The Ultimate Guide to Digital Marketing for Manufacturers

Written by Kathy Kassera Mrozek
Vector image of a group of men and women sitting at a table watching a man make a presentation

B2B manufacturers and OEMs tend to be late adopters when it comes to implementing modern digital marketing strategies. Traditionally, sales has driven revenue in these industries, and marketing has existed to support sales.

Marketers are typically responsible for creating proposals, presentations, and trade show collateral. However, during the past decade, and especially the past few years, manufacturing companies that have invested in modernizing their marketing, if only incrementally, have seen measurable results. In this article, we’ll unpack the many facets of a manufacturing digital marketing program, including the who, what, where, why, when, and how.

Do manufacturers need internet marketing or digital marketing?

First, let’s clear up one thing. We hear the terms “internet marketing” and “digital marketing” being used interchangeably, and that’s okay. Technically, manufacturing digital marketing is any marketing for manufacturers that is, well, digital in format, which could include things like television, digital billboards, or social media. (However, a typical TV audience is far too broad to be relevant to B2B manufacturing or industrial marketing.)

Manufacturing internet marketing refers specifically to activities related to the internet and web, which would include social media, but not TV or digital billboards. For our purposes, we’ll consider digital marketing and internet marketing, in the context of manufacturing, to be the same.

Why should manufacturers use digital marketing?

While traditional sales and marketing tactics (trade shows, networking, word of mouth) are still a piece of the puzzle, the growing segment is online. As younger engineers and technical buyers grow into positions of greater influence and responsibility, these manufacturing customers are increasingly looking for information online. Most of them prefer to find a website to answer their technical questions rather than call a vendor rep that they’ve never talked to before.

This isn’t a bad thing. They’ll still be interested in talking with your rep, but only after they’ve established they can trust your brand, products, and/or services based on what they’ve found for themselves. While in the not-so-distant past, engineers looked forward to poring over the new databooks that your sales reps would leave behind at their office in printed and bound volumes, today’s engineers want to find datasheets, specs, features, and all of their product information online, whether they’re working from a company office or their home office.

Manufacturing digital marketing is the practice of making sure that when your best prospective customers are searching the internet for vendors with answers, information, and solutions, your company is showing up with relevant answers, information, and solutions.

​​What are the different types of digital marketing that matter most for manufacturers?

Marketing, in general, can be broken down into two big buckets: inbound and outbound.

Outbound marketing is generally focused on pushing your marketing message out to those who might be a match for your target customer profile. Outbound marketing tactics can include:

  • Cold email campaigns
  • Digital display ad campaigns
  • Account-based marketing (ABM)
  • Radio / TV / Broadcast
  • Print ads
  • Direct mail
  • Telemarketing / Cold calling
  • Outdoor advertising / Billboards
  • Event & sponsorships
  • Other awareness campaigns & activities

Inbound marketing is generally focused on showing up for people who are searching for what you offer. Inbound marketing tactics can include:

  • Website content & articles
  • Educational and/or gated content
  • Search engine optimization
  • Video content
  • Webinars
  • Social media content & campaigns
  • Search / PPC ads
  • Email nurture campaigns

While nearly every tactic in the inbound marketing list above can apply to manufacturers, several on the outbound list are tough to justify. Unless you can find a radio station, for instance, that is so perfectly targeted that the majority of the people listening to it are the specific type of engineer who can use your product, you’ll be wasting precious marketing dollars on reaching too wide an audience. Focusing outbound attention on a high-value prospect in the form of an ABM campaign, on the other hand, might be a good tactic.

Inbound vs. outbound digital marketing for manufacturers

As mentioned above, inbound marketing often does the heavy lifting when it comes to digital marketing for the B2B manufacturing industry. With inbound marketing, you can create content on your website that’s uniquely tailored to your best prospective customers’ needs, challenges, and pain points, drawing them into your website while they’re searching for a solution. Whether they find you early in the research stage or later in the buying cycle, when they’re ready to connect with a vendor, if you’re engaging them throughout their process, you’re creating the foundation for a future sale with a good-fit prospect.

Outbound activities can be a good complement for inbound digital marketing in the manufacturing realm. For example, sponsorships, prominent trade show booths, and other awareness-generating activities can make your brand known, however peripherally, to those who might need your products in the future. Then, when they’re seeking a solution and your website comes up in search results, that “hey, I’ve heard of them before” recognition could make them more likely to click into your website.

