Remember when someone said “Amazon” and you thought “bookstore?” No? That’s hardly surprising. Amazon as a retail giant has become such a part of our collective consciousness it’s hard for a lot of people — even non-millennials — to remember when it had a connotation outside of “place where you can buy anything you ever needed and a lot of things you never needed.”
One of the key product categories buyers are flocking to Amazon for is office products. Amazon’s 2017 U.S. office products sales were roughly $2.25 billion — a year-over-year increase of 25 percent from the previous year. Two of the biggest-selling office products categories on Amazon? Toner and ink. There’s some irony there — key components of the so-called “paperless office” are the cloud and the internet, and that’s where people are heading to buy printing supplies.
And it’s not just the small office supply dealer competing with Amazon, let’s be clear. Everyone is competing with Amazon — from the mom-and-pop shop to Best Buy and Walmart. It’s all about online competition and customers looking for the cheapest option — and while big box stores may seem to have a particular advantage in the form of marketing and advertising backing, competing with all of these larger organizations is not an impossible task. You simply need the right tools and partners.
Playing Amazon’s game
Amazon doesn’t just have the online presence and the top-of-mind recognition. They have something potentially even more critical — customer data — and they’re not afraid to use it. Amazon knows your buying habits and makes a point of anticipating your needs. They make buying easy and predictable, and customers know they can find what they need there.
That last item is the first step for your business. Are you selling to today’s buyer? If your customer Googles your business and nothing appears, it may as well be game over. Nearly all consumers — 97 percent — use online media when researching products and services in their local markets, and 93 percent of B2B purchases start with an online search. An online presence is a must-have, and it can’t be just a placeholder website with your name and phone number. You have to have content. Lead generation in the form of inbound marketing, automation and content creation is critical.
Outbound versus inbound marketing
You’ve probably heard the term “inbound marketing” by now if you’re involved in any sort of marketing activity with your business. But in case you haven’t, or you’re just getting started, let’s start a discussion of inbound marketing by talking about outbound marketing.
Outbound marketing is what might be considered “traditional” marketing: telemarketing, radio and television ads, direct mail, print ads, trade shows and email blasts, to name a few. Is it old school and something you should stop using? Absolutely not. There is a place and time for these types of marketing activities, but the important thing here is to recognize what it is. Ideally, once you employ some of the inbound tactics we’re going to discuss you’ll have created a new relationship with customers and prospects that will change how these outbound methods are received — for the better.
So what is inbound marketing? It’s exactly what it sounds like: marketing activities that bring people to your website. Think content — blogs, white papers, e-books, videos — things that draw the customer to you and keep them there. Customer retention in the office equipment industry is vital, new opportunities are hard to come by, and customer experience and customer delight — going beyond customer satisfaction and exceeding customer expectations — can have a genuine impact on your bottom line. Drawing customers in and building long-term trust along with strong branding can make the difference.
What makes up a good inbound marketing strategy? There are a few elements you absolutely must incorporate.
Content is king
Your website must be content rich and updated regularly. This is the No. 1 element in your inbound marketing strategy — draw customers in all you want, but if there is nothing to keep them there, those efforts will be for naught. So first we have content marketing — defined by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) as a “strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.” Essentially, it is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. In its 2018 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks Budgets and Trends study, the CMI identified the top forms of content marketing being used as: social media posts (excluding video) (94 percent); case studies (73 percent); videos (72 percent); e-books/white papers (71 percent); infographics (65 percent) and illustrations/photos (56 percent).
Let’s dig a little deeper into some of those types of content, which should all have one thing in common — they should contain your experience and expertise packaged in a tangible format. Case studies, e-books, white papers and blogs are all similar in the sense that they are written content that promote your company and provide information by being on-topic, informative, well-written and frequently updated. The last item, in particular, can be tricky — with so many other tasks on the plates of today’s workers, producing enough quality content is a problem to which outsourcing might be a solution. Just don’t lose focus on quality and neutrality; while some light promotion might be acceptable, for the most part, written content should be neutral, informative and educational. Answer your customers’ questions, give prospects the information they need, and the sales will come.
Video, which also came in very high on the list of top content forms, is increasingly popular with website visitors. One study showed that 60 percent of people prefer video over text, and that video keeps visitors on your website longer and is more memorable than text. Business Insider recently reported YouTube has more than 1.8 billion users each month, which certainly makes it a vehicle worthy of note. But clearly you’re not going to get business by becoming the next Justin Bieber (at least not the kind of business you want), so what kind of videos should companies offer? The most common types are explainers, demos, how-to videos and testimonials — all of which can be great resources for current and potential customers, and go a long way toward showcasing your company as an expert in the field and a valuable partner. But much like written content, creating these videos may be a bit more than most businesses have the bandwidth for, and again, finding an outsourcing partner may be the best path.
Drawing them in
Having all of this content on your website is great, but customers still have to find you, and this is where a good SEO strategy is vital. Let’s revisit these stats from the beginning of this article: 97 percent of consumers use online media when researching products and services and 93 percent of B2B purchases start with an online search. You want those online searches to pull up your company. Make sure that your partner in web development is maximizing your SEO and is on top of the latest trends. Google’s algorithms evolve regularly, so make sure your website is using the most up-to-date security measures and data, and that you are utilizing an analytics platform to determine what your viewers are searching for and ensuring they find it on your site.
Organic search is only part of the formula, though. Inbound marketing is still about drawing visitors in — it’s not a passive practice. The CMI also looked at the top formats used to distribute all the great content you’ve created for your website. Email and social media posts topped the list at 93 and 92 percent respectively, but also included were blogs, in-person events, virtual events, and print and digital magazines. So you can see that some of those traditional forms of outbound marketing we mentioned earlier still have a viable place within a solid inbound marketing strategy — it’s all in how you use it.
Marketing automation ties it all together
Now you’ve put together the essential pieces — you’ve got a great, SEO-optimized website built, and it’s loaded with regularly updated content that is rich in customer solutions, thought leadership ideas and product information. You’ve built your social media channels and you have a great database of customers and prospects.
Now how in the world are you going to keep track of all of this and still do your job?
Enter the marketing automation tool. There are many — HubSpot is probably the best known. A marketing automation tool can take all of the pieces you’ve built and integrate them so not only don’t the pieces fall through the cracks, you’re making the most of every single piece of data you’ve got. Marketing automation can help create workflows that include email prospecting and automated follow up; it can create reminders and integrate with your CRM to track your pipeline; it can monitor social media activity and much, much more. Ultimately, marketing automation tools can ensure you don’t waste all the good data — both structured and unstructured — you’re collecting from your inbound marketing efforts. Going to all of the effort of creating a website, content, a social media platform and a marketing plan, and then not making use of the data you collect is like finding a million dollars and then burying it under your couch cushions. Make the data work for you.
If you follow all the ideas I’ve outlined for you in this article, will you become the next Jeff Bezos? Well — maybe not. But what you will become is someone who can compete with Amazon on a level playing field. The Amazon effect means that customers are looking for solutions online — but it doesn’t mean they’re going to go with Amazon automatically. Many customers are looking for local, personal service, and they want more than simple supplies. Customers want a provider of managed services — managed print, auto toner fulfillment, bundled services and the numerous other personalized and specialized services that Amazon can’t provide. Let them know that you can — and that you’re out there. Sell the way people buy, and you can thrive in today’s online world.