This blog is a version of the session I delivered at the English UK Marketing Conference in February 2020. I thought – and the audience did too – that “Can SEO replace your CRM?” is a provocative, challenging question, so let’s start with an explanation.
We’re focusing the very top end of your CRM, the sales funnel. What could you do - or do differently - especially around SEO (search engine optimisation), to take some of the pressure off yourselves and the people who are glued to your CRM system manually converting ‘leads’ into ‘prospects’ into ‘bookings’?
My personal experience was that this was a soul-destroying task, which got me thinking that perhaps there is a better way.
No CRM? No guilt.
Around half of the 60-70 marketers in the room said they used a CRM while the other half used tools including Excel, calendars and paper notebooks to keep on top of enquiries, leads, prospects and clients.
If you’re reading this with the uncomfortable knowledge that you don’t have a CRM system, no guilt required. Less than seven years ago, I walked into a large, renowned, London-based language school, and my first question as sales and marketing director was “So what CRM are we using?” The awkward, squirming answer? “We're not using a CRM system”. Enquiries were locked away in emails, and if anybody went on holiday, they didn’t get answered. Can you imagine? Or maybe you experience that yourself.
What do you want your CRM system to do for you?
We often get approached by organisations who say “We're thinking of getting Salesforce”. We’ll ask: “In order to do what?”
You possibly know a number of school owners and managers and what they're using, because we’re a small and intimate industry. But what works for another successful school is not necessarily what will work for you.
Try and start with your processes. If your admin processes and the way you reach out to people is highly successful, then you possibly don’t need to do anything at all. If all your bookings are via an agent and their own CRM, then no need to throw money at a problem that doesn’t exist.
For those who do use them, CRMs are a fantastic way of doing much of the heavy lifting, especially when you deal with high volumes of students and don't have the time to track the progress of each and every enquiry. One key function of a good CRM system is the ability to set certain statuses for each client or potential client, so you can see everyone who is at a certain point in your sales process. HubSpot is good for this, for example. You can report on what percentage of people converted from one stage to the next, making it very easy to see where you're losing people.
The problem with the sales funnel
You’ve always got loads of people at the top of the funnel – everyone who’s shown some form of interest through a form, a download or a level test.
But if you think everyone who takes a test is a potential booking, try converting them yourself. It’s unpleasant and unrewarding.
At the next stage, you’ve had some engagement with people: your lead asked a question and you've answered it or they've liked or shared or used some of your content.
With hindsight, you can see which leads ended up booking. Without that, you’re looking at a whole expanse of people who showed similar interest but who never converted.
We want to reduce the number of people we're dealing with at the top of the funnel - the high volume/low conversion area - and broaden their engagement and the booking base.
The current issue is people who are never going to be leads and are vaguely shopping around for information sometimes get sucked into your CRM system (or however you manage possible leads), and join a list of people that you feel you have to do something with. That's pressure on your organisation. And we’re not a time-rich, money-rich industry. If we can get those people self-serving with information, that's a beautiful thing. When they are really interested, they'll hop over and then you can do stuff with them.
Three approaches which reduce your need for a CRM
We’re going to look at SEO, Personas and FAQs. None of these terms or the concepts behind them will be unusual or unexpected. We’re just going to look at how we can pull it all together to make a difference.
Let’s quickly think back to old school outbound marketing – where your education team have an idea for a great new course, design it and then give it to sales and marketing and tell them: sell this to the world. That’s not always the easiest of tasks, and when it fails, it’s sales and marketing's fault.
However, with Google and other search engines, this process is transformed. We enter keyword searches and depending on the quality of the keywords you put into the system, you're going to get different replies. If I type “English” into Google, what am I going to get? It could be results about dictionaries, a discussion on the language and its origins, something on nationality, maybe online courses… It’s going to be random.
If you type “intensive IELTS preparation course in London starting next Monday”, you’re most likely going to land on someone’s course page. If things are set up correctly I might even get a course which is billed as starting next Monday.
With that kind of result, there's a strong likelihood that people are going to be a lot lower down the sales funnel and are one click away from self-converting. So if you invest the effort into ensuring you pop up in the search engine results pages, for these very specific searches, you get prospective clients that might be just one click away from booking. That’s what SEO is all about.