How inbound marketing works for manufacturers

Today’s industrial manufacturing and B2B buyers make the majority of the purchase decision before they’ve even talked to your sales department. Inbound marketing is all about making sure that your website is doing its job of showing up for your target audience when they search, engaging visitors, and encouraging them to reach out when they have a need.

Instead of, or in addition to, spending a lot of time and resources on outbound marketing—which by nature can only be so targeted, because you don’t know where people are in their buying cycle—inbound marketing means you’re hyper-focused on capturing the attention of prospective buyers who are seeking out solutions like yours and offering them quality educational content that builds their trust in your capabilities and expertise. Instead of meeting your target audience with a hard sell, you’re allowing them to browse through your educational content as well as the features, specs, case studies, and company information that you have on your website, at their own pace, so that they can easily assess whether there’s a good fit between their needs and your offerings.

How digital marketing complements the industrial manufacturing buying cycle

In a typical industrial manufacturing buying cycle, the sales cycle is long, and there are multiple people involved in the buying process. The person doing the initial research and/or the person who’ll be specifying, responsible for, or using the product or service is rarely also the person signing the contract or writing the check. At any stage, several people could be involved in making decisions and looking for different types of information to assure them that choosing your solution won’t be a career-breaking decision but will, instead, help bring greater success to their career and their company.

Initial research is often conducted by an engineer or technical person who’s trying to solve a problem, fix something that isn’t working or isn’t optimal, improve or innovate in some way, or perhaps develop a new product, product line, or facility. They identify the need and begin searching and researching different solutions to collect more information—not by picking up the phone, but by going to their web browser.

They might begin their search based on either the problem that they’re experiencing or what they already know about potential solutions. They might research several different known products or services, from vendors that they already know and/or that are on an approved vendor list, in addition to more general search queries.

After identifying a need and conducting online research, these prospects will likely narrow down the options to a shortlist or single recommendation that they’ll share internally with others on the buying team. An engineer can be influential in getting a new vendor onto an approved vendor list, if they offer a solution that looks like a better fit than others.

This stage of research and shortlist/recommendations is where inbound marketing can be very powerful for manufacturers. If your solutions show up prominently online for someone in this stage, your website does a thorough job of answering their questions and providing clear, trustable information (without making them wade through a lot of marketing fluff), and your website content convinces them that your solution will help them with their problem, you’ll make it onto shortlists because of your inbound marketing efforts.

At this point (or sometimes earlier), your salespeople will be communicating with the buying team and going through the steps involved in a consultative sales process. Others in the C-suite, in purchasing, or otherwise involved in overseeing the purchase will also be involved, and your website will need to be able to provide slightly different (but overlapping) information that answers their questions as well. A key element here is an “About” page that clearly outlines all of your certifications, includes information about facts such as your longevity as a company, and provides trust in your facilities and capabilities.

Ultimately, the buyer will make the purchase from the supplier that they see as the best fit, and this is heavily influenced by your technical sales team as well as any sales enablement materials—but if inbound marketing brought in the initial lead, both marketing and sales can take credit for the closed sale.

What kind of digital marketing program is right for a manufacturing company?

Rather than choosing from a pre-packaged digital marketing program, which is often what’s offered by digital marketing agencies or SEO agencies, the best solution is to determine what you need to achieve and then create a customized digital marketing program that’s tailored to get you there.

Most of our B2B industrial manufacturing and OEM clients’ goals are to generate more qualified leads through their websites and digital marketing. Some also have goals around their e-commerce capabilities, which serve as a complement to their larger orders, allow repeat customers to easily reorder parts that are easy to specify, and can serve as an online catalog and/or jumping-off-point for custom orders. Ultimately, this comes down to building a digital marketing program that generates more MQLs (marketing qualified leads that you can nurture until they have a specific need), SQLs (sales qualified leads that are ready to buy), and/or online purchases.

Your manufacturing company’s overall marketing plan and specific goals will inform what the digital marketing component needs to look like in order to help meet your goals.

An important tip: avoid getting too caught up in the latest tech just because it’s cool and trendy (geo-fencing was all the rage not too long ago, but it rarely made sense in the B2B industrial manufacturing world), and stick with what will help you meet your goals.

How to create a manufacturing digital marketing strategy

Creating a high-performing digital marketing strategy for a B2B manufacturing or industrial company means starting with your overall marketing plan and goals. If you haven’t yet clearly defined your goals, start there, making them specific, measurable, and attainable.

