How Marketers Can Craft Content With Search Intent in Mind

Keywords, of course, still matter. They will always matter. Some might even argue they matter most — they are the foundation for much of what we do in SEO. But the rise of search intent represents a sea change in how we think about keywords.

If you’re my age, you remember the bad old days of the Internet. Remember the flashing banner ads, animated GIFs, and website visitor counters? Back in the ’90s, the Internet was pretty ugly, because the technology was in its infancy.

SEO was also in its infancy. To rank high in the search results, simply repeat the same keyword over and over again. Eventually, Google joined the search game and its algorithm used off-page factors, like backlinks. Unfortunately, the focus on keywords was ingrained in the minds of webmasters, SEO consultants, and small businesses. So keyword stuffing persists to this day.

Keywords, of course, still matter. They will always matter. Some might even argue they matter most — they are the foundation for much of what we do in SEO. But the rise of search intent represents a sea change in how we think about keywords.

What Is Search Intent?

Traditionally, search engines focused on what people were searching for. Now, many more factors are at play—how they search (mobile, desktop, or voice) and why they search matter too. Search intent is about understanding why someone is searching for something and what information they’re looking for.

Targeting Keyphrases vs. Targeting Intent

When someone searches for “contract law,” what is the user searching for? It could be a class in law school; it could be a resource for attorneys or laypeople about the ins and outs of contracts. Odds are, though, that it’s not a search for an attorney to hire. That kind of search would be more likely phrased as “contract lawyer” or  “contract lawyer austin tx.” If you’re an attorney optimizing a services page for the term “contract law,” then you’re not helping the user find what they need.

By targeting intent, we give Google contextual clues to better match their users’ queries. Optimizing for intent isn’t about repetition and stuffing the same, or slight variations of, keywords onto a page ad nauseam. Instead, it involves building rich, high-quality content with related keywords, context, and concepts. By meeting users’ needs better, we reduce bounce rate, and in turn, drive more leads and sales.

Types of Search Intent

Google’s rater guidelines define three types of search intent, although other sources sometimes list a fourth (more on that below). Searches can be:

  • Navigational, where the intent is to find a specific website or page on a website. (Examples: “gmail login,” “facebook”)
  • Transactional, in which the user’s intent is to purchase a product or service. (Examples: “purchase iPhone,” “contract lawyer austin tx”
  • Informational, when a user is researching a topic or needs information. (Examples: “president of Canada,” “list of federal holidays”)

Commercial investigation is sometimes cited as another type of search intent; this type of search probably falls under informational, as its focus is finding information about a product before making a purchase, but it has the potential to convert, so it may also be categorized as a transactional search.

How to Use Search Intent to Match the Needs of Users

When we perform on-page optimizations for search intent for our clients, we add context to a page’s content to match the intent of the user:

  • For a transactional search, we use words like “buy” and “purchase,” or for a service, we use words like “hire” and “consultation.” This tells Google that the page is not informational or navigational.
  • A blog article or FAQ is often used to target informational searches. Tutorial and question-and-answer formats do particularly well. Instead of targeting one specific keyword, build rich content with a web of related keywords. For example, in a blog post about tonsillectomies, phrases like “sore throat,” “recovery,” “ear nose throat doctor,” “adenoids,” and “coblation” all add context to the page.
  • Robust branding is the best way to boost a client’s ranking for navigational searches. Business information, including address, business hours, and services offered, should be readily available on the site.
  • For commercial investigation, include words like “best” and “review,” or add product comparison charts and rankings.

It’s important to note that, as search has shifted away from simple keyword optimization to search intent, it means that not every page on a website needs to include a 500-word wall of text. For a blog post targeting someone researching a particular topic? Absolutely. For a product page on an e-commerce site? Focus more on conversion tactics, like adding big “Buy” buttons, shipping information, product specs, and customer reviews.

In the early days of search engines, beating a competitor’s ranking was a matter of mentioning a keyword 10 times if they mentioned it five. Now, the goal is to meet users’ needs better. When researching competitors, note what their sites are missing. This works particularly well for informational pages. If, for example, you’re adding a blog post about litigation to a contract law attorney’s website and their competitors also have blog posts about litigation, but none of them have details about what occurs during a trial, adding that information to the post can help you rise to the top of the SERPs.

