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Direct Response Marketing

Cover Story: Funnels and Foundations

1 May, 2017 By: Thomas Haire Response

Andrew Lermsider’s roadmap to combining performancebased metrics with branding efforts online isn’t just boosting Q Link Wireless. It’s serving a number of mid- and large-sized businesses, as well.


“The line is quickly fading between the brand and performance-based marketing mindsets,” says Andrew Lermsider, CMO and partner of Q Link Wireless, one of America’s fastest growing Lifeline and prepaid cell phone service providers, as well as an accomplished consultant and advisor. “It’s obvious that big brands realize the importance of driving direct sales while at the same time furthering their brand recognition. Big brands have finally caught on to what direct response marketers knew all along: our type of marketing works like crazy.”

He adds, “On the flip side, direct response marketers need to open their minds in reverse. There are so many opportunities to buy inexpensive branding campaigns online that have attributable results that lend themselves to running a successful DR campaign.”

With a background that started in real estate marketing and shifted to digital marketing thanks to a timely change in focus, Lermsider is a self-proclaimed “entrepreneur at heart.” Currently, he’s got a hand in a number of ventures, including Q Link Wireless, which he helped start with a long-time business partner as a provider of Lifeline and prepaid cellular phone services. Lifeline is a federal program, founded during the Reagan Administration and updated to include cellular phones during the George W. Bush administration, that provides telephone services to low-income individuals and households.

“We’ve acquired close to 1.5 million customers in less than five years, making us the third-largest Lifeline cellular provider in the country,” Lermsider says.

But that’s only part of his current story. “Outside of Q Link, I am a digital marketing consultant and business advisor to a broad range of mid- to large-sized companies that are seeking hyper-growth in today’s competitive, performance-based landscape,” he says.

Lermsider’s sweet spot as a consultant is digital performance-based marketing — a field in which he gained early expertise, and one in which he’s continued to expand his knowledge base.

A Digital Entrepreneur

Lermsider’s entrepreneurial roots stretch back to fifth grade. “I was selling gum in school,” he recalls. “It was an innate thing — I just understood marketing — how to make a product stand out in order to drive more sales.”

After attending New York University, he began his first significant venture. Lermsider says, “I owned and operated a successful real estate brokerage firm in Manhattan. This is where I got my feet wet, learning the power of direct response — by writing copy for classified ads in the Village Voice and The New York Times. Those ads had to make the phone ring.”

And ring they did — enough to help Lermsider transition along with the first internet boom of the late 1990s. “I took my real estate experience and parlayed it into a tech company,” he says. “I patented a procedure for reporting rent payment history to the three major credit bureaus.”

Within a few years of starting it, that business was sold to TransUnion for $31 million — allowing him to make the transition to “internet entrepreneur” while also honing his skills as a digital marketer.

“I was hooked by the power of digital marketing,” Lermsider recalls. “I became an expert at building high-volume businesses across highly competitive niches — gaming, lending, health, fitness, supplements, education, consumer goods, business opportunities, and telecom. As long as a business had a monthly recurring revenue stream — as long as you could continue to monetize it — I was in.”

That deep desire to grow businesses across so many verticals with performance-based, data-driven digital advertising meant Lermsider quickly became a specialist in various areas. “Website conversions, funnels, email marketing and monetization — I had to learn these before most people even knew what they meant. It was the only way to survive,” he says.

Lermsider says those years of “hands-on marketing experience” have kept him successful today. “No matter how much technology or the media channels change, the marketing fundamentals I learned as an entrepreneur apply today more than ever,” he contends.

That includes his success with Q Link Wireless, a five-year old business that has soared to become the third-largest Lifeline service provider in the country.

Q Link provides its eligible customers free smartphones with free monthly service that includes calling, data, and unlimited texting. With no monthly bills, fees, or credit checks, Q Link helps low-income people across America stay connected to essential communications services. Q Link also provides affordable prepaid wireless service for both Lifeline and non-Lifeline subscribers.

Combining Brand and Performance Online

But long before Q Link, Lermsider faced the challenges of combining brand-based marketing efforts with direct response methods. “When I first started building companies online, there was always this clear divide between brand-based marketing and direct response marketing,” he says. “For us DR guys, we always thought branding was a waste of time because it was nearly impossible to track the return on investment (ROI). But things have drastically changed with advancements in technology — especially with Facebook and Google.”

The more you speak with Lermsider, the more you understand his belief in Facebook and Google as outlets for both performance-based and branding leaders. There’s a reason he was a key part of a panel discussion at last month’s Response Expo titled “Social Media as a Media Outlet.”