Get clear on who you’re marketing to. Have a clearly identified ICP (ideal customer profile, the companies that are a good match for your offerings) and high-level personas (the individuals on the buying teams within these companies). Our article on keeping this process simple will help you get started.

Clarify your positioning and most important keywords. New visitors to your website or those interacting with your digital marketing for the first time should be able to quickly come away with a clear understanding of what your company offers and who it’s for. To show up well for the searches that matter most to your company, identify what your top keywords are, confirm that they’re relevant to your best customers as well as your company’s primary offerings and growth plan, and aim to make sure that you have high visibility for those terms.

Evaluate your website and ensure that it loads quickly, has a good content strategy and user experience, and will generate trust in the eyes of those who visit it. Ensure that there are ways for interested prospects to easily reach out to your sales team when they’re ready to talk. You should make sure the website provides opportunities for MQL conversions. (If you want to get into some nitty-gritty website design and development tips on loading times and calls to action, read our articles on core web vitals and how to create a high-conversion CTA).

Benchmark your current performance and identify quick wins for improvement that will be easy to implement and provide a value to you that’s greater than the effort involved. Identify longer projects that may require more time for implementation, but offer greater reward.

Identify tactics and channels that you believe—based on past experience or research—will bring your target prospects to your educational and marketing content and encourage them to engage or otherwise take the next step.

Build all of the above into a three-month implementation plan that covers the most important, highest-priority updates first, while making incremental traction on larger efforts. Always keep in mind that you’re going for quality over quantity. A small number of highly targeted, qualified leads will do more to help you succeed compared to a large number of unqualified prospects.

The best digital marketing tactics for manufacturers

There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every manufacturer. However, we’ve worked with many B2B industrial manufacturing companies, and certain patterns are common.

In most cases, the more targeted you can be in finding your audience and in the keywords you use, the better off you’ll be. Your customers are typically niche audiences, with very specific needs, and you won’t benefit from casting a wide net.

Assuming that you’ve covered the basics and have a good understanding of who your audience is and a sound positioning for the company, your manufacturing digital marketing program will find success by incorporating several key overlapping tactics:

Your website

Your website is the hub of your digital marketing program. If the website is in poor shape, spend the time to fix it before you do anything else. Your website should clearly state your positioning on the homepage, and provide easy access to information about your products or services, relevant information about your key industries/verticals, case studies if applicable, and information about the company, as well as easy ways to reach out for more information or to talk to sales.

Content marketing

Content is the information contained on the pages of your website explaining your products, services, and critical business information, but content marketing is an added layer beyond that. This is the content that serves to educate, inform, and inspire your best customers, and it’s also often the content that is most eligible to show up in search engine results. Content marketing for manufacturers must remain relevant to your offerings and intersect with the interests and needs of your target buyers. Examples could include articles, buyer’s guides, specification guides, research papers, whitepapers, or other downloadable content, and can also include video, webinars, educational programs, and email campaigns. The best content marketing programs will repurpose content across a variety of media and platforms. You can read more about the importance of content marketing for industrial marketing teams.

Search engine optimization

SEO is the practice of ensuring that the content on your website and your content marketing efforts are fine-tuned to show up in search results for the right audience. If you’re writing an article on a very nuanced and specific topic, chances are that it will capture the attention of a very intrepid and specific searcher, but in order to show up for the most competitive terms, you’ll need to focus some efforts on optimization. This can include on-page SEO (which relates to your website) as well as off-page SEO (such as getting your URL listed in relevant directories and publications). Here’s a more detailed look at on-page and off-page SEO.

Email marketing

Email nurture campaigns are a great way to stay top of mind for those prospects who are already on your marketing list, either because they are previous customers or because they’ve engaged with your marketing content and converted as MQLs. In general, avoid sending out purely promotional emails; seek instead to send content that’s of value to your best prospects. Sometimes this can include new product information and releases, as this can be valuable to your niche audience, but avoid making an overt sales pitch.

Social media

Social media for manufacturing digital marketing is more effective on some channels than others. YouTube can be great for hosting and distributing video content such as product demonstrations or how-to videos; LinkedIn isn’t where too many engineers hang out often, but you can get the attention of others on the buying teams there. Social media can be a good way to distribute your content marketing.

