Family-owned and operated Marsh-McBirney is one of the very few independent manufacturers in the water flow measurement industry.
Kevin Marsh, Sales Director, notes, "It sounds crazy if you've never heard of the field, but it's a very big market. ABB, one of the five largest companies in the world, and Siemens are in it."
Heavyweight competition aside, sales are not easy. Marsh-McBirney's products sell for an average of $3000-$10,000 to municipalities and contractors managing water and wastewater services. As you can imagine, municipalities are committee breeding grounds. Marsh says, "There can be quite a few people involved in the buying decision unfortunately. The average minimum sales cycle is about four months, but sales can easily take a year."
With just 65 employees, Marsh-McBirney can not afford to put it's own dedicated sales force into the field. So all sales are outsourced to about 50 independent sales firms with firmly carved territories, each with one-to-five reps. However, instead of sitting back and waiting for sales to come in, Marsh and the in-house team support sales reps any way they can.
He explains, "Selling is a process that involves a lot of people. Sales reps have their own front-line role in overcoming objections and closing the sale. But none of that happens by itself, there's a whole support network. Virtually every sale involves at least 2-3 people in-house."
Traditionally this support took the form of print ads, direct mail, printed "leave-behind" marketing materials, faxing out spec sheets on demand, etc. Although Marsh's customers were not early Internet adopters, he wondered if there was a way he could use the Web to support sales.CAMPAIGN
Instead of initially launching a public Web site, Marsh started by launching a password-protected site for his sales reps.
He explains, "It's a good way to cut your teeth on the whole Web thing, because your audience is going to be pretty forgiving. I would never take such a cavalier attitude toward my customers!"
The reps' site includes access to all the types of data Marsh figures reps might want, such as pricing, specs, and information about the Company's competitors (and how to beat them). Reps loved it.
So much so that soon afterwards, Marsh launched an email newsletter just for the reps. He says, "It's improved over the years. It started out as 'Hey, I've updated the site, go check it out', to an HTML/AOL newsletter with in-depth articles." Short news items are published in their entirety in the newsletter, while longer articles just get teasers and a link to the sales rep-only site. Articles include:
- Pricing news
- Product updates
- Policy changes
- Tactics particular reps use to succeed
The last item is one of the most popular because reps use each other's examples for inspiration. Marsh says, "The success one has can almost certainly be duplicated by others. We encourage them to help each other out." (Note: this only works if your reps have clearly, defined, non-competitive territories.)
Marsh studies the click reports from each issue to find out which items reps like the most. If many click on a particular item, he often posts a longer or related article on that topic as soon as the next issue in order to please them.
While publishing his sales rep newsletter over the past five years, Marsh continued to keep his finger on the pulse of the customer-world. He says, "Initially a huge percent of our customer base didn't have Web access. Then they all came online really fast. Bang! It felt like it happened overnight. Then we knew we had to have a public Web presence."
His initial site was pretty basic, "It was like what 90% of B-to-B sites for companies my size are now -- a place to go to for the phone number to ask for information. We put up online versions of our advertising, simple resources and how to contact us. We weren't maximizing the tool by any stretch."
By last year, traffic to this public site was heavy enough that Marsh decided to invest in an upgrade to:
1. Make the navigation much easier
2. Optimize the graphics so pages loaded more quickly
3. Switch to a content management tool that Marsh could use to make site changes himself without a full-time webmaster
4. Add more content so prospects could find what they needed online without calling for information
5. Add an opt-in form for a free email newsletter
Of the five, Marsh was most excited about the newsletter because it would enable him to keep in touch with prospects throughout the long sales cycle, and to make his brand name as authoritative as the bigger companies in the field.
Although he handled most of the site upgrade in-house, he invested in an outside firm, Inbox Interactive, to help him develop his newsletter and make it as professional-looking as possible.
After he picked the newsletter's name, Focus on Flow, ("Monthly Flow" was bandied about initially, but discarded for reasons obvious to any woman), Marsh immediately purchased the corresponding domain name www.focusonflow.com, even though most subscriptions would come through links on his main site.
He explains, "I'm big on branding and intellectual property. A registered domain is the cheapest intellectual property in the world -- just $25 a year. You need to assume you'll be wildly successful -- this could become the newsletter for our industry! It's possible. Why not? So, some people are going to eventually type in focusonflow.com to find it." He also notes a domain purchase is a smart brand protection measure in highly competitive fields. Marsh adds, "It's the same way with products. If you've got a product with a unique brand name, you've got to register the domain for that name."
