When Mike Fisher acquired 78-year old industrial
vacuum manufacturer Ross Cook in 1998, the firm had no sales
outside of Southern California.
Fisher's home is in Northern California so he naturally wanted to
expand to his own area, plus he felt the company had the
potential to become a national, and even international player.
"There was basically no difference between what we made and what
our competitors made, aside from the customers' standpoint that
nobody had ever heard of us before."
As a former fireman, Fisher had a lot of guts but no marketing or
sales experience. "I use common sense and a little street smarts
to come up with solutions. Previously I could risk losing lives
if I made a bad decision. Now I risked losing a lot of money and
putting employees on the street."
Before making any marketing decisions whatsoever, he concentrated
on crunching numbers.
"My main goal was, how can I reach the broadest audience of
buyers, for $15,000-$25,000 industrial vacuum systems, for the
least amount of money. What's my return on each marketing
tactic, what's the lead to sales ratio, and how much am I paying
per unit I'm selling?"
Ad sales reps from industry magazines soon came calling. "They'd
show me data that said 80% of their viewers could be potential
customers and that these people still relied on traditional print
ads. They're got great data they pop in front of you
illustrating this, and down at the bottom of the graph it showed
2-5% of people using the Internet."
Based on these numbers, at first Fisher invested about $60,000
per year in print ads. He began to wonder if those graphs
were entirely correct.
"I was starting myself to go out and use the Internet as an
engineering resource. It was common sense my buyers would use it
Initially he invested a small amount in a "typical" business Web
site of that era, which was little more than his printed
marketing materials reproduced online.
Sales were pretty good as the economy boomed, but when it
faltered in mid-2000, Fisher knew he needed to rethink his
marketing strategy to stay afloat in the tough days ahead.CAMPAIGN
Again he pictured himself in his buyer's shoes. "If
I'm the guy I want to reach, what am I doing? Using the Internet
is so much faster and easier, there's no way I'm going to waste
my time going to a printed catalog or some buyer's guide to try
to track down a potential vendor."
He verified this common sense logic by calling a few current
customers who told him, "If they happen to pick up one of these
publications, they go through them just to get a Web address so
they can punch it up."
Fisher knew the vast majority of Web searches start at search
engines such as Yahoo and Google, so he wanted to get his site
listed as high up as possible with them, and then to turn as many
the qualified visitors as possible into sales leads. It turned
out to be a five-step process:
Step #1. Researching which keywords qualified buyers use
The only thing worse than not having enough sales leads, is
having heaps of worthless unqualified ones.
Fisher decided against getting the site listed in search
engines under too-broad terms such as 'vacuum.' "Those searchers
may be looking for a Hoover rather than the very specific type of
systems we manufacture."
Over a three month period, Fisher and his extended team of sales
reps asked every single customer what terms they might use
looking for a vacuum system online.
Turned out most people did not search by company name. Instead
they typed in a word or two relating to the type of system they
were looking for, and hoped a range of manufacturers would come
Step #2. Optimizing and positioning the site for search engines
Unfortunately, unless they specifically typed in Ross Cook,
nobody would find Fisher's company in search engines.
"We were in some search engines, but we'd be 10 pages back. No
one's going to find you if you're not in the top five companies
in search results," says Fisher. "I honestly think you've got to
be in the top three."
Although he knew he needed outside expertise to get his site
ranked higher, Fisher was both wary of and overwhelmed by the
options. "There was everything from guys selling $99 software up
to $25,000 a month consultants. Many of them were either doing
something not entirely right or downright bad -- using s*pam
techniques to bolster the rankings of their clients' Web sites."
He adds, "Some guys will sell you that package - I'll guarantee
you top spots for a year for $25,000 a month. People actually go
out there and spend that kind of money not knowing the risk they
are putting their site in for potentially being banned. Can you
imagine your site being banned from Yahoo? That would wipe me
out. I wouldn't risk it."