We shake our fists at the sky whenever Google makes changes to how it ranks websites, but the focus on intent is actually a beautiful thing. Unlike those old website visitor counters that you could hit refresh on repeatedly, it’s hard to game the system when it comes to search intent — that’s good news for users, for us, and for our clients.

Want more tips to improve your SEO? Click here to grab a copy of our “Ultimate SEO Checklist.”

The Day Marketers Became ‘Big Brother’

Data collection is transactional. Before Google and social media, transactions were, for the most part, financial. But now they’re personal. Every friend, family member, like, love, click, view, search, post, follow, preference, location and comment is a piece of transactional data that can be exploited not only for commercial purposes, but for political purposes, as well.

Every breath you take; Every move you make; Every bond you break; Every step you take,

I’ll be watching you

Every single day; Every word you say; Every game you play; Every night you stay,

I’ll be watching you

It’s a bit ironic, and somewhat prescient, that a band named The Police sang those lyrics in the year before 1984. We’ve finally found the Holy Grail of one-to-one marketing … but do we like it?

Back in the ’90s, I was working with a client using credit bureau customer data to build models of people who were likely to be interested in home equity loans. Some people would chide me about invading people’s privacy for commercial purposes, but I would always respond:

“We’re not interested in the personal information points about John Q. Public; we’re only interested in the fact that he belongs to a segment of people who meet a specific set of financial criteria. We market to that entire segment of people without paying attention to any one of single individual’s personal, customer data points. I don’t care about your specific home value or mortgage balance; I only care that you belong to that group of people who would qualify for a home equity loan.”

But now I’m creeped out.

Customer Data Is Integral to the Credit Economy

Customer data collection is transactional. Before Google and social media, transactions were, for the most part, financial. But now they’re personal. Every friend, family member, like, love, click, view, search, post, follow, preference, location and comment is a piece of transactional data that can be exploited not only for commercial purposes, but for political purposes, as well.

And we give it up so willingly!

In order to participate in the credit economy, we tacitly agreed to have our financial transaction data stored and monitored. (Let’s not get into how that worked out recently, but the value exchange seemed reasonable). Now, we willingly give up reams of personal transaction data, and the value exchange is quite different. We get to access pictures of friends with their food, children and pets, we get accurate turn-by-turn directions to wherever we’re going, and we get that leather messenger bag we looked at online to follow us around the Internet for weeks on end.

Can marketers still make the argument, “we’re not interested in the personal information points about John Q. Public; we’re only interested in the fact that he belongs to a segment of people who meet a specific set of criteria”? Even if now, that segment is a segment of one?

And the customer data collectors? Like The Police, they say, I’ll be watching you.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

A Better Meeting Follow-Up Email

You just had a good meeting with a client or potential new client. Now you’re challenged to move the conversation forward. It’s time to send the meeting follow-up email.

You just had a good meeting with a client or potential new client. Now you’re challenged to move the conversation forward. It’s time to send the meeting follow-up email.

The three biggest mistakes I see sellers making are:

  1. Failing to secure key details & commitments before the meeting ends
  2. Recounting what happened in the meeting
  3. Sending follow up emails that don’t hold customers accountable to the next step

Remember, business email is transactional. Not conversational.

Beware: Trying to converse within the message may be sabotaging you. Clients don’t have time for “thank you so much” type conversation, especially follow-up email messages. Your follow-up is, by nature, highly deletable because most are simply a recount of what happened during the meeting.

Clients have been trained to delete follow ups because they’re just not important!

Here’s a better way to keep clients committed to moving forward with you.

Get These 5 Details Before the Meeting Ends

As the meeting unfolds, in your head (or on a piece of paper) summarize these points:

Current situation: In simple terms, describe the client’s decision-making environment.

Business priorities: How this discussion fits into the strategic (not functional) picture.

Priorities when making this decision: Jot down what the client says they are.

Timeline and process: How much time the client needs to make decisions, what are they and who is involved.

Next steps: Any suggested next steps you or your client discuss during the meeting.

This is an excellent way to conclude your meeting. Ask your client to confirm your current understanding before the meeting ends. This takes all the work out of writing your pithy follow up email.

Get commitments before the meeting ends

It sound obvious. But are you doing it? Are you earning a commitment for the next meeting before the first one ends?

