Cover Story: Growing Leads
A "one size fits all" approach certainly has its place, such as with hats, gloves and the like. But when it comes to marketing lawn care services, that method won't translate into more quality leads. For Spring-Green Lawn Care Corp., the Plainfield, Ill.-based lawn and tree care service franchise, a tailored strategy was necessary to maximize local exposure and generate leads effectively.
Serving markets in more than 7,500 neighborhood communities around the country from Marietta, Ohio to Raleigh, N.C.—where the demographics and psychographics are dramatically different—Spring-Green identified a need to drill into its markets and treat them uniquely. "There's a lot of distance between the markets that we're serving," notes James Young, president of Spring-Green. "In a lot of cases, it's as if we have a lot of very small islands."
Direct mail is the marketer's largest source of lead generation and new sales, and it influences 60 percent to 70 percent of new customer acquisition, according to Young. However, 20 percent of that activity interrelates with the company's online marketing efforts. According to Young, the Web currently is the fastest-growing channel for Spring-Green; although factors such as income level, age and home values cause some markets to respond better to direct mail.
Marietta, Ohio, for example, is characterized by an older demographic that typically responds to Spring-Green's direct mail more favorably than its online marketing efforts. Conversely, the Web tends to be a more effective channel in cities and tech-savvy towns like Raleigh, N.C. "As both channels grow, I think we have to continue to drill into the demographics and the psychographics of our customer base and then offer our franchise owners options for both [channels]—and that's where that balance comes back," explains Young.
With an interest in improving its Web presence and making its site a more efficient tool, Spring-Green hired Oneupweb, a Traverse City, Mich.-based digital marketing agency, more than four years ago and began creating microsites off its corporate domain. What initially began as a small project to test the viability of search engine marketing evolved into a much larger program encompassing search engine optimization (also called natural search) and paid search.
One of the key undertakings for improving Spring-Green's Web presence was SEO—specifically, developing 85 microsites that had content relevant to each franchisee market and could be found naturally by search engines.
"So it wasn't just about casting this national net, if you will, for search engine optimization," explains Young. "It started there, but then we had to refine it very quickly, much like a paid campaign where you can target it based on some geo-code parameters. We needed to figure out how to do something very similar in our search engine optimization strategy. Otherwise, we had a lot of unique visitors, but our conversion rates weren't all that good."
A variety of strategies contributed to a positive shift in those conversion rates. In 2008, Spring-Green saw a 29 percent increase in total SEO leads from the previous year and another 2 percent increase in 2009. The marketer also experienced a 71 percent increase in unique visitors due to natural search efforts in 2008, and the number climbed an additional 30 percent in 2009. In terms of overall visibility, there was a 68 percent increase in 2008 of natural search terms used to visit the site and a further 36 percent increase in 2009.
One strategy that contributed to these promising statistics was building and optimizing unique content at the local level to drive more traffic and improve Spring-Green's rankings in local searches for lawn care services. This included considering what people search for in each market and using town names, ZIP codes, metatags and other keywords specific to the respective markets. "We said we already have a [franchisee] in Marietta, Ohio, [so] we'd better figure out how to generate more traffic there and make sure that we capture the lion's share of search engine traffic," says Young.
Interlinking has been another key strategy for influencing positions in natural search, building out links between the corporate site and microsites, as well as between franchisees and local community organizations including Big Brothers Big Sisters and Chamber of Commerce memberships. "Creating that connectiveness between all of the relationships you have or can control is going to be beneficial certainly to influence natural search," explains Lisa Wehr, founder and CEO of Oneupweb.
Spring-Green also uses Google Maps to improve natural search, which allows it to create business listings and provides embedded links back to Spring-Green's sites. "Anytime a business can appear in Google Maps and influence what [its] listing looks like, that's something [it] should take advantage of," says Wehr. "And you have the power to do that with Google Maps, whether you're one location or 100 locations."
While the paid search program peaks during spring for Spring-Green, SEO is a year-round program; the marketer looks at SEO and paid search results on a weekly basis during the spring and then on a monthly basis for the rest of the year. Once paid search winds down, Spring-Green is able to devote more time to refreshing content and posting new material to its sites. "If you're going to make content improvements, you're going to make them at the back end of the year in preparation for the search engines picking everything up and carrying by the first part of the year," notes Young. "We're doing a lot of content revisions annually in the fall. We'll add content through the year, as we do additional interviews with franchisees, or we'll drip out content in terms of podcasts and things."
