches for them. This is what Search engine optimization (SEO) is all about. Being ranked highly on the right keywords will ensure that your company is found by the right audience.
While it has become common for businesses to build their sites specifically for high ranking on Google and other search engines, (creating a burgeoning SEO industry in the process) search engines like Google are constantly finding new ways to weed out sites that are designed solely for search engines and do not offer quality content to users. This makes sense when you think about it, the sites with the most useful and relevant information for the user should be the highest ranking. Still, understanding how search engines find relevant sites is an important component of great web development.
A quick side note on SEO: On-page vs Off-page ranking
On-page SEO has to do with how your website is read by search engines. What can be inferred from your page titles, meta descriptions, headlines, and copy, along with how often the site is updated. More and more search engines are measuring the quality of the hosting as well, as they believe that sites with more robust hosting, higher speeds, etc are run by more legitimate organizations. In general, any shortcomings with on-site SEO can be quickly revised for immediate improvement. About 25% of your ranking comes from on-page SEO.
Off-page SEO: measures your ‘authority’ on the web, which includes the number of links to your websites from other websites, and how highly ranked those sites are. This takes more time to develop as it is no longer simply a matter of getting a lot of inbound links to your site. About 75% of your ranking is determined by off-page SEO.
What affects On-Site SEO rankings?
MOZ Rank – MOZ Rank offers a general measure of your site’s authority overall. The process is a bit technical, but the best way to positively affect your MOZ rank is to keep fresh content going onto your site regularly. More on this later.
Page Titles – Page titles tell the search engines what the pages they’re indexing are about. You can see these titles at the top of your browser when looking at a webpage.
Meta Descriptions – Although not directly an influence on ranking, meta data is what a person see’s as the description of your site in search engine listings. They give the user the chance to evaluate whether the result is what they’re looking for before actually clicking on the link to your page.
Headings – In the HTML code of your website, you’ll see that some text will have tags like <h1>, <h2>, or <h3> around it. Text in these tags is more often read as keywords than regular body text, and are weighted more heavily by the search engines. Therefore, it’s a good practice to put keywords in these headings when appropriate.
Images – Images are both positive and negative on your site. One the one hand, having too many images can slow down the load time of your page, negatively impacting your user experience as well as your search engine ranking. On the positive side, images that contain relevant ALT text in their descriptions add an additional weight on conventional search engine rankings, as well as making them available on image searches. Using high-quality, fast loading images with keywords in the ALT text can be a big enhancement to your site.
URL’s – The two most important things to know about URL structure without having to be a web-developer are first, to be sure that all of your pages have the appropriate 301 Redirects, and to avoid deeply nested URL’s.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) – CSS puts your site layout data in a different file than your HTML code, which is where the content is stored. Having a CSS prevents the HTML code from being diluted, and therefore creates a higher ranking in the search engines when read. Using a CSS is extremely important in the current SEO landscape.
Your Domain – Very simply, when search engines look at a website, they check to see how long the domain name is valid. Sites with longer registrations are considered more serious and therefore have better authority.
3. Convert Visitors to Leads
Now that you’ve targeted your audience with keywords, optimized your site, and have been doing great things with off-site SEO you’re getting more traffic to your site than ever. Now we need to start turning these visitors into leads, and then into customers.
Conversion is the name of the game here. But how do we get them to convert?
First, make all your visitors, but particularly your new visitors an offer. Offer them something of high-value.
Next, create a call to action. Guide customers to a form in which they can register to receive the offer. Create a special landing page for this, so that results can be accurately measured and analyzed easily.
Lastly, use the results to make adjustments to the offer and the process of presenting it until you have the conversion rates you’re looking for. Repeat as necessary.
*The offers you make will be the critical tool for converting your visitors. Make sure the offer is captivating and easily understood. Make it easy for customers to see value in so that you are starting the interaction with them on a basis of quality and authority. Some good examples of offers include e-books, white papers, or invitations to local educational events, but use your own ideas to create something that is valuable and really reflects what you want your customers to see. Design any offer to be the basis of an initial conversation with the customer.
4. Blogging and Content Creation
Publishing content on the web is easier than ever before. Still, it’s important to have the prior elements of your website completed before you begin your foray into the online publishing and content creation world. Once you have your site optimized, a high level of authority, and a process for turning visitors into customers it’s time to start ramping up your content.
Blogging, ebooks, and webinars are great ways to attract the right visitors to your site, and often the most powerful way to help them see the value that solar can bring to their lives, and your business can bring to them as a client. When thinking about what content to produce, it’s important to keep the customer’s perspective in your mind at all times, avoiding the temptation to use these channels as opportunities to directly market products or services, or “pitch” your company before establishing your validity and authority in the space. Focus on offering industry information, and market data as opposed to product or service information and you will make your viewers feel confident in you.
The most important thing about blogging is to be sure your content is a part of your existing company website. In our industry, we see hundreds of company websites that are little more than an online brochure offering an outline of the products and services the company provides, and names of the industry associations, certifications and other credentials held by the company. While all of these things are valuable to customers at the right time, pushing them to the front of the page without offering any further information or insight from your company or executives leaves visitors without a basis for the initial trust needed to engage with you. By adding fresh content you not only engage your visitors on multiple platforms, promote your industry leadership and expertise, and create validity and trust, you also improve your ranking in search engines and your DMOZ scores, leading to even more visitors.
Choosing Your Topics:
Start with a specific purpose in mind. What do you feel is most important for anyone to know about solar in general? What piece of information do you have that if understood by your target market, would shift their perception of solar from being just an option to an opportunity, and how can you make these points in an educational and engaging way?
