Obviously, getting your site to rank high in the search engine results and getting searchers to click through to your site are among the foremost objectives of B2B search engine optimization. But that's just the beginning. You still have to turn the visitor into a customer or client.

In the first article in this series, we discussed some of the key differences between B2C and B2B search engine optimization. In the B2C world, for example, conversion (turning a site visitor into a customer) can happen in a matter of minutes; in the business-to-business realm, however, conversion can take months or even years—and it typically doesn't occur online.

So how should you think about conversion in the B2B SEO environment, and what can you do both to accelerate and measure it?

Understanding the Goals

The goal of most B2B searchers is research: Who are the best potential suppliers? What experience do they have? What are the key issues I should be concerned with in choosing a supplier? How do I know I'm making the right choice?

Your goal, on the other hand, is to identify who the site visitors are and to develop a relationship with them—one that lets them get to know you, builds credibility and confidence in your company, and ultimately positions you as their preferred provider. But how do you do this in the anonymous environment of the Web?

Using Site Analytics

First of all, you should be analyzing your Web traffic; it can be a rich source of leads. While the specific identity of site visitors is not available (unless they have chosen to log in or otherwise identify themselves), you can often see the name of visitors' companies. If there are frequent or deep visits from a particular company, it may be an indication that the company is considering buying the type of product or service you have to offer.

Now, you shouldn't quickly begin making calls to find out the identity of the visitor. Doing so will backfire, because anonymity is valued by the searcher. On the other hand, if the company is not an identified prospect of yours, you may want to determine the likely buyers and include them in your regular direct marketing efforts. (Just don't send them a high-pressure FedEx the day after their visit.)

Engagement Is the Key to Conversion (and Leads)

While you likely won't generate a B2B sale in a single visit, there are a number of strategies to help begin converting site visitors into customers.

In the B2B realm, think of conversion as a relationship-building process that requires numerous touchpoints and interactions. It takes place over time in a variety of online and offline encounters. Your job is to increase the number and quality of those encounters by offering opportunities for them to engage with you.

Ideally, search engine optimization helps to create not only the first encounter but also multiple subsequent encounters throughout the buying cycle (see the "One Searcher. Multiple Searches." heading of the first article in this series).

The primary intent of business-to-business searchers is research and education—and you can use this fact to develop a rich relationship with them over time. Your site should contain a generous amount of optimized educational content. This helps prospects both find you and get to know your firm and your approach in a non-invasive, largely anonymous environment.

As prospects learn more about your firm and its offerings, they will become more comfortable in letting you know who they are in exchange for more information.

While much of your Web content should be open to all, you should reserve a certain amount of valuable content available by registration only. That registration will give you valuable lead information.

Below are some tools you can use to drive engagement, accelerate conversion, create leads, and measure the return on SEO:

  • Newsletter sign-ups. Electronic and printed newsletters are a great way to stay in front of B2B prospects and develop an ongoing relationship with them. Keep newsletter registration simple; don't ask for too much information. E-newsletters are ideal. If you publish an e-newsletter, make sure it contains a viral marketing option allowing recipients to forward it to others who can also sign up. Don't publish the full story in your newsletter. Instead, publish an abstract or paragraph from the stories and have recipients click links back to your site for full story content. These click-throughs will get people back to your site where they can view other relevant content. Most importantly, make sure that your newsletter has great content; if the content is weak, or if you frequently send content of little value, your recipients will opt out—or worse, designate your newsletter as spam.

  • Whitepapers. Whitepapers are a great way for prospects to see how you think and to evaluate your knowledge and perspectives. Publish optimized abstracts of whitepapers on your site and elsewhere. Have site visitors register to view or download the full whitepaper. Embed electronic whitepapers with hyperlinks to related information on your site. Doing so not only gets readers back into your site but also ensures that others to whom the whitepaper is passed along can also get to your site, perhaps for the first time. Be careful not to turn the whitepaper into a blatant promotional tool. Links should be limited to those that lead to other objective, educational material and information.

