If you run a software consulting or managed IT services company, you know that keeping a pipeline full of prospects and customers is hard, but essential. You have a roster of very talented consultants and technical resources who depend on you to bring in the business.
But it’s tougher and tougher to generate leads and close sales today. The tried and true methods of referrals, conferences and cold-calling aren’t working. And new methods such as social media and content marketing, though powerful methods (I’m a huge proponent of content marketing), take too long pay off when time is short.
I know. I’ve been there. It’s not fun to have to struggle every month to find a new client, and it’s not fun to try to build a network of blog readers and social media fans that will pay off in 6-12 months, while you’ve got resources sitting on the bench.
But there is an alternative when you need fast results.
What I’m going to share with you is how you can leverage a new kid on the marketing block, native advertising. I’ll show you how you can use native advertising to generate leads right away, and how you can generate enough leads so you don’t have to scramble every month.
What is Native Advertising?
In his ground-breaking new book Content Code, marketing guru Mark Schaefer describes native advertising in this excerpt from the Interactive Advertising Bureau:
“(Native advertisements are) paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.”
For example, if you go to a well-known media property, like Forbes.com or the New York Times’ online edition, you’d see their regular editorial content, and you’d also see sponsored articles that look just like regular articles, but a brand has paid to have it placed in that slot.
In other words, they are advertisements that don’t really look like advertising – they look and feel like the regular editorial content on the publication’s website. But with one exception, there is usually a clear label informing the reader that it’s sponsored content.
I won’t cover all of them here as Farnsworth does a spectacular job breaking the topic down. But they roughly fall into the following: print advertorials, online advertorials, sponsored content, single-sponsor magazine issues, branded content, in-feed ads and sponsored posts.
For example, sponsored content, according to Farnsworth, “…is what a publisher creates and then a brand pays for,” whereas branded content is where the brand creates the content instead of the publisher.
When deciding on how to approach your native advertising campaign, you want to decide if you will be creating the content or if you’d like to have content creators from the publication in which you’re gong to place the ad create the content for you.
If you have a very talented content creation team on staff, and they’re pumping out quality content everyday, your company would do well to create the native ad for placement in the media property of your choice.
However, if you lack the in-house content creation resources, or your resources are experts in marketing content and not editorial content, you might choose to leverage the expert editorial teams some of these publications have created to do work on your behalf.
Time Inc. and Forbes have developed complete content creation teams staffed by professional journalists, with the express purpose of creating their clients’ native ads.
And video content is becoming a hot native advertising format, as Time Inc. has started doing for their customers.
Examples of Native Advertising for B2B and Technology Companies
Let’s look at a few examples.
In their post 7 Brands Getting Native Advertising Right, The Starr Conspiracy website lists exciting examples of major B2B brands dong interesting things with native ads.
They cite SAP’s presence on Forbes’com’s BrandVoice channel. They mix content marketing with native advertising to provide an educational, non-threating experience for their readers.
Can You Make Money With Native Advertising?
Everything sounds good so far, right? By now you’re probably asking: how can I actually make money with native advertising? If all you’re doing is producing quality, informative content, how does that generate leads and business for your company?
Good question, one that many marketers are asking themselves as well.
In his thought-provoking article for The Content Marketing Institute, Why Native Advertising is Neither, content marketing expert Robert Rose makes the point that native advertising is neither native nor advertising.
Ok, let me unpack this for you.
Native is not native: Rose explains that the purpose of this form of advertising is for it to blend in so that we can get rid of the stigma of traditional advertising (Jason Hill, General Electric’s head of media strategy, said: “Traditional digital advertising has become wallpaper). Native makes it look like the newspaper or magazine’s regular content to avoid that stigma.
According to Rose: “One of the most popular reasons that native advertising seems to be getting traction is it’s characterization as being engaging, wonderful content that’s placed contextually (i.e., natively) within the design of the target site.”
But as a content marketer, Rose argues: “…this proposition runs completely contrary to my goals. I always want my content to be so remarkable that it stands out and compels the reader to take an action. In short, if I’m expected to be successful in native advertising, I would WANT that content to stand out and effectively compete for attention against every other piece of editorial that’s there. In fact, as a marketer, I wouldn’t even need to care if readers ignore all the other articles — as long as they read mine.” (Emphasis mine).
