Solar Customer Engagement with Content Marketing
Inside this Article
A well-designed content marketing strategy—supported by a robust customer relationship management (CRM) system—builds connections with prospects, engages visitors to your website, educates customers about products and services, establishes your brand as the industry expert and develops qualified leads.
In this article, we give you a bird’s-eye view of content marketing, including developing a marketing plan, identifying topics that interest your audience, and getting your message out to prospects and current customers. We also discuss creating a business plan and how a content marketing strategy can help you attain your company’s goals. Finally, we explain how CRM platforms support your content marketing strategy and streamline marketing and sales efforts.
Content Marketing Overview
According to the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), “Content marketing is 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.” (See Resources.) Note that CMI specifies that content needs to be valuable and relevant—and the audience needs to be clearly defined. Rather than simply push your products or services, as with traditional marketing copy, with content marketing you seek to educate current and potential customers, as well as meet their needs for information. (See “Solar Marketing in the Digital Age,” SolarPro, March/April 2016.)
Market research. Before you get started, though, you need to know your audience. Any content marketing plan must take into account current customers and the target market. That starts with market research. The goal is to develop at least a few customer personas that identify key demographics such as gender, marital status, income level and homeownership. How many of your current customers are looking to upgrade their PV systems? How many homeowners in your area are interested in solar but think it is too expensive? There are several ways to get this information, such as emailing surveys to purchased lead lists, adding a survey to your website’s home page or even calling current customers and asking them directly.
Unless you have a marketing department, you may want to consider hiring a content management firm. Look for one in your local region to get the best value for your money; if possible, find a firm that specializes in solar. According to content marketing firm Captains of Industry, which focuses on the solar market in Massachusetts, “Understanding your customers’ beliefs and desires, locally, is an essential first step that will lead toward creating your key message.” (See Resources for “5 Ways Solar Energy Companies Can Crush It with Their Marketing.”) The key message that drives your content marketing efforts should focus on the expertise and value your company offers. You want to set yourself up as the solar expert in your market.
What is good content? The principals at ThinkShift, a content marketing firm that specializes in sustainable businesses, have identified five essential elements to good content: insight (it offers lessons from experience, case studies, research and so on), consumability (it is well written and designed), credibility (it is accurate and well supported), generosity (it can help readers achieve their goals) and, finally, freshness and creativity. (See Resources.) If you do not have access to skilled writers, you may want to work with a content marketing or editorial services firm that does.
The content we refer to can include email newsletters, blogs, research reports, tweets and Facebook posts, video product overviews, case studies, interviews with satisfied customers—practically anything that your target customers could find useful. Blogging is an important element of content marketing. The key to blogging is providing content that your prospects want to know about, or, even better, writing content that engages your prospects on topics they did not know were important.
With your customer personas and selling proposition in mind, you can focus on picking topics for your content marketing program that help prospects move through your marketing and sales funnel. We recommend focusing on educational topics, industry trends and consumer interest topics. Educational topics and industry trends show that you are knowledgeable about the most current technologies, while consumer interest topics help build your credibility. A comparison of thin-film versus crystalline silicon modules could serve as a good educational topic, for example, while a consumer interest topic might focus on how to improve a home’s energy efficiency.
Getting the word out. How do you get your high-quality, relevant content to potential customers? In addition to ensuring that your content is highly engaging—and hence likely to be shared with others on social media, or even picked up by other websites—you can take a proactive approach. Email marketing to lists of targeted leads can be an effective strategy. For example, when you publish a blog post on a topic that’s of particular interest to your target customers, you could send an excerpt to an email list, with a “read more” link to your website. Social media can also be an effective tool: Use your company’s Twitter account and Facebook page to send out teasers. Taking advantage of multiple communication points increases your credibility and positions you as a resourceful expert.
You need to design your content marketing campaign to meet the goals of your solar business. Make these goals well defined and descriptive, with the support of a plan that is achievable, time focused, equipped with milestones, trackable and easily analyzed.
For example, we can imagine a solar company with a goal of growing new business sales 25% over the next year. The first step would be to look at the numbers and quantify the goal. If our company’s new business sales were $2 million last year, we would like to see that grow to $2.5 million this year, for an increase of $500,000.
Key performance indicators. To achieve your business goals, you need to define key performance indicators (KPIs), which you will use to measure and track the success of your content marketing efforts. Asking the right questions about your solar business uncovers the KPIs you should track to develop a realistic plan for achieving your business goals.
