Although at $500 million in average sales Oakwood is by far the largest company in the corporate housing rentals industry, they, like everyone else in the business travel sector, have been hit hard by the one-two punch of the recession plus 9/11.
As VP Interactive Sales & Development, Todd Larsen was a marketer in a bind. Despite budget and staffing cutbacks, he had to not only keep a steady flow of sales leads coming into Oakwood's reps in the US and six other countries; he also had to find ways to improve the reps' chances of closing the sale with each lead.
Most B2B marketers in his shoes would have cut back on postal direct mail and print ads and launched lower-costing emarketing efforts instead.
Unfortunately Larsen did not have that option because Oakwood has never budgeted much for print materials. "We spend maybe $200,000 on national advertising a year - it's nothing," he explains. "We've always relied on direct sales."
Plus, the Company already had a sophisticated Web site with more than 8,000 pages of content posted, and they already published an email newsletter. Larsen needed to find a new way to innovate on a thin budget. CHALLENGE
First Larsen came up with two ways to save money on Oakwood's extensive online marketing programs:
a. Bringing Web development in-house
Larsen notes that relying on outside Web developers to manage your site has one fatal flaw, cost overruns. It is not that they overcharge you, it is that you are tempted to constantly add more projects to their plate (especially pricier rush projects).
Larsen found that having to rely on an in-house team with limited time resources means you doublethink before adding to their project load.
Plus, Oakwood's new in-house Web team are working on projects such as an easier content management system that make long-term site management easier for a small team (rather than ramping up more consulting hours). "Consultants didn't think in terms of simplification and mass updating for the future," Larsen notes.
b. Eliminating live chat from the site
"Even though you can have two-three chats at once, it is just not an efficient use of time," says Larsen. He pulled the live chat function off the site.
The site still had plenty of visitor contact options left though, including click-to-be-called-now buttons, RFP forms, phone numbers, fax numbers, and email addresses.
In order to get more visitors to raise their hands as leads, Larsen and the Web team worked on four projects:
Project #1. Improving the home page
With more than 8,000 pages of content behind it, you can imagine how complicated Oakwood's home page could have been. Instead, Larsen focused on simplicity by ruthlessly removing any element that was not leading visitors directly to using one of the contact options, or was not proven otherwise to improve sales.
Plus, instead of having everything on the navigation bar be the same size, Larsen had six choices blown up to dominate the page. These included "Search Locations" and "Reserve Now 24/7." Federal employees and insurance industry execs are two of Oakwood's biggest customer segments, so they got their own big tabs to click on as well.
Other less-sales-oriented choices such as "About Oakwood," "Careers" and "Alliances" became much smaller, barely noticeable unless you are specifically looking for them.
Although everyone liked these changes, Larsen found himself in the middle of a company-wide battle when it came to posting pricing very visibly on the site. His reasoning, "We were spending time on 50-60 junk leads a day - students wanting $500 unfurnished apartments. It was terrible."
Many at Oakwood feared the competition would use posted rates against them, or that Oakwood's pricing, which is not the cheapest in the market, would turn off prospects before reps had a chance to explain why they were worth it.
Larsen respected these fears, but moved ahead anyway. He figured competitors already knew rates by calling in pretending to be prospects. To allay other concerns, he made sure the posted prices reflected the lowest possible starting rate for each city.
Project #2. RFP form changes (or not?)
Larsen found himself with another battle on his hands when it came to revamping the online RFP form. Oakwood's Chairman Howard Ruby who founded the company 40 years ago, wanted Larsen to make the lead form much shorter.
On the surface this makes sense since shorter forms online and off invariably get a higher response rate. "I fought and fought and fought," says Larsen. "Here's why: if someone comes in, just five answers are not going to give me enough data to start pre-qualifying them. For example I need to know not just that they want a place in LA, but exact move-in dates."
With reduced staffing levels, Larsen did not have the peoplepower to sort through less qualified leads. He had to make the form do it for them.
(Note: Aside from this one disagreement, Larsen definitely considers Ruby a "Web visionary.")
Project #3. Launching additional targeted mini-sites
As mentioned above, Oakwood had already launched special site areas for specific industries and clients, such as PerDiemHousing.com for the American military. (You should definitely take a look at this site's home page for ideas if you are considering a mini-site targeting a specific niche market in your industry. Link below.)
