by David Kirkpatrick
Founded through a Harvard MBA class project, HourlyNerd, a Boston-based startup consulting company less than two years old, features an interesting business model. It recruits MBA students and graduates from a select group of business schools and matches them with companies, ranging from startups and SMBs (small- to medium-sized business) to enterprises looking for part-time business consulting.
Even though HourlyNerd has enterprise-level clients, it was founded with the idea of serving startups and SMBs and providing access to business experts who are just launching their careers.Paid search
is a key channel in HourlyNerd's marketing strategy, and its PPC efforts are targeted to a specific subset of its overall marketplace.
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Samantha Crowell, Marketing Manager, HourlyNerd, explained, "For paid search I think it's safe to assume that we're looking for the mom-and-pop shop — a lot of restaurants, a lot of emerging businesses. People who are looking for funding, people who are looking for help because they are strapped for cash."
Even though paid search played an important role in HourlyNerd's marketing, PPC ads presented a challenge around mid-2014. Because its consulting services can apply to almost anything business related, the PPC campaigns went too broad when it came to targeted keywords, resulting both in very expensive paid search efforts and too many leads that were unqualified and not ready to buy.
"The problem with business consulting is that there are a lot of major players in the game who have a lot of money to spend, so paid search terms for any sort of consulting can be extremely expensive," said Crowell.
She continued, saying, "Business consulting terms can be upwards of $20 a click, which is pretty crazy for a seed-funded startup to be paying."
This caused the team to doubt the paid search channel altogether and almost led to the program being shut down, according to Crowell. In fact, one of the founders pointed out that lifetime value versus cost-per-acquisition on PPC leads wasn't paying for itself. The founder said, "They're losing us a ton of money. This needs to stop."
The team at HourlyNerd optimized its paid search approach, bringing new life to the program and even cutting its cost-per-acquisition for new clients in half.
The team realized that the then-current strategy of broad keywords around the business consulting space was too expensive for the startup, especially becasue the keywords weren't really effective in generating quality leads. However, the team also nixed the idea of dropping paid search from its marketing altogether and instead developed a new plan to revamp and improve its PPC campaigns.
"We had major issues with paid search in the middle of 2014 and almost shut it off, but major systemic changes, such as building out a CRM, new landing pages, optimization on the front end and sales training, really helped us hit and exceed our target numbers," Crowell said.
Step #1. Recognize a problem with the program
The initial paid search program at HourlyNerd was highly inefficient and not automated.
Crowell explained that an intern ran the program — an ongoing PPC campaign that only targeted a few keywords.
PPC ad clicks would go to a landing page and fill out a form. The intern would then manually move that registration information to a Google doc and then inform a sales guide about the new lead so the rep could reach out however they saw fit. She described the system as "inefficient."
"As to be expected, we weren't making much money off of these leads, even though the desire for our services was there. It was just kind of a messy system," Crowell said.
Step #2. Integrate technology into the program
Even though HourlyNerd was using a technology solution to manage its landing pages as well as the initial lead capture through its registration form, there was no backend technology in the form of CRM software in place — hence the intern having to manually move filled out registration forms from the landing pages to the Google doc that was given to Sales.
The solution was to find and integrate CRM software into the sales funnel. Crowell said the integration process took around a month.
She added that technology can provide its own challenges. "A lot of problems marketers face is that they have a wealth of tools that they don't exactly have the bandwidth to be able to use all of them, which has been happening here quite a bit," she said.
However, she further added that technology improved the program at HourlyNerd.
"Even if you're just doing it piecemeal — you're using [automation software] for email or you're using [CRM software] to keep records of who you've called — I think being able to use that rather than some Excel document or Google docs, you'll see a huge increase in your sales."
After the initial integration, the team did have to upgrade its CRM package because the version that was initially utilized didn't have the capability to support all the data the automation software was sending to the CRM.
Step #3. Take a closer look at campaign landing pages
HourlyNerd had been utilizing the free landing pages that came with its automation software subscription.
"We were convinced that our conversion rate was very low," Crowell said, "and, that [if] these landing pages were optimized for conversion that we would have more form fills and therefore more leads at a lower price and a better quality score in Google. Then we would be able to cut costs."
To find out if this hypothesis was true, the team brought in an outside company that tested landing pages optimized for conversion versus the pages HourlyNerd was currently sending visitors when they clicked through on PPC ads.
