Engineering and marketing may not seem the logical combination, but when it comes to mixing things up Michael Cooney does just that.
His company, EngNet, with North American headquarters in Charlotte, is a small powerhouse that provides a range of digital marketing services to the engineering and industrial sectors across North America and the globe through focused strategies that take advantage of minimal costs.
“I received my training as an electrical engineer in South Africa,” explains EngNet CEO Cooney, who graduated in 1994 from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), a world-class research university in Johannesburg, studying in the fields of Electrical Engineering and Heavy Current Electrical.
“Very quickly in starting my career, I realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t really what I want to do. I prefer the marketing side of engineering,’” he remembers.
By that time, he had built up a number of contacts in the industrial and engineering communities. At the same time, the Internet was becoming mainstream. He describes it as a seminal moment.
“‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘This is going to make my job easier. I can just go online and find all the information for these suppliers.’ However, it was still early days for the Web. I knew I could build into this space, but Yahoo! was still just a simple directory.
“So, I created EngNet as a categorized engineering directory to help customers find companies based on the equipment that our clients sold and manufactured.”
Creating an Engineering Network
Cooney decided to pursue EngNet, a portmanteau of ‘engineering’ and ‘network,’ full-time in 1998. But he had to overcome some resistance. The Internet was not as developed in non-Western countries at the time, and many industrial clients were reluctant to get involved. As a result, Cooney decided to take his operation outside of Johannesburg and aim for larger markets in the United Kingdom.
“I was in the U.K. for about six years, and I was getting U.K. clients, but at the same time, I was getting more and more companies from the United States that wanted to reach our audience,” he describes. “They liked our positioning with Google, and we recognized the opportunity provided by North American companies and decided to expand operations to the U.S.
“We chose Charlotte because we already had many companies as clients in the Charlotte region, including automation companies. And you simply can’t beat the weather here. In addition, the educational institutions are amazing.”
Unfortunately, while Cooney was starting up and running the U.K. division of EngNet, the South African office began to see declines. The company as a whole had good revenue with virtually zero costs, but it had hit a plateau in terms of bringing in new clients or continuing growth based on its directory subscription services.
Cooney’s solution: “About 2004, my brother joined me. He is a mechanical engineer, and he came on as a partner. Now my brother and I are equal partners in the South African office. He’s taken the reins and grown the revenue 20 times since coming on.”
While the business directory is still one of its strongest selling points across all three offices, Cooney found that competition within the North American market was stronger than any he had faced before. As a result, he decided that a “pivot” in strategy was required.
“The goal of the company remained the same: matching clients with customers in the engineering and industrial markets,” Cooney explains, “but as Google was becoming the 800-pound gorilla in the room, change was needed.
“Google traffic eventually rose to the top of referrals, so we had to contend with that. We work with hundreds of companies, and it’s always Google at number one when it comes to incoming referrals. So, if you do any type of directory advertising, you’ll see Google is number one, if you do AdWords, that’s number two, then Yahoo! and Bing. Then, down around number seven or eight, you’ll start to see directories come in,” he laments.
As a result of this trend, Cooney and EngNet began to put more emphasis on offering customers other solutions outside of the directory, eventually breaking the company into two additional parts: EngNet Design Group and Industry Tap.
“So, to pivot, we had to be SEO AdWords specialists. We were doing that already for our sites, but our clients were seeking Google traction. We began getting more and more requests asking if we could do that for them or do their web design.”
Adding Digital Marketing and Industry News
Today, in addition to maintaining an extensive directory for engineering professionals, EngNet offers a digital marketing division as well as an industry news site that incorporates social media. The company created Industry Tap out of a need for social media engagement, and the effort has brought in tens of thousands of “likes” and over a hundred thousand new followers.
However, EngNet was not as successful in gaining a social media following. Cooney explains, “What we tried is working with our large email database though our EngNet network, about 150,000 email addresses.
“By mistake, we included an article that took a different approach. Instead of talking about a product, we talked about how the product solved a problem. We wrote on that and we got three times the engagement compared to any other posts. So, we began to realize, if we write engaging stuff in a story format, we’re going to get much better results.”
After focusing on more premium content through the company’s newsletters, with an even split on advertising and content, EngNet saw engagement grow three to five times higher. As a result, Cooney decided to create and implement Industry Tap in order to tackle the social media world.
Today, Industry Tap is an EngNet property that concentrates on providing useful, entertaining and educational news to the engineering and industrial industries, currently boasting over 100,000 followers on social media.