Next, the team had a brainwave to sell more to current customers. Just before the holidays in late 2000, Oakwood launched 'A Family Place to Stay' to offer clients the ability to rent nice furnished apartments for visiting family members over the holidays.
"You no longer have to stay with Aunt Beverly on the couch, or pay expensive hotel rates" the copy on the home page reads.
Larsen now promotes this mini-site every holiday season with a little help from clients. "We do paycheck stuffers, post signs in client cafeterias, advertise it in our email newsletter. You've got a huge bond with your customers, why not use it?"
Project #4. Revamping the email newsletter
Although Oakwood had been sending out a basic email newsletter for a couple of years, Larsen was not convinced it was working hard enough for them.
He gathered samples of newsletters both from competitors and companies outside the industry that he admired. He also hired an outside firm, Eloqua, to help him create, send, and track results from issues with less work. (Note: Using an outside firm is a general practice we heartily endorse, especially now that dealing with filters and blacklists has gotten so complicated.)
The revised newsletter design (link below) featured more graphics than the old one. Partly this was to make it nicer looking and partly this was to emphasize the variety and quality of housing inventory Oakwood offers.
However, Larsen did not make the mistake of assuming pretty graphics would equal more clicks. He tracked it by measuring click throughs on graphic versus text.
Plus, he used Eloqua's tech to integrate his newsletter tracking with site tracking.
Now when a newsletter subscriber clicks on a link, or when they visit the site on their own, Oakwood's site flags this activity and the appropriate sales rep is notified via email.
"Based on those emails, reps go in and make timely phone calls," Larsen explains. However, they are careful to be discrete. "We don't tell them we know where they are visiting. We don't want them thinking it's Big Brother."
Due to the length of the sales cycle, the fact that most orders are made offline and that there are multiple customer touchpoints, it is nearly impossible for Larsen to track exact sales from a single particular click through.
However, he requires every rep to send in a weekly report with formal feedback on the leads they got that week from all sources. "My boss wants to be copied on it every week as well, to make sure account execs are following up on every single lead. That's how I track my success."
Although Oakwood took a 15% sales hit over the past two years, the marketing, Web, and sales teams' efforts have helped it remain by far the largest player in the industry. 85% of the Fortune 500 use Oakwood for temporary housing needs.
- An average 5.3% of Oakwood's monthly unique site visitors fill out the entire RFP form and submit it, despite the length. Larsen credits the "cleaner home page design" for making this number so strong.
He is also happy to see "junk" RFP form submitters have fallen off dramatically since the Company's price range became more obvious.
- An average of 1.05% of unique monthly site visitors use the Oakwood Live Call-Me-Back button instead of the RFP form.
In addition many people just pick up the phone and call directly, however Larsen is not able to track those calls as a percent of site visitors currently. We would like to note that when you add up the RFP forms, plus the call-me button users, plus even a small number of phone calls, that is an awfully high conversion rate from visitor to sales lead for any Web site.
- Although on average Oakwood's email newsletter gets a 28.5% open rate and a 4.69% click rate, Larsen emphasizes that you never predict against an average. "It really ranges from as high as 7% to as low as 4%. Sometimes you have spikes, July was excellent." The newsletter's format and subject line do not vary so tremendously month to month to explain this. It is just seasonal.
- Oakwood's sales reps adore the site usage tracking system. "I'm a huge fan, it's the next best thing to having ESP," one account exec emailed Larsen just last week.
Larsen's "huge file" of similar rep testimonials for the tracking system convinced him to do anything he could to save the program during this year's budget cuts. "I had no money, I could not find any more money, so we kind of just hid the [paid] bills every month," he admits. "I'm putting it back in the budget for 2003 - it has to be bigger for next year."
In the meantime, he uses his weekly sales lead reports as a tool to convince management tracking is worth it. "My boss' eyes light up when he sees these hot leads - active Web visitors from named companies he recognizes. So that to him is totally worth it."
Eloqua email marketing and site tracking system http://www.eloqua.com
Case Study of a Web site that uses live chat successfully (because we would not want you to think it does not work for everyone):