Panning for Gold: How Marketers Collect Data Online


Gathering data will mostly occur in increments. It will begin as a small trickle and build momentum over time. Think of it like dating. On a first date you don’t ask certain questions, like, “how many kids do you want to have?” or “what type of wedding do you dream about?” Most people try to get to know each other first and start building trust before getting too personal. After the relationship progresses for a time, there comes a point when certain questions are welcome and do not seem out of place.

For marketers, collecting data is a similar process to dating. It is helpful to ask yourself, “what data is appropriate to collect at this point in the relationship with this contact?” As you gain skill in data collection it will also become easier to discern what to ask, how and when to best achieve your goals.

Companies using a CRM tend to collect demographic information about potential customers via the data collected from purchase trends and previous transactions. But with the world's vastly increasing time spent on the internet, companies large and small alike are collecting data with their online forms, where people exchange information for something (free offer, coupon, or ebook).

Collecting psychographic data is trickier because, unlike demographic data, a customer's reasons and motives behind their purchasing behavior are difficult to measure. Psychographic information dives deeper than just knowing a person's age, gender, and location. It's about knowing a person's values, fears, and hopes.

To learn more about demographic and psychographic information, and the relevancy behind the two data types, read How Collecting Data Transforms Marketing

Like all data collection, let's begin with acquiring demographic information about your customers. For many businesses this will be somewhat intuitive. Chances are, if you run a business, you already know a lot about your customers. But just knowing "in general" is not enough to truly understand why your customers choose to purchase from you

Offers and Forms

We must start off by discussing website traffic. Your website is a great tool for acquiring leads (potential customers). If they are visiting your website, they have made it to the first stage of the sales funnel. It would be a shame to never know who these people are and what brings them to your website in the first place. Websites and "forms" are an easy and accessible way to gather data about your customers. The goal is to get them to give you personal information, so you can send enticing offers that fit their needs and desires. That's how to begin nurturing customer relationships, and that's why collecting data is crucial for sustainable marketing.

Placing forms on your website is a great way to gather information about your visitors. They willingly offer facts about themselves (and contact information) in exchange for something that is helpful and valuable. You have probably seen this many times. "Download our free ebook" or "get 50% off your next order" in exchange for your name and email address. Then, you get bombarded with email offers. Well, it works—not only for sales, but brand awareness as well. Here's the catch, and here's how you can hone your marketing efforts: request more information on your forms than just name and email address.

When offers and forms don't boost sales

One of the most common mistakes we see companies make is asking for too little information on forms, such as email only. They worry that if they ask for too much it will depress download rates. They are not wrong, asking for more information WILL depress response rates, but that could be a good thing. It is important to keep in mind two important factors.

First, if your offer is not valuable enough to a visitor to provide more than just an email, it is time to improve your offer. We have seen offers achieve as much as a 90% visitor download rate while asking for a relatively large amount of information. The secret is to tightly match the target persona with an offer of a very high perceived value. Listicles like, “The Top Ten Ways to X” will not achieve your purpose. They are over-done and the last thing the world needs. You must come up with something substantial that delivers real value.

Second, asking for too little information has a big downside. You will not be able to follow up effectively with your visitor. Remember, the overarching strategy is to be able to market so effectively that individuals have the feeling that the content was created for them and them alone. If you don’t even know their name, how will you accomplish that? How will you know what to offer them next, or what questions to ask if you don’t know anything about them?    

The argument is always that they downloaded something, so, at least in the moment there was a small amount of interest, but from experience with dozens of clients, these contacts are a distraction. Marketing teams waste an enormous amount of time trying to segment random email addresses that they know nothing about.

Get more from your forms

We have found it is nearly always more efficient in the long run to accept the fact that asking for more information up front may depress response rates, and we are ok with that because it will save time in the long run. Remember, you are not trying to market to everyone. For the majority of companies and products out there, most people are not the right fit, and the faster you are able to disqualify the "time suckers" the better.

The absolute minimum form data we recommend, especially for B-B clients, is first name, last name and email address, but more often than not we also include business name, and job title—all as mandatory fields. Sometimes we also prevent them from inputting personal emails such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail and insist they enter a company email. Some visitors will purposely fill in fake information, but that's a minority case. The more valuable the offer the less fake information you will get.

Add one simple question to your forms to better "classify" your leads. Say you sell educational toys, and your primary target customers are school teachers, moms with young kids, and grandparents. 

Beyond Forms: Tips and Tricks for Collecting Data

Gathering statistically significant data samples is expensive. Most small businesses don’t have the budget to conduct market research with a team of data scientists or professional researchers to conduct focus groups. There are other ways to gather data that are valuable enough to be useful and nearly free. 

Sales Team Data

Marketers can learn an enormous amount about their target personas through their sales teams. Sales people are naturally gathering marketing information while meeting with prospects. Everything that is being said, and what is not being said can be valuable for the marketing team to understand more about its personas.

We suggest marketing teams begin with interviewing their sales people and ask questions about the people they are meeting with. Look for commonalities and find out what the FAQs of new prospects, and then categorize them by persona. The questions people ask are very revealing. It helps you understand what is important to them beyond the most obvious, “how much does it cost, and what is the delivery time?”

A few years ago, I was hired by one of the largest IT companies in the country to help boost sales of a new business unit that was floundering. They poured resources into the New York market and generated plenty of leads, but had very few sales and were baffled at the lackluster results. They put together an incredible team of seasoned engineers to provide IT support and just couldn’t figure out how to sell the service. So, I listened in on some calls and tagged along with their sales team on appointments, and the problem was immediately apparent.