Start with the questions customers ask you most often right now. . . Write them down and then re-think the specific answer you would give to them in-person or over the phone. A great way to quickly create a great blog is to dictate this answer exactly as you would if asked in person into a recording device, then simply transcribe your recording onto your computer. There you go! You’ve just completed your first blog post.
*Once you’ve completed your blog post, webinar, ebook, or any other kind of content, always be sure to include the call to action we discussed earlier in this paper at the end. This gives the consumer a chance to connect with you at a point where they have the maximum exposure to you as an expert.
5. Get Yourself “Out There”
The topic of social media is perhaps the biggest land mine I’ve encountered since dedicating myself to working with the solar integrator and installer community. That being said, I would be doing you all a disservice by ignoring, or tiptoeing around the topic, and I want you all to become the best in your industry. Social networking is real, it’s the most popular reason people use the internet, and it has become one of the most trusted and powerful applications for businesses to use in their marketing.
Having tripped over the land mine so many times, allow me to dive on it face first this time…
“Google (in it’s current form) is dead, it is being supplanted by people’s preference for information based on the opinions of their friends and trusted colleagues on their social networks”.
Social media helps identify the most proficient, passionate, and professional businesses to their most qualified buyers by offering pre-validated and approved content across networks that go several degrees deep into various affinity groups, while allowing clients and advocates to vouch for those businesses in a specific context. Social networks are formed within others, then expand to additional users who share the affinity of the group, creating exponential opportunities that are impossible in a single-user linear search environment. Social Media allows you to immediately identify these new members, and offers direct contact between you and your employees and new well-qualified prospects in a non-invasive, socially acceptable platform that does not exist anywhere else.
Now, the last thing any business executive or owner wants to hear is that they need to be spending time on social media sites in addition to their already overpacked schedule of responsibilities. I get it. In response to this, I’ll simply reiterate that there are ways to manage and shine in the world of social media that do not require significant time commitments, and are actually a pleasurable experience for most owners and executives. I get into some of these methods in another paper “An Executive’s Guide to Overcoming The Social Media Conundrum”. For now, the most important things to know is that although there are new social networks popping up every day, the three sites that matter in the U.S. are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIN. These sites all offer unique value to businesses that produce additional sales, and all share one key ingredient – they can be managed passively and offer powerful connections with almost no time commitments.
6. Nurture and Develop Your Leads
Nobody buys solar on the spur of the moment. We know this already. So maintaining consistent contact and a positive relationship with your prospects pays. This should be done throughout their entire process of information gathering, evaluation, and decision-making, so that you remain top of mind once they reach the “moment of inspiration” when they decide to take action to move forward. Once this process is complete, prospects will self-select, engaging you with an invitation to start a sales process. As you’ve stayed with them throughout their info gathering and evaluation, you are in a position of knowing that almost all of their objections have been addressed and they’re simply looking for confirmation of their conclusions from you. All before ever making a proposal.
Much of the foundation for lead nurturing has been accomplished with your existing marketing efforts already. Now you just need to maintain relevance to your prospects amid all of the other responsibilities and interests they have. One of the best ways to do this is to use the opt-in information you gathered from them on their website visit to keep them informed of interesting and other informative topics as they develop in your industry and at your company. Email is a very good tool for doing this, and there are ways to make your email communications welcome every time.
The Golden Rule of Email Marketing: Stay relevant.
It’s necessary to track which of your high-value offerings your visitor was interested enough in to offer their contact information. Make sure that the emails you send are on a topic that correlates in some way with what the initial interest was, or else you run the risk of their opting out of future notifications.
Make sure every email you send has something in it for the reader. Maybe it’s another great whitepaper, or an invitation to a webinar. Maybe it’s a chance to meet with someone in the area who just put solar on their home or business
Include a call to action. Make sure the reader knows exactly who they can contact with questions or for more information on your topic or about buying a system.
Have a personality. Avoid canned looking emails that make readers feel like they’re being spammed. Write the copy off the cuff and make it interesting for the user to read. Entertain them as you educate them.
Measure your results. This is very important as over time you’ll find that certain email layouts, topics, and even delivery times get better results than others. You also want to watch out for any opt-outs. You want to nurture these prospects, not annoy them.
7. Analyze and Refine
Like so many things on the web today, it’s gotten easier than ever to track the movement of all your traffic and to analyze you site to reveal patterns that can get you much better results in the form of sales. Make sure all of your websites, and each page within them has the appropriate tracking code, and make sure you have a robust analytics tool that can help you understand your audience better. Most of these tools are either free online or have a nominal cost for particularly robust service.
Set metrics for traffic, conversions, leads, and any other specific items are important for you to measure based on your business model. If the metrics are not being met, make the refinements and test again. Changes in things like the position of content, conversion forms, and site content make a huge difference for users, and there is no consistent best-practice beyond what has become the standard for websites in any industry. Also, how often you send messages via email to prospects can get different responses, so again it’s important to have a system that monitors their response for you.
Without a doubt, opportunities to change, revise, and just generally improve on your existing site will crop up regularly. This is the greatest thing about online marketing. When you identify these opportunities, make the changes you need to improve your conversion rates, lead flow, contact and sales opportunities. Never be afraid to try new things, even if they seem a little too out of the box for your taste. Everyone is a little different out there, and will respond to your communication in different ways. By consistently trying out new ideas, formats, and styles, you’ll learn more about your audience than you ever thought you could, and in time will transform your website and web identity into a sales engine that delivers a very high percentage of targeted, qualified people. Buyers who have done their research and decided to engage with you in order to buy a system.