For example, what is your average sale? How many more sales must you make to accomplish your business goal? How many appointments does it take to make a sale? How many prospects do you need to get an appointment? For our imaginary company, the KPIs would be average sale price, appointment-to-close ratio, prospect-to-appointment ratio and quarterly milestone numbers.
Once you have developed your KPIs, you can define an approach to achieving your goals. For instance, if your solar company’s average sale is $25,000, you would need an additional 20 new sales next year to reach your goal. You can create quarterly milestones based on achieving five additional sales per quarter. Assuming it takes four appointments to make a sale and eight prospects to make an appointment, you need 80 appointments and 640 prospects to reach the goal. In this case, the target is to increase your weekly leads by 12.5 prospects. Knowing this, you can begin developing a plan to reach out to potential customers, lure them to your website, and engage them in your marketing and sales funnel.
Website Engagement Strategies
Once you have your content marketing program up and running, you can turn your attention to website engagement strategies. These vary based on where your traffic is coming from. The main traffic sources are search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, direct response, social media and referral websites. Your strategies will also vary based on the business goals you have identified. For our imaginary company, we are targeting the goal of growing new business by 25% next year, which works out to an additional 20 sales. This means we are looking to attract new prospects and engage them in our marketing and sales funnel fairly aggressively.
Where is your traffic coming from? Visitors to your website might have begun their journey by entering a search term into a web browser—for example, “solar installers in Phoenix, Arizona.” If you are a solar installer in Phoenix, how do you increase the chances that your business will show up on the first page of web search results? One answer is by optimizing the content on your website to attract the attention of major search engines such as Google. The art and science of SEO is too vast to go into here; for an overview of the topic, read Christopher Ratcliff’s Search Engine Watch article (see Resources). You might also want to visit Lynda.com for a tutorial on SEO (also in Resources). Another way to drive traffic to your website is to purchase search keywords—which in this case means that you are paying Google to put your company’s website at the top of its search results for those keywords.
You can also lure prospects to your website with good old-fashioned advertising. On the internet, PPC advertising is the standard model. Put simply, with PPC you pay a fixed cost each time someone clicks on one of your advertisements, which redirects the visitor to your website. Direct-response marketing efforts such as mass emails sent to purchased lists of leads can also entice prospects to your site. And do not dismiss the power of traditional print advertising, such as a postcard with a compelling online offer.
You can also use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to promote content on your website. If your content is compelling enough—for instance, a blog entry on a hot topic or an interesting case study—another blogger might link to it, generating referrals (meaning that the blog’s readers click on the link to your website). The linking website is a referral site.
How should you engage these prospects? When considering how you want to engage visitors to your website, you should answer this simple question: Were the prospects looking for you or were you looking for them? In other words, are they actively shopping for solar panels or did you pique their interest? You also want to keep your business goals in mind. For example, our imaginary solar company needs to make 20 new sales to meet our goal of 25% growth. We want to choose customer engagement strategies that educate prospects who may be new to solar, as well as offer incentives to schedule sales appointments; we also want to focus on incentivizing our current customers to upgrade.
SEO and keyword advertising both target phrases that prospects are interested in. If you are purchasing keywords related to specific search terms such as “buying solar panels for my home” (which would be a good search term for our imaginary solar company to buy), you know these prospects are highly interested in your service. They may even be ready to schedule an appointment. However, if you focus your sales efforts only on these potential customers, you will be missing out on the lion’s share of solar prospects. Winning the business of these customers is also highly competitive, as they are probably calling other solar contractors and getting quotes. When you are competing against other companies, even if you win a third of the deals, you are still expending a lot of effort to win over clients who are price shopping. Nonetheless, for our imaginary company, we would want to target these prospects with our content marketing—we would just not make them the primary focus of our efforts.
When traffic is coming from social media and referral sites, these prospects are usually just learning about your business—they are in the “awareness” or “interest” stages of the marketing and sales funnel. They are intrigued by solar energy, but there is a good chance they do not know very much about it. These prospects are right at the beginning of the funnel, and it will take them some time to move through the process; however, you will reap a few benefits by focusing on this group.
