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Online Marketing For Manufacturers Step 3: Work The Channels

OK, you have a Web site. You’ve stocked it with content to attract the types of critters in the right conditions for you to help them.

But now what?

Just having a Web presence isn’t enough, anymore than loading bar stock into an LNS and going fishing will give you quality parts. Now that your base and content are in place, the final basic step to maximize your investment – by getting new prospects & customers – is identifying and working the online channels to feed the right traffic to your site.

It’s been my experience that this step is the most often ignored or overlooked by small & medium manufacturers building or improving their online marketing posture. And, unfortunately, this is where most of them either fail or don’t do enough to make themselves as successful as they can be.

Here are 6 channels & techniques that you should establish and work to keep your pipeline of attractive potential customers full, and maintain your company as “top of mind” with your prospects & customers:

  1. Social Media – Easily, Social Media – especially when assessed to serve a small discrete parts or custom manufacturer – cause the most confusion among all other channels to feed your Web site (base). The problem is in the hype. It’s easy to be seduced by facebook (over 500-million active users; $50-billion valuation), LinkedIn (just passed over 100-million members; $2+-billion valuation) and Twitter (over 200-million users; $7.7-billion valuation). But are your customers and prospects really there? (The short answer is “not yet.”) A standard rule of thumb these days is to ignore facebook (too social, not enough industrial prospects, not being used for professional sourcing or industrial supply chain management). For now, it’s more work than it’s worth. Twitter seems to be gaining more traction with industrial and manufacturing technology companies. The activity is stronger, and collaborative and sharing tribes are forming on the popular micro-blogging site. But there are two issues I have with Twitter today: first, many of the companies you covet on Twitter have interns or someone far from the sourcing or purchasing arms of their firms; and second, contents, posts and tweets have a rapid information decay rate – that means that a post there rapidly loses its value as it’s ‘stepped on’ by a flood of subsequent tweets. Of the big 3, currently LinkedIn offers the strongest case for small manufacturer engagement. More and more manufacturing professionals are actively involved there as individuals, and group participation and information sharing are clustering in more meaningful ways. The down side (and there’s a downside with most industrial social media value due to the medium’s immaturity) is that LinkedIn is, in the end, an employment site. Much of the information and communications found there are intended to build the reputation of the individual rather than to support ones day gig or enable commerce with potential suppliers. Bottom line: social media can be useful to drive more business to your base, but they can require more resources to manage those channels effectively than you may have. My best advice is to explore these platforms and other more specific spots (see below) and don’t be afraid to drop ’em and come back later if they don’t present a critical mass of potential relationships in short order.
  2. Online Marketplaces – These platforms are often where the buyers you’re looking for are, in fact, managing their stable of suppliers and supply chains. Sites like Ariba, MFG.com, professional associations that serve your specific industries and others can cost you some subscription dough, but provide a richer and more appropriate level of interaction with potential customers while they’re ‘in heat.’ One of the rubs against these platforms are that there are all manner of sourcing and buying types looking for sources there, like suppliers from low-cost countries for example. Bottom line: you’re in a global manufacturing economy. It’s the WORLD-WIDE Web. Get over it. Deal with it. Ignore those prospects that are focused solely on price and pay little attention to total costs or quality. Focus instead on the buyers that value YOUR value. These models can provide some of the best channels to feed your base for the long haul, and expose you to relationships you couldn’t have found elsewhere.
  3. Directories – Like Online Marketplaces, directories run by associations or private business that serve your industries are actually used frequently by industrial purchasers & engineers. However, many like ThomasNet and GlobalSpec come at fairly high costs that can cut into a small shop’s or plant’s profits. The goal is to leave ‘breadcrumbs’ to your base that the buyers you covet will find in their research for acceptable supplier partners.
  4. Trade Shows & Visits – Despite what many are saying these days – trade shows and other ‘traditional’ marketing models are fading from relevance – nothing’s going to replace a handshake anytime soon. People still like to interact with each other, in actual reality. With your base built, make it easy for those you meet in person to follow up their research about you online, after the show or the meeting. Don’t just print your URL on every piece you hand out, but provide links to those buckets and vignettes in printed and digital materials that target folks you covet – in Aerospace, Defense, Oil & Gas, etc. Don’t make them conform to your preferences – conform to THEIRS.
  5. Blogs & Forums – Industry-specific sites that allow for interaction are perfect opportunities for you to help your peers and prospects, participate in conversations, and leave links to your base that will feed it long after the conversation or thread has lost traction. Often, small manufacturers like you overlook the legacy value of these conversations, and their overall contributions to Search Engine Optimization and brand management. The more questions you answer, the more help you provide, the more you’re seen as an expert AND the more channels you open up to your business based in the best contexts possible – solving problems & showing your expertise.
  6. Email Newsletters & Direct Mail (Push Media) – Let’s imagine that you get an RFQ through your Web site or through an online channel. You meet the prospect, negotiate, collaborate, and the guy ultimately picks someone else for the work. Maybe they go to China. Or across the country. Or maybe they select a direct competitor, right across town. Do you just give up? You shouldn’t. That prospect will experience a supply chain disruption about 1/3 of the time – meaning that their original choice may not work out. So, it’s 3 months later, they’re under the gun and need a solution – FAST. These Leads/Prospects/Customers may have forgotten about you, IF you hadn’t used your secret weapon – Push Media. By assembling a prospect list and sending a quarterly newsletter out quarterly – about new equipment, a new contract, a particularly complex project on time & under budget, a training program you’ve just launched – you’re improving the odds that the guy who got himself into a jam knows you, and thinks of you immediately when he’s under the gun. Of all the channels, this one activity can not only drive more work to & through your company’s base – it can cultivate more long-term, valuable relationships than any of these other channels. It’s just how sourcing and purchasing works in the global manufacturing economy and extended supply chain management.

There are many other channels and options to consider – advertisements, several other Social Media platforms and networks, Search Engine Optimization, & partnerships, just to name a few.

But the key to be effective with any channel is to choose wisely – is the platform or event or channel you choose where your prospects actually convene for research or to do their jobs? Or is it a trend, with lots of people doing lots of things and spread all over the place?

It’s no longer about ‘who’ you know, but rather ‘when’ you know them. Selecting channels based on the prospects that congregate on a platform or channel that are using them for the purposes that serve your business will create more quality opportunities, save you time & money, and keep your sales funnel operating at peak efficiency.

Choose wisely & work ’em regularly.

AJ Sweatt
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