Rose makes a very good point.
Native isn’t advertising either: Rose goes further. Though the “advertising” in native advertising means sponsoring a “slotted” space in a media outlet, advertisers stress the “content” of a native ad.
Rose said: “…the stated purpose of native advertising is to engage with content that may or may not (and arguably shouldn’t) promote the product or service.”
So your native ad ideally should look like the content that surrounds it: informative, fact-checked, journalistic, but it shouldn’t promote your product or service.
And how exactly is an informative piece of content going to drive sales-ready leads to your consulting practice if you can’t explicitly promote your service? Rose argues it won’t.
Technology Consulting Companies Should Approach Native Advertising Differently
The two examples I showed above, and the examples in the Starr Conspiracy article, are examples of great content produced by top marketers. However, most of them were brand awareness campaigns.
IBM, SAP, and Holiday Inn are well-known brands already, and by paying to publish informative “feel-good” content on major media sites, they’re doubling down on their branding by creating positive images about their brands because of the content they create.
But unless you’re Accenture or Cap Gemini your brand is probably not very well known (yet). This type of “branding” content won’t help you when you need to generate leads and sales now!
What’s the answer?
Rose provides an alternative approach to native advertising. In this Content Marketing Institute podcast, Rose explains that you should use the native ad to get people off the media outlet where they saw your ad, and on to your own media property where you can control the outcome.
In the summary of the podcast, interviewer Pamela Muldoon says: “If you are going to take advantage of native advertising, you need to write better than the media outlet. Your objective should be to convert the reader to do something – become your direct audience member, subscribe to your database, or follow your channel. Your objective should be to pull the audience from the native ad to your own content platforms.”
Then once you get the reader on to your own media platform, you can implement a process to convert that reader into a customer.
How I’d Run a Native Advertising Campaign
If I were the owner or CMO of a technology consulting company, this is how I’d run a native advertising campaign:
1. Identify my Customers and Their Reading Habits
Before doing any type of lead generation, marketing or advertising, I would have to become familiar with my customers: their biggest problems, greatest fears, and their highest aspirations.
I would also need to know where they go to get their news and where they learn about new products, services, concepts and points-of-view.
I would build a persona profile using a free persona template, which will help me identify:
- What customer problems I should address in the content I create for my native ads
- What topics most interest them – this would let me know what to write about
- What type of writing style and language I should use
- What type of content they like: written, graphics-heavy such as infographics, video, etc.
- Which publications to target
For example, I had assumed most CIOs read only technology publications, such as CIO.com. But when interviewing some CIOs recently on behalf of a client, I was surprised to find out that many, if not most of them, read business publications such as Fortune or the Harvard Business Review.
2. Familiarize Myself with My Pipeline
Before embarking on my native advertising journey, I would identify my sales pipeline, or my funnel.
In this image from Alan Weiss’ book Million Dollar Launch: How to Kick-start a Successful Consulting Practice in 90 Days, we see a depiction of a realistic sales pipeline. On the far left are closed sales, clients who hire my company. At the far right is where my slightly warm leads enter the pipeline.
The hottest leads are the ones that come in as referrals or during meetings.
If you are speaking at a conference you might meet somebody who likes what you say so much they’d want to hire you on the spot. You have established instant credibility with your speech.
Referrals also have built-in credibility, especially if they were referred to you by somebody who has a lot of credibility with your prospect. These leads are easy to close.
With native advertising I’m exposing my content to people who may or may not be looking for a solution yet (but they may have a problem they need to resolve). They’re just reading an online magazine, and they just happen to see my headline about something that catches their attention.
In this case I would identify my native advertising lead as lukewarm. See the far right of the pipeline.
3. Choose What Format To Use
In my persona research above, I would have found out what type of content they like to consume. Videos seem to be very popular today with executives, especially short, punchy videos packed with information yet entertaining at the same time.
But long-form content of 2,000 words or more is also valuable, especially if you pack it full of statistics, graphs, and real world examples.
A really interesting idea is to create a mini print magazine you can pay to have distributed with every issue of CIO.com or the Harvard Business Review, for instance.
4. Choose Your Native Advertisement Vehicle
You need to decide if you’ll interact directly with the publication, or if you’ll leverage one of the many native advertising platforms that are popping up to help you scale your native ads across many networks.
