November 02, 2011
Case Study

Content Marketing: Effort reduces cost-per-lead 90% and achieves 30% clickthrough rate on barrier page

SUMMARY: Over time, marketing efforts can become stale and produce diminishing results. The answer is to try a completely new approach.

See how a company's new content marketing effort achieved a 90% reduction in cost-per-lead over a long-standing direct response campaign. Also, learn how the company leveraged its user-generated content to get a 30% clickthrough rate on its lead generation barrier page.
by David Kirkpatrick, Reporter


There are times when the effectiveness of long-standing marketing campaigns start to diminish. When this is the case, the answer is to look toward new strategies that accomplish the same marketing goals.

Sermo, an online community of United States physicians that creates and sells custom research, faced such an issue. Its lead generation efforts for selling its core business of custom market research through surveys and panels were almost exclusively direct response marketing.

This combined email and banner advertising to drive prospects to a landing page with a registration form to produce the lead.

Jon Michaeli, VP Marketing, Sermo, said, “There aren’t many publishers or lists that you can go to on a regular basis to reach our audience, and over time, they just grew stale.”

He added the company was measuring its marketing efforts and realized performance was dramatically, and rapidly, declining.

Recognizing its physician community as an asset that regularly created a great deal of content in the form of community interaction, Michaeli’s team decided to undertake a major content marketing strategy to boost lead generation efforts.

Read on to discover how Sermo was able to reduce its cost-per-lead by 90% through implementing a weekly content marketing effort.


“I am a firm believer in content marketing,” stated Michaeli. “It helps you demonstrate thought leadership, keeps you on top of the mind if you invest in it on a regular basis, and you are essentially building an asset for the company.”

He added, “One of the reasons why it made sense for us is that we have great content growing organically within our site every day and we are a community, we are a network of physicians, and they are posting, commenting and collaborating.”

Step #1. Build a trusted community through thorough registration

When your content marketing strategy is built on your online community, making sure you have a relevant and robust community is a key element to the entire effort.

For B2B audiences, part of a robust community is ensuring that fellow members are peers, and true professionals, they can really trust. Not just any website visitor.

Part of the draw in Sermo’s content, and appeal for community members, is the online group consists of only physicians. To ensure the purity of its community, Sermo requires a fairly rigorous registration process, including fields for the last four Social Security Number digits and a medical practicing number that Sermo cross-references with physician databases.

The process is two-step, with the more sensitive fields appearing in the second step. Michaeli said the drop-off rate is actually higher on the first registration page where more basic information -- email address and medical specialty -- is asked for.

He stated conversion was very high for the second page of the registration and said he believed registrants went through something of a mental checklist -- “Yes, I have to provide some of that information (such as the four digits of the SSN number). On the other hand, when I do, I am in a community with my peers. I am sure everybody I am talking to is an MD, and there is a lot of comfort in that.”

Within the community, the physicians are anonymized by being identified only by screen names.

Step #2. Find a publishing partner for specialized content

Sermo wanted to find a publishing partner to expand the reach of its content, and because its material was so specialized -- medical in this case -- the marketing team knew it wanted a partner that could reach its desired target audience for new leads.

“Who is it in our industry that we love to work very closely with? Who is the top industry publication? Who hits the sweet spot of our target customer? And who has performed really well, even in the direct response campaign?” Michaeli rhetorically asked himself when thinking about a publishing partner.

“It became clear that there were a couple of companies that bubbled to the top,” he added.

Sermo formed a strategic partnership with one of those companies and worked out a deal where Sermo’s content was distributed weekly in its publishing partner’s Wednesday email newsletter.

With the deal, Sermo also receives exposure on the publishing partner’s target market landing page. In Sermo’s case, the content was distributed through the pharma vertical market.

To publicize the deal:
  • Sermo put out a press release

  • The publisher informed their readership through a note on the first two Sermo content sends

  • The publisher also announced the deal to their readership on the first Thursday after it began distributing Sermo content -- a Sermo “off day”

Because the content is created by Sermo’s physician-only community, community members’ identities are further anonymized in the distributed content and are only referred to by specialty, such as “urologist on Sermo.”

Step #3. Plan and create the content

Sermo’s community-created content comes in two forms:


Posts are essentially blog posts written by community members that generate additional content in the form of member comments.


Surveys are Sermo’s main content piece and are distributed weekly through its publishing partner.

The surveys are generated through a polling function that community members can add to their posts, or through poll questions to get member responses to articles Sermo shares with the community. These articles feature information on a particular topic, or include two articles with differing perspectives.

The articles are presented to the community by “Sermo Research” and each of these posts includes a list of poll questions.