My hero and sales trainer, John Barrows, likes to point out how we tend to give … and give … and give … and give … until the very end when we finally get (the sale).

But here’s the problem: By giving clients everything they ask for we’re conditioning them to treat us poorly.

Barrows says, “Because we’ve given so much, clients feel like they can do whatever they want. So what we need to do is make sure we get something all the time in return for what we’re giving away.”

In the case of your first meeting or demo that something is the next scheduled meeting date.

Barrows says this has to do with human instinct, reciprocity. And he’s right.

When your prospect asks for something there’s a fleeting moment where they feel obligated to give you something in return.

“And if you ask for it right then-and-there it’s actually easy for them to give you,” says Barrows.

So when they ask you for something, toward the end of the meeting, there’s that moment right after you gave them something … where they’re open to giving something back.

For example, it might go like this:

Your client says, “Great. Love it. Thanks for that. Send me some information and we’ll get back to you soon.”

You reply, “Sure, I can do that. But first what information would you like … and second when can we schedule fifteen minutes to go over that information … and see if it makes sense to take the next steps?”

A Proven, Effective Template Example

Remember, email templates don’t work unless you customize them. Without personalization of your messages you’ll end up deleted. Bank on it.

Remember to avoid “thank you for taking the time to meet with me” type of chit-chat. They should be thanking you, right? Right. Keep it transactional, not conversational. Help them do their job — hit reply and confirm you are on track.

Get them to re-commit to moving forward!

The below meeting follow up template gives you specific advantages. It:

  1. holds clients accountable for what they are telling you without being rude
  2. gauges their interest
  3. maintains a sense of urgency
  4. helps you re-engage strongly if/when the prospect goes dark

Subject line: Please confirm?

John,

Please review the below — confirm I’m accurate on these?

Business Priorities:

  • Priority one
  • Priority two
  • Priority three

Statement of Work requirements: (your customer’s priorities when making this decision)

  • Requirement one
  • Requirement two
  • Requirement three

Time line: (things that must happen in order for the final decision to transact)

  • Milestone / project one
  • Milestone / project two
  • Milestone / project three

Next steps: (be sure to include commitments made, if any)

  • Step you mentioned during meeting
  • Step they mentioned during meeting

Please confirm the above is accurate—and guide me if not?

Thanks, John

[your signature]

The idea here is to earn a response that is, in effect, a confirmation and further commitment. If you ran a proper meeting the prospect gave you time on their calendar. Put this commitment in writing. You may need it later — if and when they “go dark” on you (don’t respond).

My students do better with this kind of technique. However, this doesn’t mean you cannot improve on it. What can you add or subtract from the above template — to make it stronger in your specific selling context?

Are there other key meeting takeaways that are not included here — or can be added to strengthen it?

Let me know in comments!

‘Forgotten’ Unsubscribes – Is This a New Trend?

With Black Friday now behind me, I ran a quick count and found 131 emails sent by retailers with whom I had unsubscribed. I was more than a little surprised to have received this many emails and wondered: Are these retailers counting on me having forgotten I had unsubscribed? Is this a new trend?

With Black Friday now behind me, I ran a quick count and found 131 emails sent by retailers with whom I had unsubscribed. I was more than a little surprised to have received this many emails and wondered: Are these retailers counting on me having forgotten I had unsubscribed? Is this a new trend?

The CAN-SPAM Act is very clear on the issue of how businesses should present and handle unsubscribes. It reads in part, you cannot charge a fee, require the recipient to give any personally identifying information beyond an email address, or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on a website as a condition for honoring an opt-out request.” In other words, it should be easy and it should be permanent. The retailers who have sent me an email in the last few days have done far more damage than good – though I admit, my diligence in tracking unsubscribes goes well beyond that of the typical subscriber—most people probably do forget having unsubscribed.

I’ve divided my 131 Black Friday marketing emails into three categories (remember, these are not business correspondence messages or transactional messages, for which opt-out rules differ in the US, as well as Canada and the EU):

  1. Retailers with whom I had done business, but not subscribed (permitted to send transactional messages only).
  2. Retailers with whom I had done business, subscribed, and later unsubscribed (permitted to send transactional and marketing messages until revoked).
  3. New retailers with whom I had concluded business and explicitly opted out of marketing messages at the time of transaction (permitted to send transactional message only).