Succeeding at SEO requires more than simply the best strategies. "Doing good SEO work really depends on the client to implement the SEO work and staying committed to it over the long haul," says Wehr. "If you're going to invest in it, get the most out of your investment and continue to grow that, whether you do it with a vendor like us or you're doing it internally. It's not a set-it-and-forget-it type of marketing."
Adding Some Paid Bait
Spring-Green front-loads much of its marketing between January and the end of May and leverages paid search during an eight-week window when Young says the company spends the bulk of its pay-per-click dollars. "There's a flurry of activity, and we generate thousands of leads for our franchisees," says Young.
Local search is one significant aspect of Spring-Green's paid campaign, centering on the main objective of fine-tuning results via keywords, town names and other relevant criteria. "It doesn't make sense to a franchise that has 80 locations to be advertising in paid search campaigns where they have no locations servicing customers," explains Wehr. "So [we're] developing campaigns that are highly targeted towards a radius around each one of their locations …"
According to Wehr, paid search is particularly useful if Spring-Green has a relatively obscure keyword that would require a significant investment to position well in SEO. "Paid search has grown alongside of the natural search campaign to supplement [it] and really better position [Spring-Green] where we may have some difficulty or it doesn't make enough sense to invest in SEO," says Wehr.
As the fastest-growing component of the marketer's budget—both because Spring-Green's witnessed its impact and continues to invest in it, and because the per-click cost perpetually increases with more competition—paid search may not continue to be a feasible lead-generation method. "A big part of why we continue to invest in the SEO and local search optimization is because we know as more and more companies become competitive in our space for paid search, that can potentially take us out of that being an effective channel if it becomes cost-prohibitive," notes Young.
Making It Stick
Sticky Web content is the glue Spring-Green has applied to improve the overall relevancy of its content and keep leads coming back to the sites. The franchisee sites feature a glossary and articles on basic lawn and tree care tips, as well as the Knowledge Base, a search tool that scours all of the articles published by Spring-Green and provides quick answers to visitors' questions.
The marketer also offers a series of educational podcasts, called Lawn Talk. At present, the series consists of 16 interviews with Spring-Green Director of Training and Franchise Support Harold Enger; covering topics such as pest control and seasonal lawn care, it can be accessed via Spring-Green's sites, iTunes and RSS feed.
"We've built and optimized that glossary and those podcasts within our local search as well, so it's bringing that franchise owner up into being the local expert," says Young.
Analytics and Action
Although Spring-Green refreshes and posts new content during the down months, it use several tools year-round that help it continuously monitor and track the SEO and paid search campaigns and make sound decisions based upon performance.
"Where you get into really making search effective is studying the analytics and taking action on them," notes Wehr. "So many people have analytics and they look at them, but they don't decipher their meaning and then plan an action step based upon that meaning."
Spring-Green leverages a few of Oneupweb's proprietary tools to measure podcast activity, as well as conversion based upon keywords or specific criteria employed in the natural and paid search campaigns. It also uses Google Analytics to track Web site traffic. And on another level, the marketer conducts a back-end analysis on leads against sales to identify the differences that may be affecting why some markets are closing at higher percentages than others.
But Young agrees with Wehr that the challenge is not using the tools to collect data, but responding to the data effectively. "All those things get evaluated, and then we present that information back to our franchise owners and discuss best practices and ways we can improve that next year," explains Young.
The Search for
Social media is a key aspect of Spring-Green's future SEO plans, with a particular focus in the coming year on launching a blog and incorporating marketing activity on Facebook to engage customers at a higher level.
Striking a balance between these new aspects and Spring-Green's current programs is important to Young. "What we don't want to do is have a big social media platform but then lose all the validity and effort that we've put into our local pages. So we want to make sure that they're integrated," he explains.
While Spring-Green has been investing a great deal in paid search, Young sees a strong future in SEO. "With paid, you can make it happen if you spend more money, but I don't know what that looks like three to five years from now," he says. "But I do believe that local search will continue to grow as a channel and become more important to the search engines when we're optimized with all our local content."
And although the Web is not presently driving enough leads to be considered Spring-Green's primary channel, it certainly has made an impressive impact and is continuing to expand its influence. "We've grown from $21 million [in online sales] five years ago to $33 million today," notes Young. "And to be able to see the channel grow and continue to be a big part of our future, and have Oneupweb along with us, has been great."
Marissa Fabris is a freelancer writer based in West Chester, Pa. She profiled Cisco for Target Marketing's January 2008 issue.