The polls are open to the entire community, but Sermo targets specific medical areas within its community to make sure those specialties are weighing in on the poll question.

For example, if the article and poll question covers an oncology drug for prostate cancer, Sermo would target both oncologists and urologists through email and their medical specialty tag in the on-site community. This adds credibility to Sermo’s content by showing relevant comments from actual practitioners.

“This credibility is associated with who is responding and engaging, and it is not just any MD, but it is a specific MD who is best equipped to answer this question,” Michaeli explained.

All community comments automatically go live, and there is no moderation for the user-generated posts.

Sermo plans its content through three areas:
  • The “drug track” looks at drugs that recently cleared FDA approval, or drugs that are going off patent and into generic status

  • “Physician profiles” look at specialty areas, such as cardiology and rheumatology, and present demographics, psychographics and behavioral profiles along with the top drugs for each specialization

  • The “brand planning series” compiles surveys that help pharmaceutical companies understand how physicians respond to, and interact with, promotions and advertising

The goal of Sermo’s content planning is to keep the material it presents fresh and varied so regular visitors and recipients of the weekly newsletter want to continue to engage with the content.

Step #4. Capture the lead

Creating content and finding an audience is the heart of the campaign, but actually capturing new leads is the marketing goal of the effort.

Sermo accomplishes this by placing the full results of its survey along with related graphs, charts and specific quotes from its community behind what it calls a barrier page.

Readers are presented with the title of the survey and highlights of the results with a call-to-action button to download the poll results. New visitors are asked for their contact information, and become a lead for Sermo, the first time they click the CTA button.

These visitors come to Sermo through five areas:
  • The publishing partner’s homepage where Sermo has an editorial placement
  • The publishing partner’s weekly newsletter

  • Sharing of the content via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, email or a permalink URL

  • A journalist who picks up survey content for an article

  • Organic Web traffic

Once leads are in Sermo’s system, they are scored by the content they consume and their history interacting with its publishing partner and website.

After reaching the full results page, visitors also are given the option to share the content through social media platforms, are presented with additional content they might be interested in, and are given a call-to-action asking if they are ready to engage Sermo for custom research.

Michaeli said LinkedIn was the top of Sermo’s social media list in terms of where its target market was most active.

Step #5. Expand the content reach with organic media and search traffic

“We were hoping that some editors across the Web – bloggers, etc. -- would look at this (content) and say, ‘This is really interesting,’ and give it their own spin,” said Michaeli. “That is another great driver of traffic to our surveys.”

He added the marketing team also directly reaches out to individual journalists in the pharma community.

Once its content is six weeks old -- for example, six weeks after survey results are released behind the barrier page -- it is made public and searchable by search engines and doesn’t require the lead capture registration to reach the full results.

Michaeli explained its surveys often cover drugs that are hot topics, and because this content is generated by the physician community and includes comments on these topics by practicing physicians, that information is interesting to both the media and the general public.

Once the material is public, Sermo gets SEO benefits for its website, and it begins pay-per-click campaigns to drive additional traffic to those pages.

Step #6. Create a repository for the content

To organize and archive its weekly content, Sermo is in the process of a creating a microsite that presents its content in one easy to find location.

The material is to be organized based on Sermo’s three content planning areas: drug track, physician profiles and brand planning. Michaeli said giving its content some structure made more sense than just giving visitors a list of the 50 weekly surveys and those results sent out each year.


Because the content marketing strategy was put into place to improve on Sermo’s direct response efforts -- currently including paid search; social media including blogger outreach, sharing on open networks and through Sermo’s social profiles; and limited direct email to other publisher lists -- the most important result is the cost-per-lead for the content program is 90% less than for direct response channels.

The leads created by the content campaign are not as qualified as those from direct response marketing, but Michaeli said there are other benefits such as creating lasting marketing assets in the form of content and building Sermo’s thought leadership in the field.

Other metrics include:
  • 30% clickthrough rate on the barrier page to see the full survey results

  • 15% of survey page visitors stay on the site and read additional free content

About the content strategy, Michaeli said, “It has been transformative, and it has really turned how we think about lead gen and even more responsible, and dedication to, lead nurturing.”

He added, “We are creating an asset and we are amplifying it, and we are integrating other marketing efforts into it. That is the real beauty of it.”

“We have a complex sale,” Michaeli said. “There is a whole education of what our product is and if we can get them into the content and we can have them appreciate the value that the content brings, then (we can) close the loop and introduce our core business to them.”

Useful links related to this article

1. Newsletter
2. Content partner target market landing page
3. Barrier page
4. LinkedIn engagement


FierceMarkets – Sermo’s publishing partner

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