“At different times of the year, I’m focusing on different things depending on the client,” describes Cooney. “Once we reach a certain level, we need to think about where we need to go next.
“A big thing that I’m involved with recently is tracking. We have a client that was getting 20 to 30 leads a month and they are now getting 280 to 300 leads a month as a result.”
Indeed, tracking is one of the things that has made EngNet as successful as it is in Charlotte and around the world. Cooney is so focused on providing results that he has taken to tracking not only hits on a website, but also tracking phone calls based on AdWord campaigns and beyond.
From there, he analyzes which leads really mean anything and which ones fall away. As a result, he and EngNet are able to offer meaningful statistics that display for clients exactly where return on investment is located.
Cooney grins, “These days, EngNet is focused more on lead generation, but more specifically, we’re concerned with quality lead generation, not just quantity. The company still respects Google’s ranking system, but we realize that Google is not the be-all and end-all of search engine marketing when it comes to bringing in new leads.”
He continues, “A big part of my passion is derived from the fact that I come from an engineering background. But mainly it’s connected with assisting people in finding the products and services they need. I love seeing the results, both for our clients and for their customers.
“I know that so many industrial clients have been burned, and it’s not because of the marketing agencies they use, but because those agencies don’t understand the industry. I do, and my experience and expertise allows EngNet to get the results our clients need and deserve.”
While EngNet faces larger competitors, Cooney feels that the company’s small size allows it to be more flexible with the rules and more nimble in adjusting to changing tides. The company’s directory is designed to be easy to navigate, and Cooney states that he is focused on building personal relationships with each client, whether they need EngNet’s directory, EngNet Design, or Industry Tap. Additionally, EngNet’s social media following is currently the largest when compared to larger engineering directories, and it’s growing each day.
EngNet 2.0 Content Marketing
“In the past, you’d promote yourself,” Cooney says, “but now we’re more focused on building brand loyalty through providing engaging and interesting content that matters to those in the industry. It’s all about solid content marketing, and that keeps clients interested and coming back. Our target clients are global, and while we focus on North America here in Charlotte, we offer the ability to geo-target across the globe. We try to reach everyone.”
While it’s Cooney’s view that Google will continue to dominate the search marketplace, he also believes that things are more streamlined now. In the past, it almost seemed as though the Internet was the Wild West of digital real estate; low costs and an abundant supply. Today, however, online marketers are finding that digital real estate is in short supply and costs continue to rise, all while competition is a larger issue. While this may present a problem to many online marketers, Cooney is confident.
“I think SEO remains important. Also, having real, quality content—having real, quality user engagement—is going to win the day. The times of winging it on your content are over. The guys who really put money into content, long-term, those guys are going to win,” says Cooney.
“Social media and e-commerce are growing tremendously as well, and user flow, making things totally streamlined…that’s what’s on the horizon. Every website, the easier you can make it, the more engaging it is, those are the things to focus on right now across every industry that has an online presence. There is going to be a lot of time spent analyzing in order to give a better user experience, and the companies that invest in that are the ones that are going to win.”
Adding to that, Cooney also feels that online tools will play a major role in changing the way online marketing works. Today, a large number of tools exists that offer users the ability to access very narrow parts of data, and these tools operate very effectively and efficiently.
“There are so many tools available today for checking backlinks or for putting in a simple URL and seeing who links to you and the power of those links. I find it interesting, but not all companies are using such tools, and they are only as good as how you use them,” continues Cooney.
“The cloud is also important as it is opening up communication across a wide variety of marketing channels in different industries. And this applies to small and enterprise businesses as small businesses today now have access to enterprise-level tools.”
However, the potential for problems in technology exists as Cooney mentions the plateau effect, a situation through which a client may become conditioned to seeing consistent growth through digital means.
“Clients can become accustomed to growth in positions and traffic,” he says, “but we want to be measured by leads and sales, not gimmicks. We want to be measured by amount of dollars we bring through the door.
“I see us growing, and what we do isn’t going to change: we’re connecting industrial and engineering suppliers with customers. However, what is going to change is how we do that.
“We’re using more premium content. We’re also taking a look at breaking into specialized fields,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re going to make the process clearer so that clients can see the benefit that is being received from our services, and as time goes on, we expect to provide clients with technologies that are even more transparent, assisting in growth not only to EngNet, but also to those who rely on our team.”