PPC and online advertising

PPC is one of the least understood methods of digital marketing. Many marketers have been burned by how easy Google makes it to launch a very untargeted, broad campaign that generates way too many clicks from unqualified buyers and blazes through your budget with little to show for it. However, a very finely targeted and specific PPC campaign can be a great complement to your SEO efforts, essentially buying top placement for the high-priority keywords for which your website does not yet rank. Online advertising via display ads can also be an inexpensive way to create greater visibility and awareness within your target audiences.

Who should manage a manufacturing company’s digital marketing programs?

Great question. I’m writing this from the point of view of an owner of a marketing agency that specializes in digital marketing and websites for B2B industrial and technical companies, so you might expect me to say that it should always be us. But that’s not the case.

We’ve found that the companies with the most successful marketing outcomes and the most impactful relationships with agencies like Windmill have someone on the internal team that “owns” marketing. There really needs to be a person inside the manufacturing company that intimately understands the products and services, the business plan, the subject matter experts, and the trajectory of the company. However, it’s rare for us to work with a client that has a well-staffed, robust marketing team in-house. Sometimes there’s a one-person marketing team; more often it’s a handful of people, and they have a lot to do.

That’s where we come in.

Your marketing team knows what you want to accomplish, but you might lack the resources or technical expertise to create and implement a strategic and prioritized plan. You also don’t have the luxury of seeing how digital marketing programs can play out for a wide variety of other manufacturing companies whose goals, needs, and challenges are similar in many ways, though the specific industries are different. Since we do have this panoramic view of how manufacturing digital marketing programs work for other companies like yours, we can act as an expert guide, helping to craft a targeted strategy and tactics that can be implemented by our team, your team, or a combination, depending on the resources and bandwidth that you have available.

How much should manufacturers spend on digital marketing?

Another great question! There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, either.

A program with a lot of paid ads/PPC will of course cost more due to ad spend, and the more you can do in-house, the lower the cost. There are benchmarks out there that assign a percentage of top-line revenue that should be spent on marketing, but this would include the entire marketing budget, not just digital marketing. Digital marketing pricing will vary based on how many concurrent tactics and strategies are in play and how resources and activities are divided between your in-house team and the agency team, if you’re using an agency. For instance, will you be interviewing subject matter experts internally and crafting the content, with the agency acting as a guide to the content calendar and SEO topics and then performing the final edits? Or will the agency do all the interviewing and writing for your approval? How quickly do we need to improve SEO? Are we starting from scratch and fixing a website that lost traction due to a botched redesign, or are we simply making incremental improvements that maintain your position?

Client engagements with Windmill Strategy tend to be neither the least expensive nor the most expensive. Our programs are uniquely designed for each client based on the makeup and resources of the client team, and the areas in which Windmill will be actively affecting performance (how much work we’ll do monthly, which correlates to the business size). A typical engagement can range in cost from $2,700 monthly for foundational support to $20,000 monthly for extensive support. Clients typically plan to invest in this work for at least 6 months—indefinitely if marketing is intended to be a revenue generator for the business. Over time, you might move some of the work in-house.

How to get started with a digital marketing program

The most important part of getting started is taking action. While some agencies and in-house teams get bogged down with initial assessments and benchmarking that can take 6 months or more, we believe it’s better to get clear on where you want to go, even at a high level, and then start taking incremental steps to get there.

The key steps are to internally agree on what your most important goals are and what short- and long-term success look like. Then determine whether you can do the work in-house or need to research an agency to partner with.

Our recommended first step for manufacturing marketing teams, whether they plan to implement the work in-house or with a partner, is to consult with an outside agency for a strategic plan and advice, to build a prioritized roadmap that can be executed by one or both parties.

At Windmill, we’ve developed an offering called the Digital Marketing Strategy Quick Start. This diagnostic approach helps you better understand your goals and unique situation to create a short-term digital strategy that will inform the recommended monthly engagement to follow. At the time of this writing, this diagnostic project costs $3,900, no matter the size or type of organization. The Quick Start project itself typically takes 4–6 weeks, and it delivers:

  • Strategic recommendations focused on the highest near-term priorities and KPIs
  • A 3-month roadmap for execution by you, by us, or a combination
  • Tactics to improve your marketing without a costly website redesign
  • A holistic view that includes the website, SEO, PPC, social, email marketing, and more
  • Access to senior digital marketing and website specialists without a long term commitment

Take the first step to improve your marketing: Learn more about our Digital Marketing Strategy Quick Start.

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