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The frog-kissing business

Getting the most out of Internet frogs


Mark Siebert

There is an old saying in sales: "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you get a prince." And with industry close rates hovering in the 2 percent range, there are few if any business models that compete with franchise sales in the frog-kissing department.

Enter the Internet. With close rates that may be half the overall franchise industry average – oftentimes below 1 percent – nowhere are franchise frogs more plentiful. Ask the typical franchise salesperson what they think of Internet leads, and chances are they will be less than enthusiastic. But with 70 percent of all franchise sales leads coming from the Internet, it is simply a pond that almost every franchise salesperson must gig in.

Today a kid with a credit card can create a Web site and run franchise ads on the front page of Google before the paint dries on his lemonade stand. These lowered barriers to entry have significantly increased the breadth of the competitive environment.  

Meanwhile, today's franchise buyer finds gratification both instantaneous and easy. So more franchise buyers are relying exclusively on the Internet for their information gathering. Competition for pay-per-click advertising on search engines is fierce. And with more than 100 franchise Web portals, obtaining information on a franchisor is often as simple as a few keystrokes. And since many of these Web sites have gone to a pay-per-click model, they are thus doing everything in their power to encourage clicking on multiple franchisors. 

Because of this newfound ease of obtaining information, the average number of franchises that each prospective buyer will examine has increased significantly in the last decade. Bottom line: While the average number of leads generated by the Internet is soaring, the close rates on those same leads is continuing to drop dramatically. 

Of course, there is good news. The Internet enables franchisors to present their message to a broader market than was ever before possible. And the more recent evolution of the Internet has allowed franchisors to communicate as never before – using tools like online forms and streaming videos to press the air out of the sales cycle while significantly reducing the costs of presenting that message.   

So the key for the successful franchisor in today's Internet economy is not to curse the plague of the Internet frogs, but instead lies in knowing how to embrace them.

Be seen, or be forgotten

The first key to Internet success is to be sure your Web site is actually seen. As the saying goes, having an Internet site without a Web site optimization strategy is like opening an ice cream shop in the middle of the desert. This traffic can be developed using organic search optimization, or, if your budget will allow it, from pay-per-click advertising. But it starts by getting your site seen. Too many franchisors rely on a friend, relative, or neighbor to develop their Web site (or worse, try to do it themselves) and end up with a site that looks like, well, like they did it themselves. Then they wonder why it does not generate leads. 

If franchisors were to spend as much time, effort, and money in developing their Web site as they do on developing and printing their franchise brochures, they would be much more likely to drive traffic. But, for some reason, developing a Web site is thought to be as rudimentary as writing, and therefore too many businesspeople are reluctant to spend the money needed to build a good one. Here's a hint: If the person developing your Web site cannot explain to you how keyword saturation will impact your site, or worse, cannot define keyword saturation, then you probably need a new webmaster. (Keyword saturation of 4 to 5 percent will improve your position in organic search; keyword saturation of 9 to 10 percent-plus will probably create spam penalties.)

Unfortunately, even those franchisors who do optimize their site stop far too soon, focusing exclusively on building traffic – without giving a thought to the goal the site should be designed to achieve. The goal of a franchise Web site is to get the candidate's name and some basic qualifying information. Far too many franchisors try to sell their franchises with an abundance of clever copy and copious information on every aspect of the franchise investment. But putting too much information on a franchise Web site can be just as bad as putting nothing at all on the page. 

Prospective franchisees, who are dealing with a universe of thousands of franchisors on the Internet, are looking to do only one thing in their early investigations of franchise opportunities: narrow down their options.  In other words, they are looking to eliminate your franchise from consideration. The Web site should be designed to get them excited about the franchise opportunity without giving them so much information that they do not need to call. Never let the written word raise objections that a skilled salesperson could overcome. 

A seemingly obvious tactic for every Web site is to be sure that the franchisor should have a lead form for the capture of relevant information from their franchise candidates. Internet prospects like to get information using clicks and keystrokes, not by making a phone call or sending an e-mail. Moreover, the Internet is a 24/7 environment and often franchise prospects – especially those working at regular jobs while they shop – take advantage of that availability. Hunting for franchisees without adequate capture mechanisms is like trying to catch frogs by hand, a lot will slip through your fingers. You need a net.

The best franchisors are also careful to ensure their lead-capture mechanism is always readily accessible. It should be no more than one click away from every page on the franchise site – and the button or the link going to that page should be prominently displayed. Yet franchisors continue to develop Web sites that do not have capture mechanisms, let alone prominent links on every page.

Next, the savvy franchisor will go back to the first rule of franchise marketing. "What gets measured gets done." But measurement on the Internet is somewhat more difficult. And so, unfortunately, the corollary of this first rule usually holds true for most franchisors. 

But this does not have to be the case. The performance of specific inbound links can be measured through "link coding," in which the link string provides very specific feedback on its source using unread code in the link itself that will identify the specific source even when the click came from a "generic" source such as Google pay-per-click. A franchisor's "capture rate" can be measured with a relatively simple formula: Divide the total number of leads generated from your Web site by the number of unique visitors to the franchise section of the Web site.

Once you have established baseline performance, the savvy franchisor will alter variables that impact performance in an effort to optimize. They may choose to change their landing pages or alter the text on the page or even create a series of different landing pages for different inbound links. The franchisor may alter the text in its pay-per-click advertisements on a keyword specific basis. But whatever you do, remember to measure the results and respond accordingly.  Of course, because you are working with small numbers, this type of testing is a long term proposition, as you will not get to a level of statistical significance until you have a sample of several hundred leads from which to draw your conclusions. 

Another way to optimize your Internet performance is to enhance the "value proposition" associated with filling out the lead form.  By providing a tangible benefit to those who complete the form, capture rates can improve dramatically.  One recent trend here involves the providing a "free" streaming video to anyone who fills out your capture form.  When properly utilized, this strategy can offer the added benefit of increasing click-through rates on pay-per-click advertising while lowering marketing costs by using electronic distribution for these materials. 

Once you have generated this pond-full of leads, you will want to sort through them as quickly as possible.  Again, your capture mechanism can help you here.  While you want your capture form to be as short as possible, you will certainly want it to include required responses to some basic qualifying questions.  You can then utilize an Internet auto-responder matrix to provide a highly targeted response to these prospects.  The use of this matrix approach allows you to send a very different message to a highly-qualified prospect than you would to an
unqualified prospect, and can be a huge help in prioritizing calls.  In fact, by sending an electronic copy of the highly-qualified response to your franchise sales team, some franchisors make it a practice to call their best prospects within 15 minutes of receiving a new lead. 

The best franchisors not only know enough to leverage the Internet, but also understand when they shouldn't even try.  The Internet cannot sell.  It cannot build relationships. It cannot build trust.

And ultimately, as much as you may like to in cases like these, you cannot ask the Internet to do your kissing for you.  Even in the Internet age, some things are still best done in person.

Mark Siebert is the chief executive officer of the iFranchise Group (www.ifranchisegroup.com), a franchise consulting firm with consultants who have worked with 98 of the nation’s top 200 franchisors.

Mark can be reached at 708-957-2300 or at info@ifranchise.net.

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