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Web of Engagement

By Robert Bittner

September 13, 2023

Using digital marketing to increase customer connections

With the help of digital marketing, boxmakers are exploring ways to improve customer communication, build brand awareness, open new sales channels, and connect with digital-first and digital-friendly generations.

“The reality is, as baby boomers retire and Gen X is aging, millennials are in a lot of the decision-making—or at least the pre-purchase research—positions,” notes Katy Hart, director of marketing and communications at The BoxMaker. “To make sure we’re reaching them, it’s very important for manufacturers of all kinds, including packaging manufacturers like ourselves, to be online, findable, engaging, and actively present.”

Digitally Relevant

“At The BoxMaker, we are heavily focused on content and inbound marketing,” Hart says. “Having a first-rate website is important for first impressions, and it influences what people think of The BoxMaker overall—even if their first touch point with us is through a sales rep, some other piece of collateral, or they meet us at an event. So we try to drive a lot of leads through our website.”

In addition, Hart is frequently blogging and posting on social media. Although social media often means just Facebook and Twitter, Hart focuses attention on the channels that get more traction, particularly LinkedIn followed by Instagram. The content she posts is driven by the company’s mission. “We think of ourselves first and foremost as an educator, a partner in learning for packaging,” she says. “That’s the philosophy behind 85%–90% of the content. The other 10%–15% is more sales-focused, letting people know about new products while always focusing on how those products can help to solve their problems.”

Because so many people will consume multiple streams of information, Hart stresses the value of being consistent across every platform. “Having a consistent message that’s on-brand and current has had a very positive effect on people’s opinion of us,” she says.

At sales consultancy Athena SWC, Senior Marketing Content Consultant Lisa Benson helps clients formulate their consistent, on-brand digital messaging from their very first meeting. “I work with customers to help them find their differentiators and the value they bring, as opposed to just the capabilities they have for making boxes,” Benson explains. “For example, I’ll walk them through a spreadsheet that helps them list out all the pains that their prospects may be feeling in the market, all the things that would make somebody either leave their current vendor to come to you or turn to you as a secondary. Is it poor quality? Delivery delays? And then we ask, what is it costing those companies if they don’t have somebody that can solve those issues for them? What is the actual cost to the manufacturer for having that poor quality or those late deliveries? And then we look at how clients can mitigate those situations. That’s a better way of thinking about differentiators than focusing on messages like, ‘We make this kind of box.’ ”

While some boxmakers rely on a suite of services from digital partners such as Athena SWC, others turn to in-house solutions. For example, The BoxMaker invested in HubSpot, a comprehensive customer resource management application. “HubSpot provides complete transparency between marketing and sales,” Hart says. “It allows us to take the digital marketing to the next level with things like list building, [email] targeting, and things of that nature because we have all of the data in HubSpot. It’s our main tool that we use for everything.”

Of course, traditional marketing, such as direct mail, is still used, still effective. “But we always try to give everything some type of digital touch point so we can track it,” Hart says. “So, even if it’s a physical mailer, we’ll include a QR code on it and create a related landing page on the website. We try to give potential customers a reason to visit us online so we can get them into our digital ecosystem and start being aware of their client journey.”

Start Your Engines

The starting point for most prospective customers and potential employees is the company website. And one critical element of an effective website is search engine optimization (SEO), which helps your site appear as high as possible in search engine results. Maintaining effective SEO requires constant attention.

Google—which currently owns 85% of the overall search market, 95% on mobile devices—frequently updates the algorithms it uses to select and display search results. The effects of those updates can be devastating. “When Google updated their search algorithm in 2021, it caused our web traffic to flatline,” Hart recalls. “The algorithm changed so significantly, our traffic went down, down, down.” Adapting to the changes required an overhaul of The BoxMaker’s website.

Scott Finkelstein, director of content with NgageContent, works regularly with boxmakers and other packaging clients—as well as Athena SWC—to develop their digital marketing, including social media marketing and website design. When working on SEO for a client, he devotes a significant amount of time to the process, researching users’ locations, their preferred search engines, and the different ways they search when they are merely curious versus ready to buy. He also analyzes the competition’s use of search. The goal is to connect the most relevant user keyword searches to the client’s website content, with as much precision as possible.

Regionality also is an important aspect of SEO, one that depends on the user’s willingness to share information (often called a “cookie” or a “pixel”) from their computer or device regarding their location so they can be shown search results relevant to that location. It is essential when it comes to digital recruitment, in which prospective employees are searching for jobs within a given area. But it is equally important for reaching new customers. “There is actually a lot of local search,” Finkelstein says, “and there’s a lot of opportunity to position a company locally. So let’s say a folding carton manufacturer wants to really own the southeast United States. We’ll create content pages that go after searches tied to those cities, regions, or states.”

Another way to guarantee a high search engine ranking is to pay for it. Typically called search engine marketing or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, paid links appear at the very top of the search results page, marked “Sponsored.” The ad’s sponsor pays a fee every time a user clicks on the ad link. (Retargeting involves delivering similar ads to users who have visited your website but have since moved on to other sites.)

PPC ads may not be the right approach for every boxmaker. “If a corrugated manufacturer wanted to go after a certain industry, we would do extensive research on that industry to see if it makes sense to actually invest money in PPC,” Finkelstein says. “If the data justifies a spend into what the client is wanting to do, we’ll test it for several months. If it performs, we’ll keep going and keep optimizing. If it does not, then that money is put somewhere else.”

Artificial Intelligence Assistance

With the increasing popularity of tools driven by artificial intelligence (AI), it is not surprising that digital marketers are turning to them for assistance, especially when it comes to content creation. But their use comes with caveats.

Hart acknowledges that she has leveraged ChatGPT to increase her content output for the The BoxMaker’s blog and website. “But you still have to have a person behind it, editing and adding to anything that you use,” she says. (See sidebar on p. 54.)

Finkelstein agrees, adding, “Our position is that AI tools alone shouldn’t be used to create your online content. They can be used to accelerate the process; they can help content creators, copywriters, and PPC specialists generate ideas to overcome writer’s block. But there are disadvantages with just creating that content and using it en masse.”

For instance, AI sometimes can deliver nonsensical or inaccurate results. Or, Finkelstein notes, “Say I create a blog about ‘corrugated for nutraceuticals’ using ChatGPT. It’s likely that someone else is doing the same thing somewhere else in the country. And the AI tools you’re both using are going to create very similar content.”

That AI-created content also is being identified now by search engines. And Google, for one, is penalizing it in its results, placing it below other content. Because of that, Finkelstein says, “original content is going to perform better.”

Digital Dedication

We have only scratched the surface of the digital marketing tools currently available. And digital innovations will continue to transform the way manufacturers communicate and connect with customers and prospective employees. But they won’t be transformative overnight.

“There’s an expectation that the leads are going to come pouring in as soon as you turn on SEO or social media or some other form of digital marketing, and all you have to do is run with them and close them. That’s not the reality,” says Athena SWC Managing Director and CEO Todd Zielinski. “Leads still need to be managed, evaluated, qualified. There’s still work to do to make sure those leads represent the right opportunity and then schedule the next steps.

“If you’re making an investment in this kind of best-practice infrastructure to develop the front end of your sales funnel, you have to give it time. Compare it to hiring a new salesperson. How much time would it take that person to get up and running and productive? That could be a 12- to 24-month process. So give your digital marketing the time and effort that it needs.”

“If you’re not sure whether a particular digital approach will work for you, just give it a shot,” Hart advises. “Start small. If it works, then you can scale up. Focus on what you can do with the tools that you have.”

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.