Use Next-Generation Web Solutions to Distance Yourself From the Field

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By: Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia Inc.

Success in local business means building your customer base, and the Internet is the premier venue for fueling growth. Survey upon survey shows that consumers turn to the Web, and specifically Google, when looking for local services, and they prefer companies that provide a superior online experience.

This is good news for marketers who have the drive and the resources to capitalize on their online opportunities. By creating a far-reaching, impressive and convenient Internet presence, you can differentiate yourself from competitors to such a degree that local consumers will easily find you and identify you as the leading provider.

Evidence of the Internet’s central role in local commerce continues to mount. A recent BIA/Kinsey survey showed that 90 percent of consumers use search engines when researching products or services locally. Another survey, the Local Search Association’s Local Media Tracking Study, indicates that three-quarters of consumers have used search engines in the past year to find local businesses. And a survey conducted by this year shows that 59 percent of consumers use Google each month to find a good local business.

BIA/Kinsey’s Director of Research, Steve Marshall, summarized his company’s findings: “The Internet has indeed become an integral part of consumers’ local commercial activity. The data suggest we’re at an inflection point where the balance of power in local shopping is shifting to online.”

Customers Will Pay for a Good Experience

The surveys also indicate that customers are looking to upgrade their experience. The Customer Experience Report conducted by Harris Interactive showed that customer experience plays a significant role in determining where consumers choose to shop and how much they are willing to spend. Eighty-five percent of respondents to the Harris survey said they would be willing to pay more than the standard price of a good or service to ensure a superior customer experience. Fifty-five percent said they would pay 10 percent more, and 27 percent said they’d be willing to pay 15 percent more.

Similarly, a study by Aberdeen Group found that best-in-class customer experience organizations have 75% greater customer retention and 65% better customer satisfaction than the average company. Moreover, companies that pay attention to the customer experience get more customers, too, with over 300% more leads in their sales pipeline that result in closed business.

These days, you can provide a website that rides like a premium roller coaster. Customers can order online, review their account details, enroll in programs – all the while earning loyalty points toward merchandise and services they truly appreciate. Offer a great ride, and premium-minded customers will prefer you to your competitors.

Demonstrate Your Capabilities

Customers might not expect enterprise-class e-commerce from a local home comfort company, but they’d like to get their money’s worth. They’re spending thousands of dollars a year on heat alone, and they appreciate all the service and convenience that you can provide.

They also want to be convinced of your technological savvy. A central premise of our industry’s value is that we offer advanced solutions for energy conservation. Consciously or unconsciously, customers will make inferences about a company’s capabilities and competence based on how they use technology online. Building strong functionality into the company website sends excellent signals about the work you do.

It’s not just the technology itself that impresses customers, it’s also the convenience and value that you add to the customer experience. When a company makes it easy to do meaningful business online, they offer the customer more for their money.

An energy marketer has two primary requirements when it comes to their online presence: high visibility and a compelling presentation. Visibility online requires excellent search performance, which is delivered by the website (including behind-the scenes coding) and social media activity. Once customers find the website, they should form a highly favorable impression that makes the company appear exceptional. In home comfort, it’s good to be perceived as smart, dedicated, sophisticated, forward thinking and friendly.

Take a Full-Circle View

At PriMedia, we advocate an integrated approach to online marketing that we call Web360. We believe the role of the marketing agency is to provide a broad range of Internet strategies and tools and help clients to select the products and services that directly support their particular goals and aspirations. No two companies are the same, and every marketing program should be unique.

We look beyond first-generation and second-generation Internet services to a new wave of solutions that deliver next-level convenience and value. Companies don’t need to use every available tool, but they should evaluate them all in the context of their own competitive environment.

Here is a quick overview of online solutions that can help differentiate a company from the field.

Website design and optimization:

A company’s website is a vital asset, and you can raise your profile by making your site an exceptional source of information and convenience. The company site is often the first impression for a new prospect and the resource they use to vet you and compare you to the competition. It is a 24-hour salesman that promotes the company’s products, services and benefits. The website should be updated regularly so it feels timely and well maintained, and the writing should convey a voice of confidence and authority. Visitors should find information resources that address all their questions, as well as timely coupons and special offers.