Of these emails:

  • 6 provided no unsubscribe link or information (which is allowed by the CAN-SPAM Act, if they are using the reply-to process for unsubscribing)
  • 26 provided an unsubscribe link requiring me to visit a web page to set my preferences
  • 19 provided both an unsubscribe link and a preferences link

Past Relationships
So let’s take a look at these vendors’ approaches and assess the value of each:

Several years ago I bought hosting services from Glob@t. On the 28th and again today, I received emails from this vendor. I unsubscribed from their messages just once when our relationship ended, and yet Black Friday seemed to have provided the perfect opportunity—as deemed by their marketing department – to reactivate an unsubscribed name and send a message.

In this case their message actually did exactly as they hoped: I became re-engaged. Of course, they had no idea, but yesterday I spent three hours on a tech-support call with my current vendor, and had decided to start shopping hosting vendors. Glob@t’s email came at an opportune time, but that’s not to say I wasn’t annoyed by it—I certainly was. Nonetheless, I clicked the link to check out their hosting packages, and after checking pricing, I returned to the email to unsubscribe. I will monitor their messages to ensure I remain unsubscribed this time around.

New Relationships
Three weeks ago I made a purchase from eBay of a hard-to-find item, which launched an onslaught of emails. I have received one or more every day since the date of purchase and in each I have clicked the unsubscribe link. Their unsubscribe text at the bottom of those emails reads in part,

Learn more to protect yourself from spoof (fake) e-mails.

eBay Inc. sent this e-mail to you at [myemailaddress] because your Notification Preferences indicate that you want to receive general email promotions.

If you do not wish to receive further communications like this, please click here to unsubscribe. Alternatively, you can change your Notification Preferences in My eBay by clicking here. Please note that it may take up to 10 days to process your request.

What I find interesting about their unsubscribe text is the presentation. By starting out with a “learn more about spoofing” link, they have attempted to befriend me by offering tips on protecting myself. They are my concerned about me—or so it would seem.

Next they offer to unsubscribe me by clicking the link and when I do click it, I receive an unsubscribe confirmation and information on how to re-subscribe should I wish to.

Their unsubscribe text does let me know it may take up to ten days to process my request, but I have to wonder: Why is this? Every company using an email-automation system knows unsubscribes are immediate. What’s up with the ten-day delay? My guess is they hope within the next ten days they will be able to send me an email that will re-engage me. (Terrible idea.)

After more than ten days of continuing to receive one or more emails every day, I clicked the set my preferences link, which requires—you guessed it—a log in. The purchase I made was completed as a guest. I did not wish then, nor do I wish now, to create an account with them. I’ve had one cause (ever) to make a purchase from them, and didn’t see it happening again. If it did, I could make a decision at that time about whether or not an account would be necessary. This too is an annoying approach: require the user to create an account to unsubscribe. (Terrible idea number two.)

After two weeks of emails, I’m now so irritated by their entire process it will adversely affect my decision to ever buy from them again, even if the item I am seeking is less expensive, more available, or even exclusively available. I will remember their lack of respect for my wishes and it will deter me. I guess they’re not as friendly as they first seemed.

As marketers, staying engaged with your constituents is more than betting on their short-term memory loss. It’s about honoring the relationship and their wishes. I remembered Glob@t and would have come back to their site when my vendor shopping began, but knowing they do not honor my unsubscribe status has tainted my view of their business practices. My purchase from eBay was exactly the right product, delivered on time, and in great condition. My positive experience would have led me back to them at some point in the future, but their emailing practices have put them on my own do-not-call list. If the new trend is to make a brand more memorable by being annoying, I opt out.

Building Your B-to-B Marketing Database

The single most important tool in B-to-B is, arguably, the marketing database. Without a robust collection of contact information, firmographic and transactional data about customers and prospects, you are at sea when it comes to customer segmentation, analytics and marketing communications of all sorts, whether for acquiring new customers or to expand the value of existing customers. In fact, you might call the database the “recorded history of the customer relationship.” So what goes into a marketing database? Plent 

The single most important tool in B-to-B is, arguably, the marketing database. Without a robust collection of contact information, firmographic and transactional data about customers and prospects, you are at sea when it comes to customer segmentation, analytics and marketing communications of all sorts, whether for acquiring new customers or to expand the value of existing customers. In fact, you might call the database the “recorded history of the customer relationship.” So what goes into a marketing database? Plenty.