After a month of testing they found out both pages — the landing pages optimized for conversion and the landing pages provided for free by the automation vendor — converted at around the same rate.
As a result, HourlyNerd decided to drop the landing page optimization company.
Crowell said, "I think that was one of the most interesting parts of data that we have acquired so far in paid search. And it saved us a lot of money in the long-term, too."
Step #4. Optimize the PPC program
Along with the other changes to the overall infrastructure of its paid search efforts, HourlyNerd also optimized the heart of the program. In the early stages, the company was bidding on a broad range of keywords, which were prohibitively expensive for the startup. But beyond the expense, those keywords were not driving quality leads.
The team began using a software program to make the paid search spend more efficient, and instead of broad keywords, the campaigns began focusing more on long-tail keywords. Long-tail keywords were more cost effective, generated higher quality leads and led to an ongoing trend in improving the long-term value of those leads.
According to Crowell, however, the key optimization element for the program was the inclusion of negative keywords in PPC campaigns.
She explained, "We offer survey services, and one of our negative keywords that we hadn't found until we used the software was 'monkey,' because SurveyMonkey, which is an immensely popular tool, and it's free, and people are looking for it all the time. Our ads were coming up because we also offer survey services. So we put 'monkey' as the negative keyword, and we save a $1000 a month."
Step #5. Train Sales in PPC lead outreach
Crowell said at one time HourlyNerd's sales team used to treat all leads the same, whether they were from enterprise-level companies, SMBs or startups. The company hired a new director of sales who implemented training both on the CRM software and, maybe more importantly, to differentiate between HourlyNerd's diverse customer base.
"We do work with all types, from enterprise levels down to startup," said Crowell. "Sales training has really made a huge difference as well. Our close rates previously were about 30%, and now they are about 50%."
For training, the sales team was sent to New York (from Boston) for day-long workshop about the sales tools available to them. Crowell said department leadership provides ongoing daily support for the sales staff.
Optimizing the PPC campaigns has also helped the sales team. Because the keywords and ads are more targeted, Marketing can now provide Sales with what Crowell described as "clear intent."
"When people come in on a given specific keyword, it's very clear to our sales people what they should be offering them," she said.
She added this improves closing rates on prospects and also allows Sales to put together a clearer business plan because they have more detailed information about what that prospect needs or is looking for based on the specific keyword that brought them to the registration form.
Step #6. Develop internal content for lead nurturing
Every lead generated at HourlyNerd is assigned to a specific sales person who serves as a strategist for that prospect's needs, according to Crowell. Part of helping those prospects includes a weekly email featuring content HourlyNerd thinks would be valuable to them.
A lot of this content comes from the company's blog, and this is where its roster of MBA students and graduates from select business schools, such as Harvard and Sloan, provide another level of value for HourlyNerd.
"We've brought them onto our blog to start writing for us," said Crowell.
She explained HourlyNerd's consultants chose their own topics. The blog is separated into 15 different subject areas, such as:
- Marketing and advertising
- Consumer products
- Financial services
The blog content is repurposed in email sends to prospects who are interested one of the specific subject areas.
After identifying a problem with its paid search program — and almost killing the entire channel in the process — the team at HourlyNerd decided to optimize the entire program from backend technology to internal expert content for lead nurturing to achieve these results:
- Long-term value on generated leads increased 100%
- Revenue from PPC leads increased 100%
- Conversion ("close rates" as Crowell put it) increased from 30% to 50%
- Cost-per-acquisition decreased 50%
"[Previous to the PPC optimization] we were working very broadly. That can be really expensive, especially for a startup that just had seed funding or just had first round of funding," Crowell said.
She continued, "Even though we are a broad tool — we're able to be used by almost every business owner who's out there — we really can't afford to market to every single one. So, we needed to find our niche. We needed to find people who had intent and that took a long time to figure out. But now that we've figured it out, it's working, and we can also use the traction that we've made there to expand a little bit further into a broad marketplace."
Peter Maglathlin, one of HourlyNerd's founders, added, "You can't expect PPC to be a scalable channel in one to two months. I think we did expect that, which led to some frustration. But over six to seven months, we've now gotten to a point where we feel comfortable investing further."
Now the team conducts meeting with HourlyNerd's founders twice a month on the program and any changes that might be occurring as well as to present sales metrics such as close rates, revenue and cost-per-click.
- Search engine response page (SERP) featuring HourlyNerd ad in top position
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