Their sales team was used to working with enterprise clients—think multi-billion-dollar fortune 1,000 companies. All of their sales pitches talked about their value proposition in the enterprise. Even their client case studies and testimonials were from amazing clients. But their new target market was small businesses—companies with fewer than 1,000 employees and most typically fewer than 500.

During one meeting with an IT manager of a company with about 175 employees, the sales person spent more than 10 minutes talking about how their US team and their teams in India were able to both work on engineering tickets to provide 24/7 coverage. He name-dropped some of their biggest clients and I could see he was really impressed with his own presentation. Then the IT manager asked two questions that exposed some problems, “How many companies our size have you worked with?” he asked. And, “We would rather work with a single point of contact locally rather than someone in India. Can you provide that?”

The sales guy was stumped. He never thought that working with a global support team was not a strength in the eyes of the small business owner. The IT company did not win the deal. I followed up with the prospect and they went with a much smaller, local company that never outsourced work. The prospect said he was much more comfortable with the smaller company because he thought he would actually get better, more personalized service than if he went with a behemoth that was focused on the enterprise market.

From our meetings, we were able to refocus the team and reshape their language and offering for smaller clients. We learned that smaller companies often wanted a single point of contact to work with at the IT company and didn’t want to have to always fill out online tickets. Sometimes they just wanted to be able to quickly call and talk through an issue. It was a revelation and helped us segment the data base in a very different way.

Micro Surveys

Micro surveys consist of a few questions that will give you insight into the psychographics of your customers. They are a tool to help your team learn more about your target personas. At Can-Do Ideas, we start by examining what types of content our client has already published, if any. Then, we review their top 3-5 competitors, assessing what type of content is popular on their websites, blogs, and social media. Based on what we learn, we brainstorm topics of interest and conduct small surveys on those topics.

We write topical advertisements and assess responses. Depending on what seems popular with social media users and website users choose topics to focus on. We are not trying to get a statistically relevant response rate. We just want to know, is a certain topic interesting to the target persona? Ads and micro surveys can be distributed on social media, to an email list, or appear in the form of a pop-up on your website.

For example, we worked with a large engineering and manufacturing company that was focused on heavy industrial verticals such as aerospace, defense, and transportation. They wanted to create a content offer that was interesting and valuable to mechanical engineers who were 3-5 years out of college. They wanted to establish credibility and brand recognition with engineers early in their careers, with the idea that a long-term relationship that spans years would be beneficial to both sides.

Our team considered many possibilities and narrowed them down to a handful that we thought would have an appeal to the target personas. We wrote a series of small online ads and asked the target to vote what was most important to them. From the survey, we were able to focus on the idea that improving creativity in engineers was very interesting, not just to new engineers but to their managers as well. After an enormous amount of research and work, the “Engineers Guide to Improving Creativity” was born and thousands of engineers downloaded, and we received a great amount of positive feedback.

Purchasing Data

Demographic and psychographic data is available for sale from large data brokers. They gather massive quantities of data on consumers and businesses from sources such as new home purchase records, business filings, online directories, phone surveys, etc. You can purchase the data in the millions. Yet, it’s difficult for small businesses to gain useful insights on the individuals who were purchased from a database. Often the data is still too vague to be useful and does not include current email addresses.

For example, let’s posit that I have 5,000 people opt-in to my list and I want to learn more about them. I could take my list to a broker and have them match our email addresses with the data they have gathered in their database, collecting more information about the individuals on my list. The problem is that there are an estimated 5 billion active email addresses in the world, with many people maintaining two or more emails, and most brokers are focused on mailing addresses and direct mail—email is a separate business. Brokers will rarely have anything about my list, and if they do, the question becomes, how will I use that information in my digital marketing.

If you have a very large budget and enough time, you can purchase multiple different kinds of lists, cross reference them and create profiles on an individual that includes their physical address, email address and some available psychographic information. Big companies do it. But before you go down that rabbit hole, you need to weigh the enormous costs, time and technology required. It is a specialized skill set that is beyond the majority of companies. And the good news is, it’s mostly unnecessary.

What Not To Do

Truthfully, if you buy a list from a broker and send an email to each contact, you are a spammer. You are sending an unsolicited email to someone you don’t know in hopes that they will give you some attention. It can work, but the positioning is weak. What is their first impression? The click through rates on these types of emails are very low and have big drawbacks.

People who receive your unsolicited email are much more likely to report your email as spam, which will hurt your deliverability. ISPs are motivated to clamp down on spammers and they take spam reports seriously. Your subsequent emails may not get through at all.

You could try to use an email marketing service such as Mail Chimp, My Emma or Constant Contact, but they all have rules against emailing people who didn’t opt-in first. They are trying to protect their IP addresses and will clamp down on companies who are getting large numbers of spam reports. They don’t allow emailing purchased lists.

The best way to build a marketing list is to create content so valuable that your target market can’t help but notice and want to come back for more. Create content that helps solve their problems, educates, entertains, and connects with them on an emotional level. Inspire them to connect with you willingly. Instead of pestering them with annoying emails they could care less about, convince them to invite you into their life.

Learn more about online data collection.

people planning a digital marketing strategy



Anthony Butler

Anthony Butler

Anthony Butler is the author of Primal Storytelling and the Founder of Can-Do Ideas

TOPICS: Inbound Marketing, Data, Strategy, Hubspot Support

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