How to Evaluate an Online Marketing Service

If you’ve got a budget for website promotion, I know about a hundred companies that want your business. Be it PPC, banner ads, link placements, paid blogging, search engine optimization, or any of a dozen other industry buzz words, they all have different strategies for driving traffic. With so many choices, it can be hard to know which ones are valuable. Answer the following questions, however, and you’ll have a good idea whether a service deserves your money.

How is the price of the service determined?
There are many different cost metrics thrown around in online marketing: CPC, CPA, CPM, flat rate, etc. Ultimately, the only important metric is how much the service costs versus how much value it delivers (i.e., ROI). However, different cost metrics elicit different quality concerns. With CPA, you have to be more cautious about the quality of conversions, with CPC, the conversion rate, and with CPM, the clickthrough rate. Always be on guard that the provider might be illegitimately inflating your costs.

How likely is the traffic to convert?
The question here is whether the visitors’ demographics and intent match your site’s conversion goal. What is the age range of the visitors? What are their interests? If you’re selling something, how much disposable income do they have and where are they at in the buying cycle? This will require testing to verify, but you can often get a good idea of traffic quality by asking where that traffic is coming from before it reaches your site.

How much volume can the service drive?
It’s possible for a channel to deliver a great ROI, but only at a low volume. If a channel doesn’t produce enough traffic and/or conversions, it may not be worth the trouble to manage in the first place.

How well does the service scale?
Business needs have an tendency to change. The best online marketing services can scale in cost and volume to meet those needs. Often, scalability is the key to retaining a service over the long term.

Does the service use affiliates?
Depending on the nature of your conversions and the cost metric involved, affiliates may be useful. For example, when e-commerce transactions are required, affiliates are generally safe. However, if your conversions are, say, form submissions, fraud becomes a chief concern. In situations like this, affiliate-based services are best used cautiously or avoided all together.

Is the traffic incentivized in any way?
As with affiliates, incentivized traffic may or may not be useful depending on the nature of your conversion and the cost metric involved. Generally speaking, though, you want visitors who are interested in your offer, not visitors who just clicked through to get a flat screen TV.

Does the service offer online utilities?
Speaking from experience, nothing is more frustrating than managing a service that doesn’t offer online reporting and management utilities. Services that lack online utilities are suspect, either because they aren’t willing to give you transparency and control, or because they lack the technical savvy to create them.

Does the service include a campaign manager?
Although management and reporting utilities are the ideal, when large-scale adjustments need to be made, a dedicated human being can help reduce your management overhead. Obviously, you should prefer campaign managers that are good at achieving your goals.

How easily can the service be terminated?
When it comes to online marketing services, a contract is almost always involved. Depending on your faith in the service, you’ll want to be sure that the contract can be terminated to minimize losses if the ROI turns sour.

The Purple Cow Level: An MMORPG Lesson in Remarkable Marketing

Case: LF1M healer for norm BM

Unless you’re a seasoned World of Warcraft player, the string of acronyms listed above probably doesn’t mean much to you. To translate, it stands for, “We are looking for one more party member to fill the role of healer for a normal-difficulty run of the Black Morass dungeon.” Yes, it means all of that. What can I say? We gamers love our shorthand.

The other night, my wife and I wrote little else into the game’s various chat channels for the better part of an hour without response. No healers were interested in joining us on our excursion.

Undeterred, I decided to mix things up with a little marketing. Instead of “LF1M healer for norm BM,” I took the time to write the following:

“Lo, there do I see my father. Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers. Lo, do I see the line of my people back to beginning. Lo, do they call to me. They say, looking for a healer for Black Morass!”

The cinema-savvy among you may recognize this as a quote from the movie, “13th Warrior.” Naturally, it elicited more than a few chat responses from curious and/or amused players. Seeing my tactic paying off, I followed up with two more:

“*singing* If you like my body and you think I’m sexy, come on heal for Black Morass!”