First, if you have established yourself as the local industry expert by offering valuable and relevant content, prospects who are new to solar will trust your expertise. Second, when they are ready to buy, you will be able to position your company as an industry expert, and most likely they will not bring in a second contractor to price the job. Finally, if they do have additional contractors price the job, you may still be able to win a lot of these deals even with higher prices than your competitors’. This is due to the perceived value you have established with them by becoming a trusted advisor. For our imaginary company, we definitely want to reach out to these potential customers. They will take longer to move through the marketing and sales funnel, but since we are looking for 20 new sales in the coming year, we have some time to make those conversions.
Here’s where lead magnets come in. Lead magnets are incentives you offer prospects in exchange for contact information. Many people will trade their email address for an incentive, a special offer or valuable decision-making information. Offering an incentive targets prospects who are in the “desire” and “prospect” stages of the marketing and sales funnel and incentivizes them to take the next step. For instance, your site could offer the option to “schedule your in-home, free, no-obligation appointment today and receive five free LED bulbs.” To reach prospects who are in the “awareness” or “interest” stages, you will want a lead magnet tailored to their more general need for information. For instance, offering a report such as “Seven Important Steps to Buying Solar” capitalizes on these prospects’ need for educational material.
To offer a customized experience to site visitors, you could use technology from a company such as AddThis, HubSpot or Marketo to deliver customized web pages to targeted customers. Entrepreneur magazine makes a compelling case for this option (see Resources). Another option is to design your website’s home page so that visitors can choose a pathway through your site. For example, you could add buttons such as “New to Solar” or “Looking to Upgrade” that would lead visitors to web pages with information tailored to them. These pages could include lead magnets targeting specific customer personas. (See HubSpot’s article on this practice in Resources.)
Of course, you could simply place your lead magnets prominently on your home page—as a banner ad, in an advertising box, or even in a pop-up box that displays when a visitor has remained on your site for 5–8 seconds. You would switch out your lead magnets periodically to reach different segments of your audience. In our imaginary company, since we are focusing our efforts on prospects at the very beginning of the marketing funnel, yet also giving attention to site visitors who are lower down, in the prospect stage, we would probably create three banner ads with lead magnets and place them in rotation, with one of those ads targeting our prospect stage visitors and the other two focused on those new to solar.
The lead magnet’s design should include an image, describe the benefits of the offer and have a prominent space for visitors to enter their email addresses. For example, the headline could be “Buying solar panels is an important decision. Get all of the information you need first.” Next, you would have the lead magnet “Download our FREE buyer’s guide to solar,” accompanied by an image of the e-book. Under that would be a response form titled, “Yes, I want the ‘Seven Important Steps to Buying Solar’ e-book!” You should always include a statement such as “We care about your personal information and will not share it under any circumstances.” When prospects decide they want your lead magnet and sign up with their email address, they are opting in.
Once you have attracted potential customers to your site, engaged them with content designed to meet their needs, and convinced them to interact with you in some way, you need a way to collect information and begin converting prospects into customers. A CRM system is the key: This software platform collects your prospects’ information, including all communications and their progress through your marketing and sales funnels.
A CRM platform to manage leads and sales is a great tool to have in your solar business, but selecting the right one makes all the difference. Agile CRM (agilecrm.com) is a good choice, offering several marketing automation and tracking features, with competitive pricing. Other options include HubSpot (hubspot.com), Infusionsoft (infusionsoft.com), Marketo (marketo.com) and Salesforce (salesforce.com).
A CRM system can also be the hub of your content marketing strategy. It helps you move your prospects forward, from the first time they enter the system until the moment you convert them into customers. Along the way, the system collects data that allows it to forecast future sales. With a CRM system, you can track metrics such as scheduled appointments, actual appointments, proposals and sales.
In our imaginary company, we know that one out of four appointments leads to a new customer. So if we have 20 appointments scheduled, we can forecast five new sales. We also know that our average sale is $25,000, which yields a sales projection of $125,000. Essentially, the more data you have, the more accurate your projections will be.
It is important to identify prospects who made it through the sales funnel but did not buy. Knowing why they did not ultimately make a purchase allows you to identify trends and develop strategies that will open the door to new sales opportunities. Perhaps you identify a common reason such as “I want to lower my power bill, but solar is too expensive.” This may lead to a new sales opportunity: for example, your company could offer a range of modules at different price points or services scaled to a range of budgets. This valuable information can help you uncover areas of your business you were not even thinking about.