First, let’s look at the special characteristics of B-to-B databases, which differ from consumer in several important ways:

  1. In consumer purchasing, the decision-maker and the buyer are usually the same person—a one-man (or, more likely, woman) show. In business buying, there’s an entire cast of characters. In the mix are employees charged with product specification, users of the product and purchasing agents, not to mention the decision-makers who hold final approval over the sale.
  2. B-to-B databases carry data at three levels: the enterprise or parent company; the site, or location, of offices, plants and warehouses; and the multitude of individual contacts within the company.
  3. B-to-B data tends to degrade at the rate of 4 percent to 6 percent per month, so keeping up with changing titles, email addresses, company moves, company name changes-this requires dedicated attention, spadework and resources.
  4. Companies that sell through channel partners will have a mix of customers, from distributors, agents and other business partners, through end-buyers.

Here are the elements you are likely to want to capture and maintain in a B-to-B marketing database.

  • Account name, address
    • Phone, fax, website
  • Contact(s) information
    • Title, function, buying role, email, direct phone
  • Parent company/enterprise link
  • SIC or NAICS
  • Year the company was started
  • Public vs. private
  • Revenue/sales
  • Employee size
  • Credit score
  • Fiscal year
  • Purchase history
  • Purchase preferences
  • Budgets, purchase plans
  • Survey questions (e.g., from market research)
  • Qualification questions (from lead qualification processes)
  • Promotion history (record of outbound and inbound communications)
  • Customer service history
  • Source (where the data came from, and when)
  • Unique identifier (to match and de-duplicate records)

To assemble the data, the place to begin in inside your company. With some sleuthing, you’ll find useful information about customers all over the place. Start with contact records, whether they sit in a CRM system, in Outlook files or even in Rolodexes. But don’t stop there. You also want to pull in transactional history from your operating systems-billing, shipping, credit—and your customer service systems.

Here’s a checklist of internal data sources that you should explore. Gather up every crumb.

  • Sales and marketing contacts
  • Billing systems
  • Credit files
  • Fulfillment systems
  • Customer services systems
  • Web data, from cookies, registrations and social media
  • Inquiry files and referrals

Once these elements are pulled in, matched and de-duplicated, it’s time to consider external data sources. Database marketing companies will sell you data elements that may be missing, most important among these being industry (in the form of SIC or NAICs codes), company size (revenue or number of employees, or both) and title or job function of contacts. Such elements can be appended to your database for pennies apiece.

In some situations, it makes sense to license and import prospect lists, as well. If you are targeting relatively narrow industry verticals, or certain job titles, and especially if you experience long sales cycles, it may be wise to buy prospecting names for multiple use and import them into your database, rather than renting them serially for each prospecting campaign.

After filling in the gaps with data append, the next step is the process of “data discovery.” Essentially this means gathering essential data by hand—or, more accurately, by outbound phone or email contact. This costs a considerable sum, so only perform discovery on the most important accounts, and only collect the data elements that are essential to your marketing success, like title, direct phone number and level of purchasing authority. Some data discovery can be done via LinkedIn and scouring corporate websites, which are likely to provide contact names, titles and email addresses you can use to populate your company records.

Be thorough, be brave, and have fun. And let me know your experiences.

A version of this article appeared in Biznology, the digital marketing blog.

Email Marketing Redefined: Service With a Side of Sales

The multichannel marketplace has blurred the line between service and sales. People expect to get answers to their questions while they are shopping and on-demand after an order is placed. Redirecting them to another channel or platform for pre-sale and post-order information has a negative effect on the buying experience and long-term loyalty

The multichannel marketplace has blurred the line between service and sales. People expect to get answers to their questions while they are shopping and on-demand after an order is placed. Redirecting them to another channel or platform for pre-sale and post-order information has a negative effect on the buying experience and long-term loyalty.

Unfortunately, technology has changed faster than the corporate organizational chart has adapted. Marketing and operational departments aren’t integrated enough to provide the seamless shopping and service experience that people want. It’s time to make the shift to integrated messaging across all channels, platforms and departments. The email program is the best place to start, because changes are quick and easy.

Transactional emails tend to be matter of fact announcements of order receipt, shipment and issues. They serve the operational side of the business well but do little to directly improve sales. Branding is minimal and the messages are rarely in the same voice used for promotional information. Failure to include marketing service messages is a lost opportunity.

Marketing is a service when it solves people’s problems. Transactional emails are one to one communication. The right combination of marketing and service messages benefit customers by helping them maximize the return from their investments. The key to successful execution is having the correct processes, careful planning, and good application of business rules. When done well, they keep customers informed and motivate them to buy more.

For example, the order confirmation email should thank the customer for the business, provide specific purchase information, and suggest other items that complement the original products.

An email for an order of earrings could offer a matching necklace or an order for a vacuum cleaner might suggest bags and filters. If the operational process allows combining the orders at the same shipping rate, the suggestion to do so creates a sense of urgency. The only catch is that business rules have to be accurate with personal messaging to optimize the return.

Inserting product images with a brief description will bump sales a bit, but it doesn’t have the same effect as: “Thank you for your order of the super suction vacuum cleaner. It will ship tomorrow. Please remember that the filter needs to be changed every month. Add one on to your order by clicking this link before midnight tonight and there will not be an extra shipping charge.” Of course your copy team will do a better job than me, but you get the idea.

Almost every transactional email sent to customers should include a marketing message. The exceptions to this rule are issue-related emails. Following “your item is out of stock until next month” with “buy this to go with your item” won’t win customer loyalty.

To get started with integrated marketing and service emails:

  1. Review your transactional emails. When are they sent? What information do they include? Is there a follow-up after the sale to encourage people to provide feedback? Do you ask people if they like their purchases? Document all of the transactional emails so you will have a starting point.
  2. Identify opportunities for marketing messages. Add-on sales are good for order confirmation emails. “New items just arrived” works well on shipment confirmation messages. Be creative when thinking about how to combine service and sales, it will provide more testing options.
  3. Select the emails and messages to test. Start small and learn quickly. Testing provides the best information for rolling out your program. Use simple business rules and build from that foundation. Complicated processes are recipes for disaster when you are starting an integrated program.
  4. Verify that the offers are deliverable. Promising your customers that you will combine orders when it is operationally impossible creates mistrust with customers and colleagues. Always under promise and over deliver. It surprises customers and minimizes dissatisfaction.
  5. Measure everything. What effect does the new messaging have on sales? Opens? Clicks? Lifetime value? Lifespan? The more you know the better you can create targeted emails that deliver sales and satisfaction.
  6. Revise as needed. Transactional emails are easy to set and forget. They continue to go out day after day without any maintenance required. This tends to make them a low priority. Scheduling regular updates to rework the emails keep them fresh and informative for customers. It optimizes the return.

Updating Your Marketing Database

It’s amazing how quickly things go obsolete these days. For those of us in the business of customer data, times and technologies have changed along with the times. Some has to do with the advent of new technologies; some of it has to do with changing expectations. Let’s take a look at how the landscape has changed and what it means for marketers.

It’s amazing how quickly things go obsolete these days. For those of us in the business of customer data, times and technologies have changed along with the times. Some has to do with the advent of new technologies; some of it has to do with changing expectations. Let’s take a look at how the landscape has changed and what it means for marketers.

For marketing departments, maintaining updating customer data has always been a major headache. One way to update data is by relying on sales team members to make the updates themselves as they go about their jobs. For lack of a better term, let’s call this method internal crowd-sourcing, and there are two reasons why it has its limitations.

The first reason is technology. Typically, customer data is stored in a data hub or data warehouse, which is usually a home-grown and oftentimes proprietary database built using one of many popular database architectures. Customer databases tend to be proprietary because each organization sells different products and services, to different types of firms, and consequently collects different data points. Additionally, customer databases are usually grown organically over many years, and as a result tend to contain disparate information, often collected from different sources during different timeframes, of varying degrees of accuracy.

It’s one thing having data stored in a data warehouse somewhere. It’s quite another altogether to give salespeople access to a portal where the edits can be made—that’s been the real challenge. The database essentially needs to be integrated with or housed in some kind of tool, such as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software or customer relationship management (CRM) software that gives sales teams some capability to update customer records on the fly with front-end read/write/edit capabilities.