The newsletter, which is produced in HTML and AOL-HTML (a simplified mainly text-version for AOL users), establishes Marsh-McBirney's experience and authority in three key ways:
1. A "Celebrating 30 Years" certificate-style gold stamp in the upper right corner.
2. A regular, personal note from CEO Larry Marsh at the very start, including his photo showing off his healthy head of white hair.
3. Authoritively written feature articles on industry news and Q&A items on topics of keen interest to water and wastewater flow engineers and contractors.
In addition, issues include new profiles of two different Marsh-McBirney products (one for water, the other for wastewater) and "Tips & Tricks" for current product users.
The newsletter is published monthly because Marsh did not want to dedicate the resources to publish it more frequently ("We'd have to hire another person") and he agrees with newsletter publishing experts who say anything less frequent is too forgetable.
Like many businesses, Marsh-McBirney has been collecting email addresses from customers and prospects for several years now. However, Kevin Marsh did not simply add all those collected names to his newsletter list assuming they would want it, because he knew that activity could lay his company open to spam accusations which he feared for two reasons.
The first reason is that many spam-weary ISPs are assuming emailers are guilty-before-proven-innocent these days and shutting off access to their customers on the slightest excuse. The second is that Marsh's total company prospect universe is highly limited -- it is a very specialized field -- so he did not want to risk offending even a single prospect.
So, to launch the newsletter, Marsh sent a single broadcast message to his collected email list. Recipients could click through and add themselves to the free newsletter list at his site. In order to maximize conversions from click to opt-in, this form only asks for a very limited amount of information about each person. Just email, name, company name and postal code. The form also includes a bold link to the Privacy Pledge.
Marsh carefully rewrote this Privacy Pledge when the new site launched to make sure it truly outlined what he plans to do with visitor data, while remaining benefit-oriented and friendly (instead of being a nasty page of legalese). It reads in part:
"Visitors to our website may choose to request additional information from us and/or opt-in to receive our newsletter "Focus On Flow". The information supplied is used by us to:
1. Fulfill your request.
2. Further develop our database of customers and potential customers for use in our marketing and sales efforts.
3. Better understand the needs of our customers and potential customers.
Marsh-McBirney, Inc. uses sales representatives throughout the US and the world to sell and support our products. These are independent companies with expertise in the water and wastewater instrumentation marketplace and are an invaluable resource to us and our customers. A request for further information from us will be fulfilled by us and a copy of the request will be forwarded to the appropriate sales representative for any additional follow-up.
We do not sell, rent, or otherwise provide customer information to any other third parties."
Marsh says, "This is a positive way of presenting the fact that we're not locking your information away in a vault -- we are going to share it. But we'll share it in a way that's good for you. Many people, that buy from sales reps, understand reps are a resource. They like them."
Marsh says, "I'm thrilled." Within just 90 days, more than a third of the total estimated prospect universe has already opted in for the public email newsletter. Marsh notes that B2C marketers would think his list is "pretty darn small", but for his Company it's the quality that counts, rather than the quantity.
Just as he does for the sales reps' newsletter, Marsh also carefully tracks who clicked on what for his customer newsletter.
He explains, "It's a manageable number. I know some of these people are considering our products for certain projects. If I see they've got an interest and click on a particular link that gives me more information about where I stand in their eyes, and what they think about us. I find that very valuable."
His sales reps also find it, "extraordinarily helpful."
- The newsletter's open rate is currently around a healthy 60%
- Just under 15% of the recipients of Marsh's one-time broadcast offering a newsletter subscription clicked through and subscribed. (The industry standard can be as low as 1/3 of that.)
- More than 30% of people, who get a pass-along copy of the newsletter from a friend or colleague, sign up for their own subscription.
- About 35% of visitors who click on the "www.focusonflow.com" link either from Marsh's company site home page, or from the email signature line all marketing and customer service staff have added to their outbound mail (see below), convert to opting- in for a subscription. This too is an unusually high figure.
Sample of email signature:
Check out Focus On Flow, the product and technology newsletter for professionals in the flow monitoring field.http://www.focusonflow.com