June 24, 2010
Case Study

Buyer-Directed Marketing Funnel Puts Tools and Resources in Prospects' Hands: 6 Steps to Appeal to a Marketing-Averse Audience

SUMMARY: A marketer's job is more difficult when trying to reach an audience that particularly distrusts marketing messages -- and dislikes talking to sales people. One solution: Give buyers the resources they need to self-educate, and let them choose when to interact with your team.

See how the team at a network management software company appealed to the distrustful IT crowd with a "geek-friendly" website, content targeted at different stages of the buying cycle and relevant, targeted email nurturing.

Unlike many B2B marketers, the team at SolarWinds didn't typically have to deal with large buying committees. Most of the company's network management and monitoring tools are priced low enough for network managers to buy without committee approval, using discretionary budget dollars.

But this scenario presented a different challenge: Marketing directly to a group of prospects -- network engineers and IT managers -- who are notoriously resistant to marketing and sales pitches.

"We have to think more like consumer marketers. How can we appeal to different segments of that audience?" says Rita Selvaggi, SVP Marketing, SolarWinds. "They value peer opinion, technical information and technical expertise. They value the ability to evaluate products online and use products online."

To connect with that audience, Selvaggi and her team needed a strategy that put valuable, relevant content directly into prospects' hands. They wanted a buyer-directed process that let prospects reach a point where they could either buy products online or contact a salesperson for specific help in completing a purchase.


The team designed a marketing strategy that enabled a buying process similar the one consumers experience when shopping online. The approach combined:
o Educational content
o Peer-to-peer interaction
o Online evaluation tools
o Automated email

Here are six key steps the team took to develop the strategy and engage buyers:

Step #1. Design website to mirror prospect profile

To reach network engineers and IT managers, the team developed a website that spoke in a tone and style the audience typically enjoys.

They highlighted the company's understanding of the "IT geek" community by highlighting the team's own "geek" credentials and using language, images and tools that appealed to that audience. For example:

- In 2007, the team began promoting the company's VP of technology, Josh Stevens, as "Head Geek." He was placed in a prominent educator role about network management issues and the company's products.

- In 2007, the team developed an online community for customers and the broader network management community called "Thwack." The site featured message boards, blogs and a content exchange where customers and prospects could help solve each other's network management problems.

- In 2009, the team launched a "Geek Speak" section of the website to provide content, tools and resources for the network management community.

- Team members also borrowed imagery from comic books and cartoons for website graphics and marketing promotions.

"The playful nature of the site is similar to our audience," says Selvaggi. "They like superheroes and Star Wars stuff, but at the same time we had to make sure there's enough serious content in terms of technical depth to appeal to them."

Step #2. Create content for different stages of the buying cycle

Next, the team examined how it was delivering content and information to prospects. It was necessary to ensure the offerings would attract potential customers even if they weren�t yet actively looking to purchase software.

"Our end-users tend to be very technical in nature and hands-on with products," says Shanel Vandergriff, VP Marketing Programs. "Even if they are not ready [to buy], they are out there constantly looking to be educated around different technologies."

The team developed a content strategy that acknowledged the different stages of the buying cycle, and gave prospects different entry points to engage with the brand.

Content was broken down into three primary categories:

- Educational content

These offerings included blogs and the Geek Speak section of the site, which provided how-to tips, videos, and other resources around specific topics such as:
o Network monitoring fundamentals
o Network troubleshooting
o IP configuration

The team made much of this content, including tips and short videos, available without registration. Higher-value content, such as 45-minute webcasts, was kept behind a registration barrier.

"We see education as one route for us to go ahead and build that brand loyalty so folks come in the door," says Vandergriff.

The team also began combining un-gated content with relevant, additional content offers that required a registration. The goal was to introduce visitors to a topic, but then provide a relevant "next step" for prospects willing to trade personal information for more content.

For example, the team packaged a series of ten short videos into a "Top 10 How-To Videos of 2009" email campaign. Each video clip was open for anyone to watch, but featured a related product evaluation download offer in the bottom frame of the viewing screen for viewers who wanted to learn more.

- Free tools

These free downloads were complete versions of products that had a high utility value for customers and prospects. But they also had affinity with the company's paid products, to enable cross-sell opportunities after users registered to download a free tool.

