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Digital Marketing's Easy, Until You Try It

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Does this sound familiar?

"Marketing is no longer an art; it has become a big data analytics engineering discipline where every marketing dollar can be optimized for maximum impact. All you need to do is give away a free version of your product and crank up the ______ <select one: ‘digital,’ ‘content,’ ‘social,’ or ‘automated’> marketing engine and you are good to go. Display ads to free users or offer a premium paid version of your product and you too will soon be able to sell your company to ______ <select one: ‘Google,’ ‘IBM,’ ‘Microsoft,’ or other company> and retire. Hire Millenials to feed this amazing new automated marketing. These folks totally ‘get’ the social stuff because they already spend all their waking moments on _______ <select one: ‘Facebook,’ ‘WhatsApp,’ ‘Instagram,’ ‘SnapChat’>.”

Unless you're completely off the grid you have surely seen some variation of this theme. Sounds great … if only it were this easy.

4 Year Digital Marketing Redux

My own digital marketing journey began at the 2010 Web 2.0 Conference (RIP) in San Francisco. Xobni, Slideshare, and a few other companies presented digital marketing success stories of their own B2B "freemium" sales models. All the talk about A/B and multivariate testing, conversion rate analysis, and optimizing marketing dollars resonated with my analytical, engineering background. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Four years have passed and the luster of the fully-automated enterprise freemium sales model has largely faded. Xobni was sold to Yahoo for an "undisclosed sum" after burning through almost $40 million in cash. Slideshare also recently dropped its freemium model, although this was a result of its sale to LinkedIn, which apparently has different plans for the company.

While my own team’s efforts have been largely successful, it hasn’t always been easy. There have many false starts, dead ends and frustration along the way. Many of the concepts that look good on slideware are difficult to implement in practice. For example, making sense of user data and correlating a person’s activities across multiple devices and locations is harder than it looks. Also, in most cases, you will see more than one free user per company. Tracking the evolution of a company’s collective experience across these multiple users is challenging.

Over the course of my journey, I have reached some general conclusions which I would like to share. And while there are obvious differences between products, target audiences and sales models, the following experiences should be applicable for many enterprise situations.

The Ups and Downs of Digital Marketing

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Sales and marketing automation tools like Salesforce and Marketo are complex and require much more customization than the vendors will lead you to believe. Initially, I envisioned elaborate nurture campaigns for free users based on patterns of their own online activity (e.g., web visits, sharing the product with colleagues, etc.), but these proved to be prohibitively difficult to implement, analyze and manage.

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When using sales and marketing automation tools, keep it simple. Let the tools do the heavy lifting for repetitive tasks like sending emails and logging activities, but keep the business logic simple. For example, automating the sending of a series of email messages following a product download is relatively easy to do.

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There is an infinite set of products and services that help you analyze online activity: from simple web visit statistics tools, to analyzers of web site activity using heat maps, to correlation tools that map web site visitors to specific prospects. While many of these tools work quite well, integrating them to get a 360 degree picture of the online sales funnel flow can be quite complicated. When you reach the stage when all the tools are integrated and you can track a prospect’s activity all the way through the sales process … you will have truly arrived.

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Focus first on the areas that provide the most value for optimizing your sales funnel. For example, try to understand which free users are influential in their own organizations. Focusing on these folks will more likely to lead to a sale than treating all free users as equals. Many analytics tools can be used "stand-alone" to provide guidance for improving interrelated processes. For example, heat map analysis tools can pinpoint the areas of your web site that are widely viewed; this is valuable information even if can’t correlate which users are looking at specific areas on the site.

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Content marketing is a new way to interact with prospects and it’s getting a lot of hype. Some marketers understand this method to mean pummeling a free user with content until "something sticks." Then, when a user clicks on or downloads content, you can interact with them to move the sales process forward. The reality is that people are busy and they have a limited amount of attention. Offering too much material simply drives people to ignore you … or to opt-out altogether, particularly when the content is irrelevant, low-quality or sales-y.

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Provide links to valuable sources of information as a natural part of the product experience. When a free user clicks on these links, you will have a good indication what interests them. But be careful not to annoy users with too many reminders or interruptions as part of the user experience or they will uninstall your product, and be lost forever. Monitor click-through rates and uninstalls vigilantly and test constantly to see what works.

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Quality trumps quantity … always. There is already too much crummy content out there already — don’t contribute to the noise. Invest in developing content that addresses your prospects’ interests. Remember that users are not interested in your product, they are interested in getting their jobs done. If you can help them be successful, you might get their attention.

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The holy grail of digital marketing is to get prospects to raise their hand when they are ready to engage. This way, you can optimize your marketing and sales resources to respond only to fully-qualified opportunities. Don’t expect to fully automate this process. For anything larger than small departmental or SMB opportunities, organizations still demand human attention. Your prospects are busy; you will still need to call and nurture them. In enterprise deals, this process requires investments by both sales and technical personnel.

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