“*in echoing monster truck rally voice* TUESDAY, TUESDAY, TUESDAY… IN BLACK MORASS, MORASS, MORASS… LOOKING FOR HEALER, HEALER, HEALER…”

After more than a little laughter from my audience, my tactic managed to convince several players to log on as their healing characters and help us. We went on to a successful run of the dungeon.

Point: Remarkable Marketing

Is your marketing drawing your audience’s attention? I could have continued to produce the same monotonous, “LF1M healer for norm BM,” proclamation ad infinitum in the hopes that it would eventually pay off. Instead, I decided to do something that stood out, and it paid off.

Naturally, what draws attention will depend on the medium. Television commercials, for example, are always pushing the envelope and getting little response because users are desensitized to it. In simple text-based chat, however, I proved how a little innovation can go a long way.

Much like Seth Godin’s famous purple cow, is your marketing remarkable? Does it stand out and demand attention or fade into the noise? Are you still looking for a healer, or have you already gotten one and finished the dungeon?

P.S. Kudos if you’ve got enough marketing and gaming savvy to understand, “The Purple Cow Level,” without reference. 😉

Launching a Successful Website, Step Five: 3, 2, 1… Lift Off!

Every step so far has led up to this: Launching your website. Of course, the technical bits should already be taken care of, leaving only the launch itself. If your site is small, this can be as simple as turning the key and hoping for the best. More than likely, though, you’ll need to spread the word to get any attention. As with everything that came before, here are some best practices to keep in mind.

Set a date. Much like a shuttle takeoff, there’s often a lot of coordination involved in launching a website. Pick a reasonable date in the near future to schedule it all. Your promotional experts may be able to advise the most strategic time based on your market (e.g., launching a football paraphernalia website just before the play-offs), or you may aim to launch as soon as possible. In any event, setting a date and sticking to it will help ensure the launch goes off without a hitch.

Submit the site to search engines. This used to mean manual submissions. Nowadays, though, it means compiling an XML sitemap and submitting it to Google Webmaster Tools, Yahoo Site Explorer, and MSN Live Search Webmaster Center, as well as adding it to your robots.txt file for smaller search engines. This should get the spiders indexing all of your content as quickly as possible.

Publish a press release. With today’s technology, you might think that the old-fashioned press release would have gone the way of the dodo, but it can still be a useful method for promoting a website.

Contact reviewers. Nothing can bring a new site up to speed like an endorsement from a respected professional. Just be sure your site deserves praise before soliciting reviews. Remember your manners, too; unless they’re paid, reviewers are doing you a favor, and attempting to forcibly coerce a good review could easily backfire.

Tap social media. One well-placed Digg, Twitter, or Stumble could easily get a new site off the ground. Where appropriate, spread the news of your site’s launch out in these and other social networks. As with reviewers, though, don’t force it; social networkers have a notorious hatred for overzealous self-promotion. Tread with care or you risk provoking a very damaging backlash.

Establish advertising. You might use pay-per-click services like Google AdWords, banner ad placement services like Tribal Fusion, or seek out independent advertising agreements with individual website owners. The key is to know your prospective audience and the kinds of sites they’re likely to visit.

Build inbound links. Listings in relevant directories can provide some modest traffic and the initial link juice needed for your site to rank in search engine results. Even more valuable, though, are links from websites with significant authority in your market.

Launching Ward on the Web

Most of the concept and planning work for Ward on the Web occurred early in May 2008. Thus, I decided to set June 1st, 2008 as my firm launch date. I installed the Google XML Sitemaps plugin for WordPress, submitted my sitemap to the big three search engines, and added it to my robots.txt file. I then hit up some of my blogging contacts, including Adam Schultz, Daniel Scocco, and Simon Owens, with notice of the launch. Lastly, I added social media bookmarking links to my WordPress template and submitted the site to Dmoz. As for press releases and advertising, I intentionally left them out because I don’t have the budget for them.

In my next post, I’ll address how to maintain your site’s upward momentum after launch.