Let’s look at SEO
Search engine optimisation is about understanding your keyword landscape, where you're currently positioning online for different search terms that will be relevant to your courses, your location, your school type, your student demographic, etc.
By knowing that positioning, you see where you're ranking. It may be that you already have some quick wins and are positioning very highly on great keywords.
There's usually a lovely correlation between your great positioning for a keyword and where you tend to get a lot of your online business from - your direct students. Focus in on that and you can start to make big changes to where you position.
That’s just a taster of SEO: find out more on the ELT Digital Marketing Bootcamp courses we run with English UK.
Correlating SEO with CRM
For every micro step in your CRM process, from vague enquiry to near-certain booking, we can imagine an equivalent approach taking place with your SEO. When we think SEO, we’re often thinking about content.
So if you can create articles, help guides and other information to support potential clients wherever they are in the funnel, you are increasing the chances they will choose to buy from you, and moreover, you’re helping them to self-convert.
Imagine an international student is looking for a post-grad course in a UK university. That much they know. But what questions are they going to have from that point on? Which universities offer that programme? What are the entrance requirements? What IELTS score is required? What score do they have now? How long will it take to get from their current score to the required level? Where can they take an IELTS preparation course in the UK? When can they take the exam? Oh, and is the UK safe, what with Brexit? Which are the most welcoming cities in the UK? Which ones voted remain?
You can provide pages and pages of content to help that buying decision, but it’s as much about quality as quantity.
SEO these days is not about scamming the system, trying to rip Google off, or trying to find a short way around. Google wants to serve the very best information for people looking for stuff.
Two years ago, the average length of content at number one on Google was about 1,800 words. Now it's 2,215 words. We're not talking about little tiny paragraphs.
Content creation is a job in itself, and although agencies like ours stand at the ready to create optimized, smart content for you, the best bet is ultimately to be self-sufficient.
Given that we speak around seven times faster than we type, the smartest way to create comprehensive content these days might be to stick your phone in front of an expert, and record what they have to say. Transcripting apps these days are using AI to quite accurately capture spoken words and convert them into pretty accurate prose. Otter.ai is one we particularly like, and you can find more speech to text apps described here by tech radar
Splice your auto-generated composition with the strategic keywords you’ve identified in your SEO research, and you’re well on the way to driving people deeper and deeper down the funnel and increasing the propensity for self-conversion, the holy grail of CRM systems, and all digital marketing.
Personas and the pain point
To further reduce your dependency on a CRM system, you can focus in on personas. This is nothing more than a rebrand of the client focus groups and segmentation strategies of old. The problem is that with the advent of highly automated CRM systems, we sometimes focus too much on the system, and those tantalizing dashboards of conversion rates, and not enough on the creation of responses that meet the needs of real individual people.
Whilst the act of homogenizing your clients into a make-believe Joe Blow average is far from the ideal scenario, it can be an interesting exercise which can lead you to further realisations around what online content your potential clients could be missing.
In contrast to the SEO approach which relies on robust audits of your keyword positioning, persona mapping can help you to connect more effectively to the kind of clients you already attract.
You’ll need to think about your clients, their pain points and their guilt drivers. What are they trying to get away from? Maybe they’re not earning enough and need to improve their English to get a better job. Think about their demographic and the happy places where they want to be: friendships, experiences, fears, and aspirations.
We like the pain points, as they include the things that tend to niggle students and stop them booking. Pain points could be in your booking and payment process, or could be more psychological, around issues with coming to the UK to study, issues with the food, the separation anxiety of parents.
Answering their fears, needs, wants and aspirations will generate another set of content ideas and will give you another great chance to reach those clients directly and pull them deep into your website.
Think of a student from one of your programmes, give them an age and nationality. Discuss one pain point they face, and what you could provide them with to overcome that, to make them feel better about it. Brexit could be a pain point: you could answer questions about how it might affect students coming to the UK.