In the end he chose to work with a search engine optimization
expert allied with an ecommerce site design firm who promised no
absolute guarantees. "She was the only person who was really
honest with me."
Optimizing and positioning a site involves working with a wide
variety of elements, including copy and meta tags, that
altogether will suitably impress a search engine robot.
Step #3. Revamping the site to appeal to human visitors
However, you also have to impress human visitors enough that they
convert to contacting you for more buying information. Simultaneous with optimization efforts, the ecommerce consultants
also revamped the Ross Cook site to improve it for people.
They focused on two areas:
a. Clarifying navigation -- "Some basic site architecture had
to change. Our navigation bars were not user-friendly."
The team reworded the navigation options to match terms
surfers would typically look for. The goal: No buttons
They also removed buttons that few people clicked on to
reduce clutter. Fisher says he may remove one further
button soon: The 'what's new' link. Turns out busy
buyers are not interested. "No one ever clicks on it except
b. Clearing the deadwood -- Over the years, Fisher had posted
more and more graphics and data to the site, until it
resembled an overgrown forest of information. Yet, he
realized, "I don't have time as a user searching for
products to read through a bunch of BS. I want to look at
major product offerings, maybe click on one sub-product
list and get to the spot I need. Then I want tech specs
and data sheets."
"Typically marketers take their printed literature - it's
all marketing blah blah - convert it and that's what's on
their Web site. Well, most product literature is garbage
to begin with! So we got rid of a lot of the site's
marketing verbiage, which was mostly stuff we'd been using
in print since the '80s."
The team also got rid of every extra graphic element they
could that slowed page load time down.
Step #4. Adding a key site element to beat the competition
The radically slimmed-down site worked so well, that Fisher
decided to add one final element to get an edge over the
One giant competitor had been gobbling up many of the smaller
companies in the field. This burgeoning megalith had an Achilles
heel, vastly reduced reaction time to customer enquiries.
"They wouldn't even return phone calls," says Fisher. "Their
customer's machines would go down and all the customers' would
get was a phone message, 'We'll get back to you next week.' Lead
times to get equipment pushed out to an unheard of 12-18 weeks.
It was great for me!"
Fisher and his sales reps started noticing that the very first
thing inbound callers and emailers would say was, "How fast can
you get me equipment?"
He decided to focus his site's sales pitch on the competitor's
fatal weakness by adding a giant button to the upper right side
of the home page where visitors' eyes are immediately drawn. It
reads (typo ours): "5 Day Quick Ship C*lick here for more
Step #5. Responding to all Web-driven leads incredibly quickly
Last but not least, Fisher changed procedures when it came to
dealing with inbound email from the site.
Instead of having emails go through his customer service
department, he diverted them all directly to his own box. He
explains why it was critical to take personal control, "The key
to success is if you get an email enquiry, you'd better call or
respond to that within the first hour. Otherwise you might as
well forget it."
"These guys are moving to the first person that responds.
They've already emailed three to four competitors, the first one
that responds back often gets the business. That's why I get all
emails and not somebody else who may not understand how important
it is. It's the lifeblood of my company."
Quick responses not only get the order, they can ensure a long
term customer relationship. "They're in a total state of
disbelief when you do that. Then you've got them for life."
"At least 50% of my new business is as a result of
them finding me on the Internet, 15% is probably print ads,
and the rest is related to local marketing my distributors do,"
says Fisher. He adds, "100% of my sales leads internationally
comes over the Internet."
The Company's vacuum systems are now purchased by buyers across
the US and in about a dozen other countries.
Fisher has switched off nearly all of his print advertising. "I
was getting maybe two-three qualified leads per week through
print ads. It went to about eight-10 qualified leads per day
after we optimized the site."
He credits the Web with keeping his company afloat during the
recession when many of his competitors have gone under. "The
market is hell right now. Our business has stayed somewhat
steady. If we hadn't had our search engine marketing, we would
have gone in the tank."
Fisher asked us to link to Business OnLine, the ecommerce and
search engine marketing firm that helped him so much: