Many beginner marketers launch new performance marketing campaigns without having the fundamentals in place. In doing so, they run the risk of making bad decisions on the long-term potential of an online marketing campaign. This post explores one potential pitfall for marketers in this situation, which I call the "false negative." With a performance marketing "false negative", you might end up killing a promising campaign because of poor initial results. Sometimes (admittedly, a lot of times) online marketing campaigns fail to deliver expected results. When those happen, you want to make sure it's not because of self-inflicted wounds. This post provides some advice to avoid shutting the door on profitable online channels because you weren't prepared to succeed. Your first campaign determines whether or not you'll make a long-term investment in a particular online channel. For small marketers, you don't have the luxury of throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. In the case of online customer acquisition, here are 10 performance marketing best practices you should be following to avoid false negatives: 1. Build Up Your Fundamentals in Online Direct Marketing If online marketing is worth your investment in money, it is worth your investment in time and effort to manage the campaign the right way. For beginner marketers, there are wonderful resources, both free and paid, on traffic acquisition and conversion optimization. I recommend Google AdWords for Dummies by Howie Jacobson (and others) and Landing Page Optimization by Tim Ash as good starting points. The investment in time will translate into immediate returns, in the form of saved marketing dollars. Related: Speak with a marketing consultant and accelerate your performance marketing campaigns today. 2. Set a Budget and Schedule Define the ad spend, number of visitors, number of conversions and duration of time you want to commit to your first campaign. This depends on what kind of marketer you are, and how much runway you have. Are you dipping your toes in the water? Or are you committed to making online marketing work for your business? (Note: It's hard to provide a number, since it depends on your budget. A $1,000 is better than $100 budget, and $10k is better still.) Use those time, metrics and budget constraints as early decision points to assess the health of the campaign. 3. Research Top Online Marketers in Your Space (including your competitors) Learn from the really good online performance marketers (Tweet). This is the great thing about online marketing. It's publicly-accessible. All you need is a computer to see how existing campaigns from other marketers are engaging with online visitors. Study their campaigns, from the ad, to landing page through to conversion funnel. At a previous company, I ran online customer campaigns in the insurance vertical. I studied what the top online marketers in travel were doing (such as Kayak and Expedia). Why travel? There's a ton of online marketing spend, with most of it done online. As a result, the top advertisers in the vertical got there by getting really good. Lastly, learn from your competitors. Take ideas from the ones doing it well. Learn from those that aren't doing well. On a limited budget with limited rope to work with, you can gain a head-start on your campaigns by piggy-backing off the work of others who are leading the pack. 4. Define Your Marketing Goal In performance marketing, your goal is presumably to get your prospect to do something on your website. Make sure you know what that action is initiating the campaign. It can be to generate a lead, phone call, signup, online purchase, video view, download or something else. Understanding your online marketing goal allows you to create a defined conversion path on your website with the goal in mind. Set observable campaign goals before you launch a campaign, whether it is cost-per-lead, revenue-per-click, revenue-per-visitor or something else (Tweet). When it comes time to making a go/no-go decision on further investment in the campaign (covered below), you want to know where to benchmark your actual results. Related: KPI 101: A Primer on Selecting Key Performance Indicators 5. Run Targeted Campaigns In performance marketing, you're not trying to attract everyone to your website and offer. You're trying to attract the right ones. This point is especially true if you're paying on a cost-per-click basis. ROI positive campaigns generally take a "high resolution" approach to online marketing, where you are targeting a specific message to a targeted group of in-market consumers. The more precise you are, the more effective your campaigns will be and the higher your conversion rates. Unlike brand advertising, the goal of a performance marketing campaign is not "reach", but rather the direct marketing goals you set out (Tweet This). This only increases the probability of success in your campaigns. 6. Use Landing Pages While it's easiest to send traffic to your homepage, seriously consider a landing page for paid campaigns. Homepages have a different purpose than campaign landing pages. Homepages are more geared towards greeting versus selling. A landing page can be much more direct, leading to better conversion rates. Landing page builders such as Unbounce and Lander allow you to build landing pages without developers and designers (This These Tools). At a previous company, I ran campaigns initially to a homepage, and saw 40% conversion rates. Running the same campaign to the search-centric landing page, I saw conversion rates closer to 65%. Related: 7 Ways to Maximize Your Website for Lead Engagement One last note, make sure there is a call-to-action on the landing page that is visible, and that corresponds with the marketing goals you have set forth. For lead-generation campaigns, take a proactive approach to your contact forms and lead capture experiences. 7. Build an Intuitive Conversion Experience Once you've defined your online marketing goal (as reference above), create a conversion path on your website with the goal in mind. Before launching, go through usability testing. This might sound fancy, but to get started all you have to do is get opinions from people who might be your potential customers. Show them your paid conversion path, and ask them if it's clear what to do at each step. If an average visitor comes to the conversion path, and doesn't know what to do next, then you need to keep working at it. 8. Track Your Results Track anything that contributes to your marketing goals (Tweet This). While I am simplifying what is done in professional marketing teams (attribution methods is a more complex topic for marketers), make sure there is some attribution of results back to your performance marketing campaign. Use conversion tracking, starting with Google Analytics. If you count an inbound phone call as a conversion goal, use call tracking as part of your conversion tracking. With your marketing goals defined, create a KPI (key performance indicator) report. Left-side will be the cost of traffic (i.e., what you're investing), and the right-side is what you're receiving (leads, revenue, sign-ups, etc.) 9. Make Improvements On-the-Go This is where you act quickly using the early performance metrics. Tackle the lowest hanging fruit first, the ones that are easiest to improve and will result in the largest gains. The only good news about being early in running in campaigns is that it's easier to achieve material gains. Find those quickly, and prove out the viability of the channel. Also, make use of marketing tools that do the work of people. For example, Optimizely and Visual Website Optimizer have made it easier to run low-touch optimization experiments, and achieve some of those quick wins (Tweet These Tools). 10. Make an Informed Go/No-Go Decision At the end of all this, you'll need to make a decision whether A) the campaign is on the right track, and only incremental refinements are needed, B) the campaign needs either fundamental re-thinking, or C) is not worth further investment. If you were a bigger company, you'd probably have a larger sample and more ability to keep pushing if the answer isn't apparent. You also might employ formal statistical modeling as well to improve your level of certainty, but most small businesses aren't going to have that luxury. Smaller companies are more at risk of the "false negative" than bigger companies. Without the resources of bigger companies (such as a dedicated marketing team), you have to adapt to what you have, making the best guesses using the little resources you have. As a result, smaller companies on smaller budgets need to make an educated first guesses. At least with an approach like this one, if the answer is B, the likelihood of a false negative is diminished. Howard Yeh is co-founder of ContactUs.com, a software-as-a-service platform providing advanced contact forms, live chat, lead capture and lead management solutions for businesses. Howard Yeh has been in the online lead generation business for over a decade, as a venture capital investor, entrepreneur and performance marketer. He co-founded ContactUs.com in 2012. He was previously co-founder and COO of BrokersWeb, an insurance-focused performance marketing company which was twice named to the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies in 2010 and 2011 until a successful sale. Read the ContactUs.com customer acquisition blog for more tips on converting your website traffic into leads and sales.