Marketing products with very long sales cycles

I write about strategies to turn fans into customers and customers into fans. I also share ways to use real-time strategies to spread ideas, influence minds, and build business.

Marketing  |  Brand Journalism  |  Best Practices  |  Business to Business

Graduation My daughter is a junior (third year) in high school so we are still a year away from the college application season here in the U.S.

But get this - my family has been in college shopping mode for three years!

It started when my daughter entered high school. Nearly three years ago, she started to get interested in the process of choosing and applying to schools and soon after started her research on specific colleges and universities. She spent time checking out college Web sites and we’ve visited around a dozen campuses so far.

Now she's on the mailing list of dozens of colleges and they send her materials by both email and physical mail. Plus she’s now getting unsolicited direct mail offers because her name is on various databases due to the standardized tests she has taken.

This all happened years before applications are due.

By the time we actually choose a school in early 2011, it will have been a four-year sales process.

This got me thinking about products and services with very long sales cycles. Many B2B offerings have sales cycles measured in months and years.

So what does a long sales cycle mean for how you create online content?

The college Web site is often the first place that a student comes into contact with the college. Because students visit years before the application process the site must cater to an audience of young teenagers who won't be ready to apply for admission for three or four years.

Creating appropriate content to develop a lasting relationship over a long sales cycle is possible only when an organization knows the buyer personas well and understands the sales process in detail. The college must provide high school students with appropriate content so they get a sense of what college life would be like if they were to attend and what the admission process entails.

Many marketers make the mistake of assuming that all visitors are ready to buy right away. (The auto industry is my favorite example of this flawed strategy because most automaker sites are only about selling cars, not educating consumers).

Effective Web marketers take Web site visitors' buying cycle into account when creating content and organizing it on the site.

People in the early stages of the sales cycle need valuable information that help them. This content should be easy to find from the home page.

Soon after the basics are solved, buyers look for content (videos, ebooks, blogs) detailing the ways that your organization solves problems for them.

Those further along in the process want to compare products and services, so they need detailed information about the benefits of your offerings. A great way to do this is by showcasing satisfied customers and letting them speak for you.

And when buyers are ready to whip out their credit cards for smaller purchases (or mortgage the house for four years of college), they need easy-to-use mechanisms linked directly from the content so they can quickly finish the purchase (or donation, subscription, and so on).

A focus on understanding buyers and the sales cycle and developing appropriate content that links visitors through the cycle to the point of purchase is essential for a great site.

Do you have an example of using web content to market a product or service with a long sales cycle?

Image credit: Shutterstock / doodle