Searching for effective lead generation and conversion.

In the current business climate, companies are relying more than ever on new sales opportunities to replace business that has been lost with current customers. And it’s pretty clear by now that “search” has emerged as the form of online promotion that generates the best lead generation and conversion results — outstripping other e-promotional tactics such as online display advertising and newsletter sponsorships.

This isn’t surprising, of course. Search advertising captures the interest of online viewers precisely when they’re in “search mode” for specific products and services, rather than when they’re just surfing the ‘net for news and updates.

(In fact, some advertisers have come to believe that even print advertising outperforms online display advertising. That’s because readers are more likely to browse all the way through print publications. Compare that to visiting informational web sites where viewers are far more prone to selectively pick and choose the pages that they open. A well-placed display ad on a “new technology news” page, for example, might be invisible to the vast majority of viewers who come to the home page and then decide to click through to only one or two additional pages on the site.)

But back to search. Many advertisers wonder which is most effective: gaining high “natural search” rankings that occur based on the content of the web site, or opting for pay-per-click search listings such as Google’s AdWords program with their entries on the right side of the screen.

As it turns out, both tactics have their pluses.

In fact, a new year-long study that ended June 30, 2009 of more than 25 e-tail web sites by Engine Ready, Inc., a search engine software development firm, found that visitors who clicked through to the sites from paid search ads were ~50% more likely to make a purchase, compared to visitors who came to the same sites via clicking on a natural search link.

Specifically, Engine Ready discovered that the conversion rate from pay-per-click links measured 2.03%, while the conversion rate was only 1.26% from organic search clickthroughs.

On the other hand, various research studies conducted over the past few years demonstrate the clear popularity of natural search listings over paid search listings. It’s been shown pretty consistently that around two thirds of total clicks are made on natural search listings, compared to just one-third on pay-per-click listings.

So the key takeaway is that any marketing program worth its salt incorporates search marketing as a key component. And in most cases, that effort should encompass search engine optimization for natural search rankings along with a pay-per-click advertising program.

Where are B-to-B buyers these days? Online, of course.

Everyone knows that online consumer sales have exploded over the past five years. But what about B-to-B customers? Where are they going when it comes to buying the products they need?

Recent market research reveals that they’re going online, too … and they’re migrating there in a hurry.

In a survey sponsored by MarketingSherpa and ZoomInfo and conducted by Enquiro, a search engine marketing and research firm, a cross-section of B-to-B respondents was asked how they prefer purchasing the items they order all the time for their businesses.

The results were a blowout: nearly two-thirds (63%) prefer to order online. The remaining respondents are divided between preferring to order over the phone and ordering in-person from a sales representative.

Faced with such an overwhelming preference for online buying, the logical follow-up question is whether B-to-B firms are focusing their tactics and allocating resources to online sales in the same proportional effort. In many cases, it’s not even close.

As often as not, B-to-B firms have treated online not as the core of their sales engine, but more like an incremental revenue channel. Frequently, e-business is treated as a separate silo. This makes it less likely for online to interfere (or otherwise cause “issues”) with traditional sales channels. But it also makes it a lot harder for online to be treated with the critical importance that it clearly deserves in today’s sales environment.

And even if B-to-B firms don’t sell directly to end-users but rely on reps, distributors or dealers instead, they need to make sure that their marketing partners are making the necessary investments in online sales functions to support those end-users.

Consider how quickly B-to-B customers have moved online — not only to research products but also to purchase them. By moving too cautiously, B-to-B firms risk being outflanked by Internet “pure plays” — some of which seemingly spring out of nowhere to achieve prominence in only a few short months or years.

To quote a phrase from a nursery rhyme, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick …” Hopefully, you have a Jack (or Jill) in your marketing department already. Now, give them the tools and the resources to succeed.