Visitors are not the only audience, however. The site also needs to communicate effectively with Google and other search engines through behind-the-scenes coding known as search engine optimization (SEO). Designing and coding the site effectively for the search engines places your site higher in search results so that visitors find the company quickly when performing any relevant search. High visibility is a must, and comprehensive SEO makes it happen. When you publish a website that is easy to find and puts your company in an excellent light, your chances for growth and prosperity multiply.

Social media integration:

Expert SEO is essential, but it is not a total solution for maximum visibility. To take your visibility to the next level, it is essential to generate multiple listings that appear high in the search results. New listings result when a company interacts on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and claims listings in local search directories and review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List. Instead of finding only the company website, a prospect using a search engine sees your name repeatedly in different listings, so you appear to be everywhere.

A blog on the company website works very effectively with social media, because every blog post can lead to an update on Facebook and Twitter and create more potential search results for the company. Social media also generates more website traffic, which leads to better search performance. Just being present on Facebook and Twitter is not enough, however; you must master the medium by providing interesting information and speaking in a friendly voice. Only then will you truly engage people and leverage the power of social media influence, which is much like traditional word of mouth.

Customer Account Lookup:

If you’re adding just one premium convenience to your site this year, customer account lookup is an excellent choice. You’ll create a large-company customer experience, make your website their website, and provide the kind of openness and control that online consumers expect. Without even building a new website, you can add a portal where customers can check their balances and account histories, use a budget plan calculator, schedule a delivery or service call, and make online payments.

Once you make account lookup available, you can promote it aggressively within your base to strengthen existing relationships. At the same time, highlight the new service prominently on your home page so that prospects can be impressed by your commitment to convenience. The customer portal that you create will also become a vital marketing tool, where you can take advantage of the high customer traffic volume with timely seasonal promotions, social media tie-ins, and program announcements.

A online loyalty rewards program that makes customers stick:

When your website offers the opportunity to redeem loyalty points for an iPad or a wide-screen TV, you tap the kind of motivation that can make customers rush to do business with you. Rewards programs are everywhere, and they work because many consumers are “points junkies” who want extra value in return for all the money they spend.

Each company sets its own rules and guidelines for awarding and redeeming points. It makes sense to use rewards points as currency with your customers – offering extra points as incentives and making spontaneous awards to appease a customer or close a deal. Integrating a robust rewards program with a strong back-end system is straightforward, and once the program is up-and-running, it is virtually automatic. For companies that are diversifying, rewards points make a great incentive for customers to try new services.

By creating a rewards program with a large-company feel, attractive rewards items, and an online portal for tracking and redemption, you make your company “stickier” than the competition. Your customers have a new reason to stay with you – and to loosen their purse strings and finally make that overdue system upgrade.

The security of signed contracts and the flexibility to enroll anytime:

Using the Internet to facilitate your price protection enrollment is beneficial to your bottom line and convenient for your customers. You make price protection easier to use, shorten the window for leaving price offers on the table, and speed contract completion. In addition to those important company benefits, you’ll satisfy customers by delivering the kind of instantaneous resolution that major e-commerce vendors have led them to expect. Prospects and customers will appreciate your commitment to advanced online convenience and draw positive inferences about the company.

Paperless billing with infinite possibilities:

Electronic billing is a standard option that most large companies offer. By making it available to your base, you appear larger and stronger while improving your green credentials. A commitment to sound environmental practices through technology (paperless billing) is a nice image enhancer for a company that promotes conservation through advanced technological solutions. By implementing paperless billing and promoting it effectively, you’ll make it easy for consumers to differentiate between you and the rest of the field. You’ll also see your bottom line improve because a premium paperless program combines bill production, printing, stuffing, mailing, e-mailing and marketing in one neat package. As customers gravitate towards e-billing, you’ll spend less on postage and printing, and customers will be able to pay you more quickly.

Paperless billing is great for your marketing, because you can put timely announcements on your e-bills that contain direct links to web pages where customers can learn about new products and services, print coupons, and enroll in company programs. The Internet is a great venue for cross marketing, and paperless billing is an excellent vehicle for connecting customers to products and services that they have not tried.

The Internet is where local commerce happens and where today’s consumers get their word of mouth. Companies that open their minds, embrace the medium, and master the intricacies of social media marketing will enlist customers that their rivals never even knew were available.

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.