You probably didn’t get into the solar business because you love lead generation. However, all solar businesses, especially residential solar providers, need to operate and thrive on their lead sources. With the explosion of the Internet, online channels have become a clear starting point for solar installers to find the residential leads they need. It’s not easy, though. In fact, figuring out online lead generation can be confusing. And time consuming. And expensive.
Pardon the pun, but residential solar providers have been sold every online marketing program under the sun. Media hucksters, ad agency pretenders and virtual carnival barkers have been happy to promise “all the quality residential leads you need” for your solar company. Meanwhile, what a lot of them really mean is, “We can help you achieve many useless things.”
They will spend your money to generate “impressions,” “events,” “conversions” and all sorts of theoretical activity. But you don’t want activity – you want (all together now) leads! High-quality, productive leads that turn into profitable sales.
To understand how online lead generation works – and how it doesn’t – let’s explore five myths of online residential lead generation for solar companies.
Myth #1: Paid search is easy to do
Paid search (also known as pay-per-click) is a straightforward process. There’s no black magic here. You put your money down and, provided you bid high enough, your ad will be on a Search Engine Results page from Google nearly every time.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s easy to do poorly, expensively and ineffectively. You or the marketing agency you hire could waste thousands of dollars generating impressions, visitors and clicks – without getting the leads you need.
A big advertising agency, for example, may tell you that it will spend $5,000 of your money on paid search advertising in New England during the month of January, the coldest month of the year in that region. And the agency will find a way to do that – whether or not there really are $5,000 worth of effective search terms it can bid on.
There are times of the year when it’s simply not wise to be spending money on online advertising. In the aforementioned example, that money would be better spent in April or May, when New England homeowners are more likely to become leads and, ultimately, buyers of solar services.
Wisely spending your money requires an understanding of many factors, including which search terms to buy, which to avoid, the value of phone calls, the right level of qualification, over-incentivizing and more. Buying the term “solar,” for example, may seem like a good use of your budget – unless, of course, your ad shows up on a search for “solar system” or “solar flares,” in which case you’ve wasted your money.
Well-executed campaigns are very complicated. Hiring a company or an individual who has expertise in paid search – and the solar industry – is particularly important.
Myth #2: “My site is already optimized for ’organic search’”
This one’s almost not a myth because, at its heart, it’s true: If you can do organic search well (a.k.a., search engine optimization, or SEO), there’s nothing more valuable. Plus, it’s free.
Nonetheless, doing this in a way that makes your site consistently stand out is very difficult. With organic search, your website’s ranking is never finished – it’s a living, breathing thing that needs constant care and feeding. Furthermore, everyone who builds a website these days is building it to be optimized for search engines, so any advantage is hard won and even harder to hold onto.
Unlike paid search, SEO is black magic. Even if you manage to get to the top of your particular category, the next time Google modifies its algorithm (something it does regularly), you can be cut off at the knees.
It gets worse. Within organic search, Google is actively choosing winners and losers, and with a bias toward larger players and bigger brands. Google views larger companies as a better bet than most local providers. Although this may change, it’s still a major frustration for many locally oriented solar providers.
Finally, there are many SEO firms trumpeting their “successes” all the time. They delight in showing that your website now ranks high on specific terms in your particular town (e.g., “solar panels, Natick, Massachusetts”). While this appears to be success, reality often tells a different story. The term “solar panels Natick, Massachusetts” may only attract half-a-dozen visitors for an entire year. In that case, your SEO firm has essentially spent a lot of time, effort and your money to get your site a half a visitor a month. In effect, you’re leading a race that no one else bothered to run.
This is all not to say you shouldn’t optimize your website in this way. It’s just that at this point in the evolution of search, doing SEO is table stakes – the price of just being in the game.
Here are the factors that matter most when it comes to SEO:
Longevity. Yep, that’s right. The age of your website/domain is what matters most in the eyes of Google. So, although the guy you hire to improve your SEO will hopefully do his best, you need to be in the game for years, not months, for your website to be at the top.
Inbound links. This refers to links from other websites that link back to you over the course of time – a sign that others like your website. And while there’s been a lot of chatter about how important inbound links are, this is still a significant factor in rankings.