Cloud-based CRM technology (such as SalesForce.com) has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years to fill this gap. Unlike purpose-built customer databases, however, out-of-the-box cloud-based CRM tools are developed for a mass market, and without customizations contain only a limited set of standard data fields plus a finite set of “custom fields.” Without heavy customizations, in other words, data stored in a cloud-based CRM solution only contains a subset of a company’s customer data file, and is typically only used by salespeople and customer service reps. Moreover, data in the CRM is usually not connected to that of other business units like marketing or finance divisions who require a more complete data set to do their job.

The second challenge to internal crowd-sourcing has more to do with the very nature of salespeople themselves. Anyone who has worked in marketing knows firsthand that it’s a monumental challenge to get salespeople to update contact records on a regular basis—or do anything else, for that matter, that doesn’t involve generating revenue or commissions.

Not surprisingly, this gives marketers fits. Good luck sending our effective (and hopefully highly personalized) CRM campaigns if customer records are either out of date or flat out wrong. Anyone who has used Salesforce.com has seen that “Stay in Touch” function, which gives salespeople an easy and relatively painless method for scrubbing contact data by sending out an email to contacts in the database inviting them to “update” their contact details. The main problem with this tool is that it necessitates a correct email address in the first place.

Assuming your salespeople are diligently updating data in the CRM, another issue with this approach is it essentially limits your data updates to whatever the sales team happens to know or glean from each customer. It assumes, in other words, that your people are asking the right questions in the first place. If your salesperson does not ask a customer how many employees they have globally or at a particular location, it won’t get entered into the CRM. Nor, for that matter, will data on recent mergers and acquisitions or financial statements—unless your sales team is extremely inquisitive and is speaking with the right people in your customers’ organizations.

The other way to update customer data is to rely on a third-party data provider to do it for you—to cleanse, correct, append and replace the data on a regular basis. This process usually involves taking the entire database, uploading it to an FTP site somewhere. The database is then grabbed by the third party, who then works their magic on the file—comparing it against a central database that is presumably updated quite regularly—and then returning the file so it can be resubmitted and merged back into the database on the data hub or residing in the CRM.

Because this process involves technology, has a lot of moving parts and involves several steps, it’s generally set up as an automated process and allowed to run on a schedule. Moreover, because the process involves overwriting an entire database (even though it is automated) it requires having IT staff around to supervise the process in a best-case scenario, or jump in if something goes wrong and it blows up completely. Not surprisingly, because we’re dealing with large files, multiple stakeholders and room for technology meltdowns, most marketers tend to shy away from running a batch update more than once per month. Some even run them quarterly. Needless to say, given the current pace of change many feel that’s not frequent enough.

It’s interesting to note that not very long ago, sending database updates quarterly via FTP file dump was seen as state-of-the-art. Not any longer, you see, FTP is soooo 2005. What’s replaced FTP is what we call a “transactional” database update system. Unlike an FTP set-up, which requires physically transferring a file from one server and onto another, transactional data updates rely on an Application Programming Interface, or API, to get the data from one system to another.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an API is a pre-established set of rules that different software programs can use to communicate with each other. An apt analogy might be the way a User Interface (UI) facilitates interaction between humans and computers. Using an API, data can be updated in real time, either on a record-by-record basis or in bulk. If a Company A wants to update a record in their CRM with fresh data from Company B, for instance, all they need to do is transmit a unique identifier for the record in question over to Company B, who will then return the updated information to Company A using the API.

Perhaps the best part of the transactional update architecture is that it can be set up to connect with the data pretty much anywhere it resides—in a cloud-based CRM solution or on a purpose built data warehouse sitting in your data center. For those using a cloud-based solution, a huge advantage of this architecture is that once a data provider builds hooks into popular CRM solutions, there are usually no additional costs for integration and transactional updates can be initiated in bulk by the CRM administrator, or on a transaction-by-transaction basis by salespeople themselves. It’s quite literally plug and play.

For those with an on-site data hub, integrating with the transactional data provider is usually pretty straightforward as well, because most APIs not only rely on standard Web technology, but also come equipped with easy-to-follow API keys and instructions. Setting the integration, in other words, can usually be implemented by a small team in a short timeframe and for a surprisingly small budget. And once it’s set up, it will pretty much run on its own. Problem solved.