Lermsider says, “Using these platforms, you can now track the actual life and attribution of a branding campaign — and use it to drive direct response sales. Want an example? Create a simple video, with your brand name, for your product and run it on YouTube and Facebook to a targeted audience list — your demographic. The ways these outlets allow you to pull and target is like nothing we’ve seen in marketing — and it’s very inexpensive. The goal of this campaign is to get video views for brand awareness. Facebook can tell you your brand lift within 48 hours.”

He continues, “You take that list of people who have watched your video for a few seconds or more and make a new audience inside Facebook and Google. Then you run direct response ads back to them, selling your product or providing an email opt-in to build a list. It’s a cost-effective way to turn the results of a branding campaign into trackable and attributable direct sales.”

But that’s not the only way Lermsider says the branding and performance-based worlds are colliding. He says the three biggest challenges today in launching and maintaining a performance-based campaign are: 1) competition; 2) funnel building; and 3) cross-device and browser optimization.

The competition is tough “for many marketers working at mid- to large-sized companies,” Lermsider says. He adds, “The ability of the ‘little guy’ working out of his own house to compete at a similar level is more powerful than ever. The e-commerce and landing page platforms accessible to that little guy have gotten so good and are so cheap to maintain. And the programmatic opportunities on Facebook and Google create an attainable ROI for marketers of all sizes.”

Lermsider also talks about building the sales funnel. “Proper funnel execution is necessary today for driving sales and improving ROI,” he says. “Funnels exist in every part of our business — the website, ad campaigns, email marketing, and more. The challenge is that good funnels are difficult — and time consuming — to build. Without them, though, it’s tough to scale and survive.”

The third challenge is a newer one. “When it comes to the topic of cross-device and browser optimization, all I can say is, ‘Wow!’” Lermsider says. “I’m in the telecom space, providing smartphones and service to nearly 1.5 million customers — and we have to look at every device, every browser available on those devices, every version of the browser, and the phone’s own software.”

He recommends a pair of tools for marketers facing these challenges. “Browserstack.com and quirktools.com/screenfly can give you insight on how your website loads in different browsers and devices,” Lermsider says. “I’d also suggest digging into Google Analytics to see what types of devices your customers are using to visit your site — and optimize for those, first and foremost.”

Building the ‘Foundation’

Those tools also appear in what Lermsider calls his “Foundation Inspection Checklist” (see sidebar below), which is available for free download on his website, andrewlermsider.com.

“Over the years, having helped build so many businesses for myself and clients, I realized there are a set of core foundation items that drive the success of every business,” he says. “These are the marketing fundamentals that apply to every business — when you get them right, you can crush your competition. But if you misfire, your efficiency struggles, you create choke points, and your profits fade.”

Lermsider contends that every point in the “Foundation Inspection” falls into the categories of user experience, funnels, conversion optimization, and customer value extension. “Not only can the checklist identify those potential choke points pretty quickly, but it also can help identify the gaps of opportunity sitting untouched,” he adds.

Lermsider uses this checklist to identify what he believes are the three biggest keys to an effective performance-based digital marketing effort. “Once you have a good offer in place — always the most important piece of any campaign — the three keys are your website speed, your retargeting efforts, and email marketing,” he says.

Lermsider says fractions of seconds can make the difference between success and failure. “If it takes more than three seconds for your site to load, sales and conversions start falling apart,” he adds. “There’s another great free tool from Google at testmysite.thinkwithgoogle.com. You can enter your site address to see how your site ranks for speed — and you’re likely to be surprised by the results. You can also see how fast your site loads from anywhere in the world for free at tools.pingdom.com. What’s great about both: they tell you what’s wrong with your site so you can give your development team specific instructions on how to fix it.”

Google and Facebook are the kings of retargeting, Lermsider contends. “You must run retargeting campaigns on both — there’s no way to run a successful DR campaign online without it,” he says. “There is no cheaper and more effective way to convert your website visitors into buyers.”

The third key — email marketing — might sound old school to some but Lermsider says, “There is still no better way to convert prospects into customers and turn buyers into repeat buyers than email marketing. Build a good email list — at Q Link, we send about 10 million emails each month — treat your list right, and it will feed you for life.”

All of Lermsider’s thoughts lead to an obvious question — and one that’s being asked more often in businesses around the world: just how closely should your marketing and information technology (IT) departments be working in order to drive successful campaigns?