  • Podcasts. B2B podcasts are increasing in popularity. They're an easy way for people to assimilate what you have to say. Have visitors register to download them. Keep podcasts valuable and short, and use newsletters and blogs to promote them.

  • Case studies. Fear of making the wrong decision is a primary motivator in B2B supplier selection. Case studies give prospects insights into how you work and your results for others, thus building trust and credibility. If your case studies just tout results, don't bother requiring registration to view them. If, however, you're going to give valuable information about your process and how those results were achieved, post an abstract of the case study publicly and require registration to get the details. As with whitepapers, embed electronic copies of case studies with links to relevant pages on your site. This will get them back to your site and ensure that others to whom the case study is forwarded can easily do the same.

  • Literature requests. In this world of e-everything, some people still prefer printed materials—which also create the perception of substance and credibility that's vital in the B2B world. Readers know that electronic marketing can be cheaply created overnight. Print materials, however, indicate a serious investment—and that perception can bolster your firm's credibility during purchase evaluation. If you offer more detailed print literature, provide a mechanism for site visitors to request it.

  • Online demos and trials. To the extent you offer trials of your product, or if your product can be demonstrated online, consider doing so. There's no sense requiring registration for a short, simple demonstration, but if the demo is substantial and valuable, consider requiring registration.

  • Webcasts. B2B webcasts are non-invasive forums in which to share research, information, and product demonstrations. They're much cheaper than on-site seminars, and you can use webcast registrations for leads.

  • Technical information. Site visitors don't expect you to share everything; they know you have competition. Perhaps your products have technical information or specifications that would be valuable for prospects to know as they advance in the buying cycle. Consider requiring registration for certain technical information.

  • Referring visitors to your blog. A blog serves as another touchpoint for your brand. B2B blogs are a great medium for further engaging prospects, letting them hear what you think, and seeing your personality. If you have a related blog, allow visitors to your main site to click through to it. You won't get visitors' specific identities, but you may be able to use site analytics to determine which companies clicked through to your blog and what they viewed.

  • Giving something away. As an inducement to watch a 10-minute product demonstration, one of our clients held a drawing to award a 42-inch flat-screen television. To ensure that site visitors watched the entire demo, registration was available only at the end of the self-advancing Flash-file demo. Views of the demo soared, as did the number of resulting leads.

Create a careful balance between the publicly available information on your site and that for which you require registration. For sections requiring registration, don't ask for too much information; you may scare people off. Finally, make sure that the information you require for registration is commensurate with what you give them in exchange. Otherwise, people will feel cheated and begin forming negative perceptions about your firm.

Measuring Conversion

Site analytics will let you evaluate your conversion efforts in terms of depth of visits, length of visits, and whether time spent on specific pages and the number of repeat visitors is increasing. If people keep coming back, spending material amounts of time on your site, you're likely deepening the relationship you have with prospects and continuing to position your firm as one of their preferred choices.

In addition to continuing to convert visitors into customers, the number and quality of leads from each of the conversion strategies above can be used to evaluate return on investment for B2B search engine optimization. Site registrations are leads. In B2B, leads are expensive. While it obviously varies by industry and company, the average cost of a business-to-business sales lead is easily several hundred dollars.

Sure, you still have to qualify and convert leads, but no other business-to-business marketing medium comes close to economically delivering the number of predisposed prospects as search engine optimization. After all, the mere fact that people are searching indicates they're likely to take action in the future. That's not true of most readers of the trade publication in which you placed your last ad.

Parting Thoughts

SEO's ability to meet prospects exactly when they're forming the intent to buy (and throughout the buying cycle) makes it one of the most attractive marketing strategies for B2B. Yet most business-to-business companies have not begun to implement search engine optimization. For many, it's not even on their radar—and that can represent a competitive advantage for your firm.

If you understand B2B search engine optimization and how to engage visitors each time they find your site, you can create a rich pipeline of prospect relationships and sales leads.

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Galen De Young is managing director of Francis SEO (www.francis-seo.com), a Michigan firm specializing in B2B search engine optimization.