My first “real” job after college was as in sales for HotJobs.com in the Chicago office. As a recent college grad, I never once considered opening up a newspaper to find a job, so the concept behind HotJobs made complete sense to me. It was so much faster and easier to search and apply for jobs online. I relied exclusively on websites like HotJobs and so did everyone else I knew.
When I heard the HotJobs sales pitch during the interview, I thought, “What are all these companies doing placing big, expensive ads in the Chicago Tribune? Who the hell looks in the paper for a job? HotJobs is a no-brainer; I’m going to be rich!”
The year was 1999, about two years before the dot-com bubble burst.
Old Technology Dies Slowly
While I thought the concept of a web-based job board and resume database was the way of the future, and that companies would dump newspaper ads for sites like HotJobs as soon as they were pitched, corporate recruiters thought otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong, I made a lot of sales and a lot of money working for HotJobs, but I was baffled at times by how hard I had to work to convince prospects that the internet wasn’t just a fad. The internet, a fad? You probably think I’m exaggerating. Yeah, I’m not.
In 2001, after HotJobs’ meteoric rise as a company, two Super Bowl ads, being featured on the cover of Inc. Magazine, and many large companies signing on as customers, a prospect in Indiana told me that he’d never dump his monthly newspaper ads for HotJobs because the web was a passing fad.
My memory of this event is vivid not just because of the ridiculousness of the prospects’ comment, but because just after he uttered it, one of my co-workers yelled out, “A plane just slammed into the World Trade Center!” It was the morning of September 11, 2001.
Sometimes Proof Isn’t Enough
Flash forward to 2004. I was working as the VP of sales and marketing for a regional bottled water company called, DrinkMore Water, and its sister company, a custom labeled water company called … wait for it … DrinkMore Custom Water. DrinkMore Water is run by Bob Perini, an engineer with a Harvard MBA.
Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there’s only one Harvard MBA running a regional bottled water delivery company and it’s Bob Perini. As a result of Bob’s business background, DrinkMore did all sorts of unorthodox things (at the time).
For example, Bob required that I track every single advertising and marketing initiative at a level of granularity that I, and almost everyone else I spoke with, found shocking. I could tell you our cost per call, cost per lead, cost per sale, percentage of calls that were leads, percentage of calls that became sales, ROI, etc. for every single active DMW advertising and marketing initiative.
I’ll admit that, at times, I didn’t think the time required to obtain and organize all the data was worth it. I felt that way until it came time to meet with our Yellow Pages sales rep to talk about our renewal. The easiest way to cut through the complexity of their sales pitch and pricing models was to pull out our internal performance reports. As we would walk the reps through our results from their ad(s), they would spend the first 10 minutes asking how in the world we had all this data and the next 50 minutes trying to figure out how to retain us as a client.
Tracking our ads also led to many other discoveries. We noticed that a surprising number of our sales came from Google. We did a few searches on Google and noticed that our website ranked pretty well for some keyword phrases like, “bottled water delivery Rockville, MD”, but not nearly as well for other keyword phrases like, “water delivery Baltimore, MD.” We also discovered that, in addition to the “organic” Google results, you could also pay to place your company’s website on the first page of Google
So, we set up an account with Google AdWords and started our first pay per click advertising campaign. All of a sudden, we started getting leads left and right, and the cost was peanuts! At the time, hardly anyone in the bottled water industry knew what pay per click advertising was. Most of them were still battling each other in the Yellow Pages.
At one point, we were paying something like 50-75 cents per click and getting a lead every 15 clicks or so. Our close rate on these leads was about 50 percent, so we were getting sales for $15-$22.50 each. We were willing to pay up to $50 per lead, so it felt like we were printing money. In a way, we were.
With our new PPC advertising campaign going full blast, we set out to figure out how we could get our websites ranking at the top of the organic search results. We spent months analyzing the sites that seemed to rank consistently well. We also spoke with other business owners and marketers, especially those from industries that were far more competitive than ours. Over the next year, we tested all sorts of things.
In the middle of 2005, we figured out a formula and our website was suddenly ranking multiple times on the first page of Google and Yahoo for all of our target keyword phrases.
Early Adopters Earn Super-Sized Returns
When I was working for DrinkMore, I’d never even heard the phrase “search engine optimization” (or SEO) was at the time, but that’s what we were doing. People that heard about what Bob and I were doing with pay per click advertising thought we were insane to pay Google every time people clicked on one of our ads. Little did they know how well both of these strategies, SEO and PPC, were working. We were printing money.
In 2007, I convinced Bob that the value of what we were doing for DrinkMore Water had a broader application. In December of that year, we incorporated Blue Corona to help other small businesses do what we’d done at DrinkMore. We started Blue Corona to use analytics to identify and eliminate ineffective advertising and generate more leads and sales from the web.
Armed with an in-depth case study about what we’d been able to do at DrinkMore, I thought it would be an easy sale.
Boy, was I wrong.
Even after showing people real data from a real company–how ad tracking (analytics) could help them more accurately and quickly identify poor performing ads and PPC and SEO could generate huge volumes of leads at a shockingly low cost—I still couldn’t convince most of the prospects I pitched to try Blue Corona.
Given how well things were still working for DrinkMore, I couldn’t believe the objections I received. Prospects were afraid of having more than one phone number. They didn’t think anyone clicked the pay per click ads on Google. They worried about competitors clicking their ads all day long. They didn’t understand SEO and didn’t think that there was any way that small adjustments made to their website could possibly improve their ranking in the organic search results.
No matter how many case studies I showed them, the objections remained for many prospects.
Of course, while the majority of our prospects didn’t hire us, plenty did. Blue Corona went from one employee and zero revenue in 2007 to more than $4 million today with two offices and close to 40 employees. Today, most reasonably savvy business owners have at least heard about SEO and PPC—even though many are still not using them.
And that’s kind of how things go. Just about the time marketers have ruined something, the world finally understands it … sort of.
It was at HotJobs that I learned that old technology dies a lot slower than you think. I don’t know who coined the phrase “it’s a small world”, but I think it’s sort of bullshit. The world is a REALLY big place and it’s filled with all sorts of people. Just because you think the world is ready for something new doesn’t mean it is. It was at DrinkMore Water that I learned that even when proof is available, most people still won’t believe it.
Now that I’m at Blue Corona, having lived through the stories above, I’m more confident now than ever that there’s a lot more value in emerging marketing channels such as mobile, social media, and conversion rate optimization than most business owners realize.
If you want to get ahead of next and earn super-sized returns from your marketing, you’ve got to ignore the naysayers, stay on the bleeding edge, and test, test, test.