Finding a new customer is the goal of many Web sites. Similar to offline sales, Web sites looking for leads attract visitors that eventually buy elsewhere, but those visitors tend to switch channels far earlier in the sales process. When someone walks into your home improvement store with a printout of the Web page with the snow blower's model number and price, you are making an offline sale. Someone who downloads your article on the difference between snow blowers and electric snow shovels is a lead. Many corporate sites exist entirely to generate leads, such as consulting firms, construction contractors, or other companies that normally bid a custom service for each customer.
"LEADS R US:" ARE YOU AN AFFILIATE MARKETER?
Often leads are handled within the same company, but they can be passed to other companies, too. A special kind of business, called an affiliate marketer, exists solely to create leads for other businesses. Affiliates are usually paid based on sales (typically online sales), but their goal is the same as other lead-passing Web sites: to get a customer interested in a product and close the sale elsewhere.
Although some offline businesses work in similar ways to affiliates, affiliate marketing has really grown up on the Web. Pioneered by Amazon, affiliate marketing provides a way for a retailer or manufacturer to attract traffic from other Web sites (the affiliates) by setting up financial compensation for affiliates to send prospective customers their way. Amazon has since renamed its affiliates associates, but the name affiliate has stuck to describe this unique form of Web marketing.
An affiliate program is created by the affiliate program sponsor (the retailer or manufacturer) to enroll companies such as yours as affiliates, providing you with links to place on your Web site. When your visitor clicks your affiliate link, the visitor is taken to the program sponsor's Web site, where they might purchase one of the sponsor's products.
Depending on the terms of the affiliate program, that visitor's click might cause you, the affiliate, to get paid for directing the visitor through the affiliate link. Most affiliate programs, however, require more. Most programs pay commissions on online sales made to any visitor that you sent. A few pay for leads, such as when the visitor you supplied provides contact information (name, phone number, e-mail address, and so on).
To succeed at affiliate marketing, you typically must build a strong information site, attracting visitors on specialized subjects with your interesting content. The best affiliate marketing sites draw a crowd with their information and sell products related to those same subjects. StarTrek.com is a successful Amazon affiliate that has newsletters, interviews, movie capsules, and lots of other interesting information for "Trekkers." While looking at a movie capsule, however, readers also see discreet Buy It Now buttons for videos and DVDs that link directly to the Amazon product pages. StarTrek.com clearly has unique information that attracts a core audience who sometimes purchase products. If your site presents merely warmed-over product information cribbed from the program sponsor, you might have trouble attracting search traffic, because search engines go to great lengths to lower your rankings for transactional queries.
If you think about it from the searcher's perspective, it makes sense for Yahoo! and other search engines to lower affiliate rankings for those queries. If a searcher is seeking a specific product, the product's manufacturer and well-known retailers for that product are the best matches. An affiliate link to one of those retailers is not a great match, because the searcher has to click through the affiliate link to get to the retail site that could have been directly shown in the search results. In other words, why show the affiliate site when Yahoo! can show the program sponsor's site directly?
So, if you are an affiliate marketer, don't try to compete with your program's sponsor on transactional search traffic. Instead, opt for the kind of content that your sponsor does not provide, such as impartial product reviews, usage tips, or some other angle that is hard to find. Then target informational queries with your search marketing strategy. When you get the visitors to your site, enough of them will click through your affiliate links if the products appeal strongly to your audience.
Regardless of how the sale is closed, the main distinction between a lead and an offline sale is when in the sales process the customer switches to the offline channel. Customers who do online research and immediately switch offline are leads, whereas customers who know the model number and the sale price walking into the store are offline sales.
You need a different search marketing strategy to handle customers who switch earlier in the process. Using the terminology developed in Chapter 4, businesses seeking leads should optimize their sites for informational rather than transactional queries, because leads-oriented Web sites are optimized for the early online research part of the sales cycle. If you are selling above-ground swimming pools, your prospective customers do not know the name or number of the exact model they want. This might be the only time they ever buy one in their lives. They cannot enter a transactional search query until after they have entered an informational query and done a lot of research. You want to snag those customers early in the process and sell them when they are doing their initial research. So, articles favorably comparing above-ground pools to in-ground pools (they are less expensive, they can be disassembled and moved to a new home, they require less maintenance, and so on) will attract customers who are still deciding what kind of pool they wantthose informational searchers.
If one of your site's goals is identifying leads, you want to concentrate on techniques for attracting informational searchers, although well-known companies also need to pay attention to navigational queries. As with offline sales sites, measuring sales can be tricky for sites generating leads. In Chapter 6, we show several techniques for judging your lead-passing Web site's success.