Free tools included:
o Real-time network traffic flow analyzer
o IP SLA monitor
o Syslog server

- Consideration stage content

These registration-required offerings targeted prospects later in the buying cycle and signaled more interest in making a purchase. They included:
o Trial versions of the company's paid software tools
o An online price quote engine

Step #3. Drive traffic to site through multiple channels

The team used several channels to drive traffic to its website and begin capturing registrations for its database.

Key channels:
o Organic search
o Google PPC programs
o Partnerships with third-party media sites, such as TechTarget and NetworkWorld
o Programs to promote free tools with partner sites, such as CNet and Tucows

Step #4. Email nurturing to house database

After visitors had registered to download content, they were placed in a house database for email nurturing campaigns.

The team used daily and weekly database analysis to segment names and manage email sends based on prospect profile, recent activity or potential stage in the buying process. The result was typically three to 10 different email campaigns per week, targeted to different segments of the database.

"We don't hit everyone in our database in every week," says Selvaggi. "That can be overkill."

For example, a week's email outreach might have featured:

- A lead generation campaign to prospects that have previously registered for content, but have not advanced to the sales pipeline. This might be a message that offered an trial download of a paid product, focusing on how that tool solved a common pain point.

- An opportunity-development or pipeline-close email sent to prospects chosen by the sales team. This message could be a special offer on a product, designed to move recipients toward a purchase.

- A database-building campaign sent to acquire more prospects for future marketing. This could be a promotion of the team's free tools that encourage the recipient to share with their peers or refer a friend.

Step #5. Track leads to identify names for sales hand-off

The team monitored its website activity and email metrics to perform an informal type of lead scoring:

- Prospects that had viewed a webcast or downloaded a whitepaper were considered early-stage leads, and kept out of the CRM system, but remained in the nurturing funnel.

- Prospects that requested an online price quote or downloaded an evaluation version of the company's software were considered "sales-qualified" leads and were routed to the CRM system for the sales team to initiate contact.

Step #6. Monitor lead flow and model pipeline back to lead source

The team monitored the progress of leads through the entire marketing and sales funnel by combining multiple technology platforms, including:
o Web analytics
o Marketing automation
o CRM system

Key data points the team looked for included:
o Source of the lead, such as PPC campaign or email outreach
o Specific tool or content offer that triggered registration
o Transition from lead to opportunity, triggered by a price-quote request or software evaluation download

The team analyzed this data to uncover benchmark metrics and other insights, such as:
o Average time spent in the marketing funnel
o Percentage of leads that converted to opportunities
o Performance of specific campaigns, measured by opportunity creation

"We are constantly looking at conversion rates by campaign into opportunity to determine how we can get more immediate impact," says Vandergriff. "We're asking ourselves, 'Are these the right combinations of activities to drive more opportunities?'"

The buyer-directed engagement strategy has helped the marketing team support SolarWinds' strong revenue growth rate. The company posted 25% year-over-year revenue in 2009 and achieved a 43% increase in revenues in the first quarter of 2010.

And while the team is pleased with the progress it has made, members stress the importance of adjustments based on continual measurement and process refinement.

"The end-user has to be the final arbiter," says Selvaggi. "You listen to that user, and understand the elements of your marketing touches that tell you something."

- The team declined to provide specific numbers on inbound traffic channels, but said its best sources of qualified traffic are:
o Organic search
o Direct website visits

- Database segmentation and nurturing with highly-targeted email campaigns is also paying dividends. Since improving prospect profiling and email targeting, the team has seen:
o Open rates improve by 4% to 5%
o Conversion rates nearly double

- Pairing open content with additional offers that require registration also has been a winning tactic:
o 12% of recipients who viewed one of the clips featured in the "Top 10 How-To Videos of 2009" campaign also completed a product evaluation download during the same session.

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples from SolarWinds' marketing programs

Members Library -- Video Ebook Revives White Paper: 7 Steps to Repurpose Content and Attract 8x More Readers

Members Library -- Lead-Gen Revamp with Automation and Scoring: 7 Steps to 190% Increase in Sales Conversions

Members Library -- Lead Gen Overhaul: 4 Strategies to Boost Response Rates, Reduce Cost-per-Lead

Eloqua -- provided the team's marketing automation platform


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