Prepare to be Found

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Search, website features, testimonials, Yelp and Google Local

By: Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia Inc.

Business leaders hear a lot of different advice about marketing that can leave you scratching your head and feeling it’s impossible to cover all the bases. To make sense out of what you hear, it helps to understand how the dance between a company and its prospective customers has changed in recent years.

The way in which a typical customer chooses which local businesses to patronize has changed so much in recent years that the Harvard Business Review recently published an article entitled Marketing Is Dead. The author, a marketing consultant named Bill Lee (not to be confused with the former Red Sox southpaw), started his provocative piece like this: “Traditional marketing – including advertising, public relations, branding and corporate communications – is dead. Many people in traditional marketing roles and organizations may not realize they’re operating within a dead paradigm. But they are. The evidence is clear.”

He went on to state that buyers are no longer paying much attention to advertising messages. “Several studies have confirmed that in the ‘buyer’s decision journey’ traditional marketing communications just aren’t relevant. Buyers are checking out product and service information in their own way, often through the Internet, and often from sources outside the firm such as word-of-mouth or customer reviews.”

While Lee’s piece mostly describes communications efforts by large corporations and household-name brands, his point is relevant to all industries and niches. The old marketing paradigm in which a company attracts buyers by disseminating an advertising-type message is giving way to a new model.

We can’t throw the old ways under the bus yet, because small-to-medium-sized local businesses still need name recognition, and they can successfully differentiate themselves through advertising with a well-crafted message. At the same time, however, we need to understand the new paradigm and prepare to succeed within it.

Many of today’s customers are weary of the marketing messages that bombard them all day long from every direction. Rather than make their choices based on what companies are telling them, they are taking to the Internet and doing their own research and evaluation to choose their products and services.

This new approach to shopping is highly prevalent. A recent survey by WebVisible and Nielsen/NetRatings indicated that 73 percent of consumers regularly use search engines to find businesses in their local area. A similar study by the Pew Research Center indicated that 47 percent of consumers are most likely to turn to the Internet when seeking information about local businesses. Clearly, this is a trend that marketers in all industries cannot afford to ignore.

To succeed in a world where the consumers are doing the hunting and choosing, companies can employ a variety of strategies that are collectively known as “inbound marketing.” The goals are simple: (a) Help your prospects find you, and (b) make your company the most compelling choice in the market.

How to Be Found

Helping your prospects find you means being visible in the places where they are most likely to look. The most important of these is the first page of search results delivered by Google, Bing, Yahoo or another search engine. If you’re a technologically savvy company, the consumer figures, you’ll appear near the top of the search results. They don’t need to look at the second and third pages of results, they assume, because experience has shown them that the best companies never fall far from the top of the search results.

The struggle for great search performance is nothing new, but the strategies for rising to the top of the results have changed considerably. Companies used to win in the search game with “black hat” tricks like keyword stuffing and hidden text, but Google and the others have slammed those back doors shut.

To connect searchers to the web pages that best match what they are truly seeking, Google has rewritten its search algorithms to put more weight in “white hat” factors, such as the amount of traffic a website receives and how often it is updated.

Driving traffic to your site or making frequent updates might sound daunting until you remember the search engines are comparing your site only to others that also match the searcher’s query. For example, If they are searching for “energy saving appliances” or “heating oil vs. natural gas”, you only have to outperform other relevant sites in your industry, which is a manageable challenge. Plus, the steps you take to drive traffic to your site will also impact your business positively in other ways.

The best way to improve your site’s visitor statistics is to drive your own customers there, which is a smart move in its own right. Install helpful applications such as account lookup, electronic billing and online program enrollment and use an online rewards program to incentivize online self-service. You’ll give your customers the self-serve options and rewards points they crave, and they’ll improve your performance in search by visiting more frequently.

The All-Purpose Tool

Another great tool for improving search performance is a blog, which is the Swiss Army Knife of online marketing tools. When you publish a blog, update it regularly and send readers through your website to get to it, you add serious muscle to your online marketing efforts.

A well-written blog makes great impressions, and it activates your social media campaigns by putting some meat on those bones. Whenever your update your blog, you can announce the new post across your social media channels and give your followers a reason to pay attention and visit your site. All that blog-driven traffic serves to raise your site’s ranking with Google.

Similarly, it pays to have comprehensive listings, complete with maps of your locations, in every online business directory serving your area. The benefits are numerous: it’s another place to be found online; it enriches your presence in search listings with additional results; and it boosts your own site’s search performance.

Describe Everything You Do

There are also important site enhancements that will affect search performance. First, make sure that your site includes a dedicated section about every service you perform and every kind of product you sell, including brand names. Even if you rely on another company to perform a service like home insulation, list it on your site if you can make it happen.

Why list everything? Because customers who search via the Internet often do a lot of research, and they are liable to search with a high degree of specificity. For example, if a prospect wants one contractor who can do heating, cooling and insulation, they might type a search query that includes all three. The search engines are more likely to list you as a provider of a given service if the site includes a dedicated section addressing it. Were you to omit insulation from your website because you rely on a partner to perform the service, they might never find you in their search, or at least not at the top of the results.

In addition to highlighting every service, list every brand you install and name some of the top models under each brand. This will help you attract the customers who has done some research and developed an interest in a particular boiler, furnace or central air system.

Follow through on your website coding too. The search engines read the keyword lists that are coded into the site, so be sure to repeat that important words and phrases there.

Amplify Customer Voices

Making the company easy to find online is half the battle. The second key to successful inbound marketing is making great impressions. That means imbuing your site with a professional tone and feel that instills confidence in consumers. They naturally equate the high-efficiency home comfort they want with advanced technology, so you need to look very capable and knowledgeable.

Many consumers will also be looking for testimonials and reviews of your work. Company reviews are ubiquitous on websites like Yelp and Google Local, and many consumers rely heavily on them when making choices. Gathering and publishing positive reviews from customers should be a top priority, given the importance they play in the buying decision.

If you are confident in the quality of your team’s performance and customer service, claim your listings on Yelp and Google Local and then let your customers know you’re listed there and that you want them to review you. You can also run customer surveys and use the positive feedback you receive for testimonials on your site. Display them prominently, because prospects will be looking for them.

Marketing isn’t dead by any means, but it is evolving quickly, and today’s best practices are very different from those of even five years ago. Shift your priorities to emphasize search, and make your company a beacon for customers seeking a great home comfort provider.

Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full-service Advertising/Integrated Marketing Communications/New Media firm with offices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.