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Tracking offline sales back to your web site

When I speak at conferences and other events, I frequently discuss how businesses without shopping carts can track their offline sales back to their Web sites. Only by doing so can these businesses truly know how much their Web site is worth, and by extension know how much to invest. Similarly, they can’t know whether any individual change to their Web sites was an improvement or a regression without a way of keeping score. Most Web sites don’t sell online, so if you’ve been struggling with how to tie offline sales back to the Web experiences that spawned them, read on.

In my talks, I help people to see that tying offline sales back to the Web is not a new problem—it’s one marketers have struggled with for years. When you read an ad in a magazine that says to call this number and “Ask for Alice,” do you really think there’s an Alice? No, “Alice” is just the code name that tells the marketer which ad prompted the call, so that credit can be allocated and the best-performing ad venues can be repeated.

Likewise, the Web gives you similar opportunities. Auto manufacturers let you build your own car, choosing the exterior color, the leather interior, the GPS system, whatever you want right up to the point where you blow your budget. Then, you can print it out and bring it to your local dealer and say, “How much for one of these?” The car dealer marks down that you brought in the printout so that if you end up buying a car, the Web channel gets credit.

The key to tying offline sales to online activity is to find something people are willing to do. Why do customers willingly configure their cars online and bring printouts to the dealer? Because most people will do almost anything to spend less time interacting with a car salesman. If your customers actually like your sales people, you might have to offer them a discount coupon they can print from the Web or some other enticement.

Obviously, if your customers are willing to fill out contact forms with a phone number or an e-mail address, you can tie them to the Web. But many companies struggle when the customer decides to pick up the phone.

IBM sprinkles “Call me” buttons throughout the site, where pressing the button alerts the IBM phone specialist for that product to call the customer back, thus tying any resulting sale back to the Web. But you might guess that is a very high-tech and expensive approach that is beyond the means of most marketing budgets. What is a more low-tech approach?

I’ve often remarked that an easy way to tie offline sales back to the Web is to display a phone number on your Web site that appears nowhere else. That way, anyone who calls that number can be safely assumed to have come from your Web site.

But reader David Brooks, President of SPS Group, challenged me to go further. He reminded me of schemes that go far deeper than a single phone number for your entire Web site. As David put it, “While many people suggested a dedicated 800# for the purpose of tracking leads, a dedicated phone number allows you (at best) to track down to the channel level, not campaign or keyword.”

David pointed out how online jewelry retailer ice.com has instrumented all of their paid search campaigns with a unique code that is passed along in a parameter in the URL as the searcher visits the site. If the searcher buys online, that code is captured and the metrics system knows which keyword converted.

But the interesting twist is what happens if the customer does not buy online. When ice.com displays any page on its site for that searcher, it also displays that tracking code, like so:

Tracking code displayed at ice.com

Why do this? Because if the searcher decides to call ice.com on the phone to complete the purchase, the operator asks for the code, so that purchase is tracked back to the keyword. Any JavaScript programmer could take this idea and produce a similarly simple script for your business:

JavaScript for tracking code at ice.com

Using this kind of technique could track your sales at the search keyword level, but it could be extended to any marketing tactic, ranging from banner ads to e-mail campaigns. Now remember, this only works if your operators ask for the code and your customers are willing to provide it. For ice.com, this code doesn’t seem much different than being asked for the catalog number of the product they are buying, so customers don’t resist this behavior.

For other kinds of businesses, you might need to treat that code as a “special offer,” where providing the code results in a discount. Or, as David suggests, you could have the operator ask for the code to determine “where you are on our Web site.” For many businesses, this might be enough to get the tracking you need.

If you have a different kind of business, you might need to be more clever. If, for example, you are selling a pricey B2B service, you don’t want a phone interaction that resembles buying something from a catalog. But you could use this same JavaScript trick to track your customers anyway. Instead of displaying a code at the bottom of the page, you could have the JavaScript generate a different phone number for different keywords or different campaigns, for example.

This could be difficult or expensive in some situations, but if you own your own PBX you could certainly set aside a block of numbers for this. As an alternative, you could generate a single phone number with an extension and use the extensions to track different keywords or campaigns. The extensions don’t need to really exist, but customers will dutifully enter them into your phone system for you to capture and then route them on to the same old phone center as always. David pointed out that Mongoose Metrics and VoiceStar have systems that generate phone numbers on the fly based on keywords and campaigns.

But why even stop there? Depending on your business, you might want to track individual people so that you can see what their exact session activity was on your Web site. Instead of generating a unique code for every keyword, you could generate a unique code for every visitor. If you have a very high-margin, low-volume business, this kind of tracking code be worth the time. Or maybe you have a high-powered personalized marketing approach that allows you to look at patterns of activity that resulted in conversions so that you can improve your experience over time.
Remember that building this into something that easily flows as part of your customer interaction is the most important thing. If customers don’t take the action, you don’t get the tracking. (Thanks, David, for contributing so much to this post.)

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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