“This is a great question,” he responds. “In today’s digital world, marketing and IT must work side by side. One can’t exist without the other. We structure all of our business decisions and marketing initiatives to guide the direction of our development teams.”

That balance — marketing and business decisions leading technology, rather than tech making business decisions — is crucial to success, Lermsider says. “I’ve always worked hand-in-hand with my developers to ensure my exact vision was brought to market,” he says. “Have your marketing department meet regularly with your development teams to make sure they are always on the same page. Many times development has different priority lists than marketing and, without regular meetings, things can fall out of sync. My developers are all decent marketers now, because I go out of my way to teach them the marketing thoughts behind the things they are coding.”

The Smallest Differences

Lermsider’s success with Q Link Wireless — as well as the businesses he operated before it and the ones he’s serving today in a consultancy role — is due to his flexibility and his willingness to learn in an evolving, multichannel marketing universe.

“Here’s the thing: everything you do as a marketer today can be tied back to having a solid foundation in your digital presence,” Lermsider says of the evolution of marketing and consumer response methods. “TV and print ads can’t run successfully without a proper website experience for your customer, and that site must take into account the multiple touch points consumers are using today for connecting with your brand. More of your customers are coming to your business via on one device and finishing their order on another.”

He describes just one possible circumstance as an example. “They might be sitting on the couch, watching your TV commercial, and checking your site out on their mobile phone. Then they email themselves the link to look at it later from their desktop computer,” Lermsider says. “Customers are discovering businesses on mobile and completing the orders on a desktop. This means you better get your site working on mobile, tablet, and desktop if you want to succeed in today’s multichannel, online, and offline world.”

Learning the right lessons — from successes and failures — remains crucial to success, as well, Lermsider believes.

“What direct response has always taught me is that everything’s about the numbers. I view every business and marketing initiative as a math problem. If you know your numbers, you can figure out the right answer, execute quickly, and grow your business,” he says.

Lermsider is a big believer in quick execution. “Execution and great marketing trump everything,” he says. “The product and service don’t have to start off perfect, but if you can get to market quickly with a halfway decent marketing plan, you have chance to figure things out. The key is to fail fast but reiterate even faster. Version 1.0 is always better than version 0.0.”

He says that digital options have even made success easier to test for — and achieve — for marketers used to the vagaries of DRTV and print. “It was tough to reiterate quickly in the days of TV and print — it was so much more expensive. Today, the advantage comes from going online, building your offer and campaign, finding what works — and then bringing that to TV. It gives you a better chance at bigger success,” Lermsider says.

He adds, “I am a huge believer in testing and tweaking, which is a never-ending game. Markets change, platforms change — as do devices — so you better make sure your marketing is continually optimized to outperform or you will fall behind.”

Lermsider closes with a story about tweaking, flexibility, and being willing to make changes quickly.

“Eight years ago, I had a business — with the same partner who I started Q Link Wireless with — that was doing free-trial offers for diet and health products,” he says. “We were doing about 500 orders per day. We shipped the product ourselves — really, we did everything ourselves, through affiliates. We had been contacting one of the biggest affiliate networks that was doing 5,000 orders per day for a competitor. After chasing them to run our offer, we prepped our site with our best look and feel and got our team ready. They turned on the traffic and, in one hour, sent us 300 sales. Then they turned it off and told us, ‘You’re at a 12-percent conversion rate, but the affiliates want it at 12.5 percent, so we can’t run your offer.”

Lermsider continues, “A few weeks later, our competitor — who was selling 10,000 a day — had an office across the street from us. They stopped by our office one day, and we told them what happened with the affliliate network. They looked at our site and immediately said, ‘There’s your problem: your website’s too big and loading too slow.’ Our image file sizes were too heavy, which we didn’t realize. So, we optimized the images and retested. With the site loading faster, we went from 12-percent conversion to 13.5 percent — and went to 8,000 sales per day. A half-percent made the difference between failure and success — and 1.5 percent meant tremendous success. In today’s atmosphere, that difference is even more relevant.” ■

 


INTRODUCING THE ‘FOUNDATION INSPECTION CHECKLIST’

During his 17 years of work in building his own businesses online — and those of his consulting clients — Andrew Lermsider has come up with a set of “core foundation items” that he believes drive the success of each marketing business. For each business he works with, he applies these items to understand a business’ strengths — and, more importantly, its weaknesses. He calls it the “Foundation Inspection Checklist.”


About the Author: Thomas Haire

Thomas Haire

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