Streamline the sales process with automated marketing. Lead nurturing is the process of providing information to and engagement with prospective buyers who are not yet ready to buy. Many CRM systems have an automated lead nurturing system that allows you to strategically plan a prospect’s engagement in advance and execute it automatically, which can improve your salesforce’s productivity. For instance, when a prospect responds to an opt-in offer by providing an email address, the system, in addition to routing this information to a salesperson, can trigger an automated marketing sequence associated with the offer. (See “Automated Communication: Case Study” for an example.)
You can use automated communication features to fine-tune your marketing efforts, since you determine the actions that go into the sequence. For our imaginary solar business, we would want to focus our efforts on the top-of-funnel prospects who come to our website via social media and referral sites, perhaps contacting them more frequently with offers than we do our prospects who appear to be ready to buy. Regardless of what an automated marketing sequence includes, your lead begins the journey through the marketing and sales funnel, guided by strategic communications. A full-featured CRM system can generate an automated sequence that includes many channels of outreach—emails, text messages, voicemails and tweets. The goal of this process is to initiate customer engagement and provide valuable information to leads who have an interest in solar energy.
Most CRM systems provide email templates to give your communications a professional look. The messages you send should be informational and educational. If you have videos that describe your process, define the competitive advantage of your company’s offerings, or provide product information, it is a good idea to include links to them.
Once a prospect has shown a desire to learn more about your products or services, and thus is further along the marketing funnel, sending text messages with special offers can be a good way to establish rapport. In addition, if you are having a webinar or if company representatives will be at a local event, using an automated telephone message is a great way to broadcast this.
You can embed additional triggers, known as if-then responses, in your automatic marketing sequence based on your leads’ behaviors. If your lead takes a survey announced in an email message and gives you a mobile phone number, then that would trigger the next step in the sequence, a text message. However, if the lead does not engage in the survey (and hence you do not have a phone number), then the next response in the automated sequence would be another email.
You may also develop automated marketing sequences for current customers and prospects who received a proposal but did not buy. Each segment might have a different strategy, which is why you need to create them separately. For example, by staying in touch with a customer who has purchased solar services from you already, you can convert that customer to an advocate who will refer business to you on a regular basis.
Tracking lead engagement. The right CRM software can track your leads’ engagement in multiple ways. First, it records and alerts you when a lead opens an email. It also records any engagement with the email, such as clicking on a link. For each action that your lead takes, the system records a score. You should base these scores on the value of the lead’s action as it relates to the probability that it will buy your product. The more a lead engages, the higher the score that lead accumulates, and when the score breaks your set threshold, that means it is time for sales to get involved to schedule a live appointment.
For example, if your lead opens an email, your CRM software can give that lead a score of 10. If the lead actually clicks on a link in the email, the software can give it an additional score of 20 for a total lead score of 30. Once the lead reaches a total score of, say, 80, the system can alert you to move that lead into the sales phase of the funnel. You can define the scores for engagement and the total lead score threshold. As you continue to use lead scoring, you can adjust score assignments that will help you optimize this process.
Content Marketing: Who Is It For?
The short answer is that it is for any business that wants to be successful. Content marketing, after all, at its heart is simply about giving your customers what they want—in this case, information. This is especially important in the solar market as we negotiate constant changes in legislation, tax incentives and technologies. We often need to educate our customers and prospects on the benefits of solar and how moving to solar can benefit them or their businesses.
Keep in mind that good content marketing does not necessarily require an investment in expensive software or consultants. If you have a website up and running, an email system, and perhaps a social media account or two, you can make this work. You just need to be aware that whatever information or offers you present to your target audience must be valuable to them and relevant to their needs.
Anthony Fiorino / Solar Selling Solutions / Orlando, FL / solarsellingsolutions.com
Kim Saccio-Kent / SolarPro / Ashland, OR / solarprofessional.com
Captains of Industry, “5 Ways Solar Energy Companies Can Crush It with Their Marketing,” captainsofindustry.com/5-tips-for-solar-energy-marketing
Content Marketing Institute, “What Is Content Marketing?” contentmarketinginstitute.com/what-is-content-marketing
Lynda.com SEO Tutorials and Training, lynda.com/in/SEO
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Summerfield, Luke, “The Next Big Thing on the Web: Sites Tailored for You,” Entrepreneur, entrepreneur.com/article/230950
ThinkShift, “Content Marketing Manifesto: Strategies That Draw a Crowd and Build Brand Value,” thinkshiftcom.com/content-marketing-manifesto/
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