Quality, fresh content. Google likes active websites with active pages. The more you write and post about solar, the better.
My point is not to scare or dissuade you from paying attention to organic search. That said, you want to be aware of where this fits in the mix and to be clear on what you can and cannot achieve.
Myth #3: Social media is all that really matters
“Everybody’s doing it, and your customers spend a ton of time there, so that’s where you need to be, as well” – it’s a common refrain. However, it’s just not very effective if you’re looking for qualified solar leads. There’s an immense gulf between the heavy-breathing hype and the metrics and traffic that matter. Social media has its role, but it’s not in lead generation – an area where social media has been historically weak.
Does social media have value for some businesses? Absolutely. Big-name brands, such as Starbucks, Coke and GM, that want to connect on a more personal level do see benefits. So do “offer-based” companies like “cash for gold,” free e-book giveaways and even online classes. But if you want the phone to ring with qualified leads, most social media activities (e.g., Facebook and Twitter updates and banner ads) are going to struggle.
On the other hand, one aspect beneath the social media umbrella that is certainly worth your attention is customer reviews. Places like Angie’s List, Google and Yelp provide opportunities for customers to perform local searches and read reviews across a wide range of businesses. Keep in mind that homeowners feel a big sense of risk when hiring a solar company. Positive reviews will help allay customer fears. Many local businesses have zero reviews. Just having a handful about your company can make a big difference, so encourage your customers to post there.
What about negative reviews, though? Won’t you get some of those if you encourage customers to post, and won’t those hurt you? Not really. Everybody who has reviews has some bad ones, but there’s more to lose by having no reviews at all. So long as you don’t have a lot of negative reviews, you’ll be on the right side of the current landscape.
Myth #4: Online listings will make the phone ring
If you’ve been in the solar business for more than 20 minutes, you’ve no doubt received solicitations to list your business with one of the 60 or 70 online directory services out there, such as Yellow Pages and Sup erPages. Unfortunately, these types of services drive a small fraction of traffic. Yes, the salespeople for online listing services love to screech about how “you are missing out!” if you don’t sign up with them.
Not really. All of these listing services combined deliver less than 10% of what the major search engines do. Regardless, don’t ignore online listings entirely. They serve a legitimate purpose – mostly by helping local businesses get found by the real search engines – so make sure your listings are set up accurately, once, and then just leave them alone.
The right way to create these listings is to load them up with as much information as possible. Max out the number of images, videos, logos, payment information and descriptions that you’re allowed to submit. The more information your listing has, the more the search engines and directories have to display to their visitors.
Still, don’t worry too much – a “best efforts” degree of investment of your time and energy is all you need.
Myth #5: Now that everything is online, the phone doesn’t matter so much
One of the key mistakes some solar companies make regarding online leads occurs when they take their eye off the ball on the telephone side of the business. That’s a problem. No matter how smart and efficient you are in generating leads, if you’re not great on the phone, you’ll ruin the leads anyway.
Here’s what “great on the phone” means:
Lightning-fast callbacks. In the eyes of a prospective customer, the speed with which you respond to an inbound lead is a test of your service quality. Every minute that ticks by after a prospect contacts you is a moment that he or she can be calling your competitor – or forgetting the solar project altogether.
Dedicated, well-trained phone staff. This is the front end to your entire business. If the person on your staff who speaks with prospects first is unfriendly or uninformed, you are going to lose a piece of business.
A smooth, systematic, efficient phone process, every step of the way. Do you prescreen prospects adequately? Do you set appointments consistently? Do you make confirmation calls for sales appointments? Do you follow up on questions?
You get the idea. Your phone operation needs to work well – 100% of the time.
In conclusion, online lead generation is fantastic; it has changed the solar industry for the better. Nonetheless, it has also raised the bar on what it takes to be successful. Keep these five myths in mind the next time you’re given the opportunity to “invest in online marketing.” They will help you spend your money well and ensure that you get more than your fair share of great residential solar leads off of the Internet.
Todd Bairstow is an online marketing professional with 18 years of experience and co-founder and principal of Waltham, Mass.-based Keyword Connects.