Personas and different audiences
While we think it’s good to get students the direct route, agents might be wanting to know the same questions as the students, because their clients are asking them. Whether your website is appearing in front of schools or agents, you're reducing the load of having to respond to these people individually.
What personas do you need to consider for a junior programme lead? Well, when you’re dealing with juniors you’re dealing with mum or dad too. So, for a young learner programme, you need to speak to both sets of personas overtly rather than fudging content into one mushy mixture.
Tap into the Zeitgeist
What concerns and anxieties are out there right now? I mean, where do you start? The more you can jump on questions that come through from any form of inquiry and address them in a public way, the more you and your team can speak to a wider audience.
And that’s where FAQs come in
So much of life is about questions and "how to do something" questions are I think, 80% of all questions on Google.
Let’s look at a non-industry example: Hove Lagoon is just a tiny little bit of water next to the seafront in Hove, East Sussex in the UK. In spite of their size, they've been incredible in positioning themselves online for what they do, which is watersports lessons and jet ski hire. What’s interesting about this organisation is how well they've done through frequently asked questions. Each of these FAQs is at least a paragraph. What makes Hove lagoon so special for learning? Do you do wakeboarding behind the boat? What do I need to bring? What if the weather is not good? What if I'm not a good swimmer? I don't have a wetsuit, is it a problem?
You can tell these are really genuine questions that have not been dreamt up by somebody who works in the marketing department or comms and they have chosen to answer them on their website.
Every single day you are probably getting bombarded with questions. Ask people what questions they're answering most frequently and how they’re answering them. Are these responses repurposable? In fact, does your admin team have a file of standard responses they copy and paste every time? Well let’s get this content out on your website for other people to find.
Once you put it on your site you're suddenly responding to anybody in the world asking that question. The more questions you answer, the more opportunities you’re creating for potential clients to engage with you. And the likelihood is, you are vastly reducing the need to manually convert people through the CRM.
I set up the world’s first TEFL course admissions service so people could find lots and lots of potential CELTA, CertTESOL and other teaching programmes in one place. These days there are loads of online TEFL agencies. Back then, only a few years after Amazon had launched, people would still phone a lot for reassurance before committing to a buying decision online.
In the early days, the most prevalent question was always “What is TEFL?” I'd spend all day answering that question, until we wrote some content about it for the website. Within weeks, people had stopped asking “What is TEFL?” and were asking, "What is the best course for me - is it the CELTA or the CertTESOL? We had educated the market so quickly. And then you would get “Is a CELTA the same in all centres?” That is a tricky question to this day, but great content can still answer it.
So, pick your top question, think about where you could most usefully answer it so that these people stop clogging up your CRM. Don’t hesitate to have a whole page on your blog where the question is the title of the blog and write as much as you want on there to answer the question.
Always break it up into nice manageable paragraphs, don't overwhelm readers, remember many people are looking on mobiles, and a whole block of text is a bit unwieldy so break it up. Use nice subtitles, keep it light, keep using the keyword.
Finding your FAQs
How can you gather FAQs? If you do have a CRM system that’s one source. It's a great intern job to try and get people just sifting through what's being asked, and what's been answered by the sales and admin and admissions teams.
I really feel for people answering the same thing every day. Empower them to create content for you and they’ll see the difference they can make for your organisation and you’ll see more people finding you first for the question you answer.
CRMs vs SEO - conclusions
CRMs are a great way to keep track of all this data, but so is an Excel sheet as long as you don't overwrite it!
CRMs are built to cope with more traditional outbound sales-leads type business, and if can if you're not careful can make you focus too much on converting the unconvertable and not enough on the people that - with help - could self convert.
Advanced CRMs allows you to micro-target clients with relevant messages and boost conversion that way - but only if they find you first. If they don't, chances are they’re in somebody else's CRM system.
A strong focus on quality SEO audits, SEO strategy, persona mapping and the study of FAQs can lead you to create the content which will expand your reach. More customers find you in the first place, and more will go through to a booking.
Richard Bradford is the founder of Disquiet Dog, a digital marketing agency specializing in the education and recreation sectors. As well as delivering digital marketing keynotes and running digital marketing courses, the team provide a range of SEO, content and website development services.