There are some drawbacks to using a content distribution platform. For one, you lose a certain level of control as to which media sites your content will appear on.
5. Decide on my Call-to-Action
Most native ad examples we showed above were imaging or branding content. But if you look closely at this IBM sponsored article in Forbes.com, you’ll notice something very interesting: in the 2nd paragraph you’ll notice a link directly to a research report on IBMs website.
This is a very subtle call-to-action, but it highlights what I (and Robert Rose) consider to be the main purpose of native advertising for brands: get people involved with your content so you can educate them, nurture them, and eventually sell them.
I would do something similar. But at the end of the article I would provide an additional embedded call-to-action: “To learn more about this topic, download our special report.” And instead of making the report open like IBM does, I would use it to capture my prospects’ email addresses.
6. Use the Escalation Model
After getting my prospects involved with my content through my native ad, whether it’s video or a written article, I would direct them to a special page on my website where I can involve them in my escalation process.
I would take a page out of the personal improvement coaching profession.
For example, personal achievement guru Honoree Corder uses a classic escalation strategy.
- When you go to her website at HonoreeCorder.com, you will immediately see a popup to download a free eBook on goal achievement. It’s a relatively small commitment to enter your email address in exchange for a the eBook.
- Then Honoree provides more. In her online shop she sells an array of books she has published, including Vision to Reality, a book that extends the goal-setting concept from her free eBook with a practical “how-to” advice and step-by-step directions. You have now spent a little bit of money on Honoree, your commitment to her is growing.
- The eBook and her books for sale are just the “gateway drugs” for the next step: getting involved with her her group coaching program, where you commit even more resources to get her knowledge directly.
- And if you want individualized attention, she offers one-on-one coaching as well, the most expensive offering in her portfolio.
Each step of Honoree’s escalation strategy is like a the steps on a stairway, starting with an initial small commitment where you get to know her and get excited with what she can teach you, to intermediate steps, such as her published books and group coaching. Finally, she offers full coaching.
As the owner of a technology consulting company, I would do the same. Through my native ads, I would direct people to a landing page on my website where they I would get them involved in my own escalation strategy. I would:
- Offer a free eBook. I would write a free PDF eBook on an interesting topic that introduces my philosophy and unique approach to solving a problem with technology. The goal would be to get my prospects excited about our point of view. The eBook would also enable me to capture my prospects’ email addresses so I can continue to engage with them. Here’s an article I wrote about the different types of eBooks I could possibly write.
- Blog and send them emails. Once my prospects are in my email marketing database (I would use something like MailChimp or HubSpot’s email tool), I would write educational blog posts and send these blog posts to my prospects. Since they’re just prospects right now, I wouldn’t get too promotional, but I would promote intermediate steps for them to get to know my company better.
- Invite them to a webinar or in-person event. Along with informative blog posts I would invite my prospects to attend a free webinar, which I would hold every month, or I would invite them to an in-person workshop if they lived in my town or if I was doing a cross-country tour. These events would “escalate” my prospects from being mildly interested to becoming more involved with my philosophy, my approach to solving technology issues, and my brand.
- Propose a low-cost assessment. At the end of each webinar or in-person event, I would make an offer for a low-cost, limited engagement “assessment” of their current technology situation. For example, if my company offered digital security services, I would offer a 3-day in-person security assessment for $5,000. This would be a low commitment way for my customers to experience my firm, and it would provide them with a roadmap for a solution that, magically, I could implement for them!
- Sell the project. After the assessment, I would then ask my customer: “would you like me to solve this problem for you?” And if I did my job right during the assessment my customer would say: “Yes!”
Native advertising is an innovative and powerful way to borrow the audience of a major or niche publication in your space and jump-start your lead generation efforts. Using a content marketing approach you attract readers with interesting, entertaining and informative content that you pay to have presented to these large audiences.
But you can’t stop there. Native advertising can’t do the job by itself. You must continue the job of qualifying them on your own site. Using the escalation model, involve them in more content that helps to educate them further while working them down your marketing and sales pipeline until they’re qualified enough for a sales person to talk to.
What do you think? Do you believe this is something that can work for you? I’d love to hear your comments in the comments section below. And please help me spread the word by sharing this article on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook!