How Local Businesses Can Win with Search

Local is a pretty sexy play right now for start-ups and behemoths alike. One of the reasons it's so alluring is because it keeps getting more complex the more time we spend with it; kind of like the '82 Bordeaux, or the date you picked up at the library.

But the key to really unlocking this gem might lie in appreciating the four faces of local, and more importantly, recognizing how these four elements must work together. A lot of entrants in the online local marketing space are concentrating on just one or two. The real winners might be those who figure out a way to touch all the bases.

The real marketing day in the life of a local business
Although it doesn't seem to be a prerequisite for getting into the local marketing game, imagine for a moment that you're a local business owner. Let's say it's a bricks-and-mortar business. There are a few million of them out there. Pick one.

Now this is probably your deal. You're likely an established local business. Most Main Street bricks-and-mortar businesses are. (There are probably more new local marketing service providers than there are new local businesses.) You probably haven't yet launched an online marketing plan, but you're told by a lot of strangers that you should.

Here's how your business makes money. It tries to stay top-of-mind among customers in your service area. You do things to keep customers coming back and to draw customers away from competitors. Your establishment stays top-of-mind by advertising on local broadcast stations or in daily newspapers or community weeklies.

To entice customers away from competitors, you dabble in direct marketing. I say dabble because each effort inevitably gets different results. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. You experiment with different offers, different messages and different content. Sometimes you stuff menus in doors. Sometimes you print a card with a special offer so you can measure results. (Like "content," metrics also existed before the internet.)

You have probably tended to spend marketing and advertising money with companies you know: the local media, the printer down the street, maybe the Yellow Pages rep that pays you a visit every year. 

When it comes to paying for marketing and advertising, you consider yourself a customer. Like the customers you serve, you probably expect some level of service yourself. In fact, it's nice to be served once in a while.

So now you need an online marketing plan. Are you going to change, or are they?

The three prongs of local
The marketing day in the life of a local business highlights four key elements: brand building, traffic building, trust and service. Here's how they translate online:

  • Brand building: Local businesses need to stay top-of-mind among customers who may not be looking for their products or services at that particular time. As it is modeled now, online search doesn't build top-of-mind awareness. A small business owner might even argue that good brand-building eliminates the need to play in search. The search engines haven't engaged in that dialogue, for obvious reasons. Small businesses will look to local online destinations where they can expose their brand, even if visitors aren't looking at the time. Most people don't turn on the TV to buy a car or switch insurance companies, but it's a big source of their brand awareness.
  • Traffic building: Local bricks-and-mortar businesses need feet in the store. To get feet in the store, they experiment. They learn. They experiment some more. Online, they're going to seek marketing platforms that enable them to test special offers or coupons, to target current customers versus new customers -- or vice versa -- and to see what kind of content resonates. Is it a photo of a well-set restaurant table, or the menu, or pictures of the staff? Is it a message from the owner or testimonials from patrons?
    Online marketing service providers who try to say that only consumer reviews matter, or that only directory information matters, will face a lot of virtual blank stares from local business owners. What if small business owners aren't so concerned with awareness (helping customers "find" them, virtually or otherwise) but rather with creating a sense of urgency and engagement with customers who already know who, what and where they are.
  • Trust: Anyone who has tried to sell anything to a local business owner will know how important trust is in building a relationship. Ironically (or not), it's probably easier to sell a six-figure technology solution to a Fortune 500 IT buyer without any human contact at all than it is to try to sell a $200 telephone system upgrade to a small business owner without a human hand shake. Many small local business owners are hesitant to establish online storefronts because they're afraid they'll lose connection with their customers. Will they feel the same way as customers themselves when it comes to online marketing programs?
  • Service: Small business owners are busy people. Imagine how they must react to the phrase "self service." Imagine further if they have to travel up a fairly significant learning curve just to tap into the self-service offering. Here's the quandary for online marketing service providers: Can small business owners be drawn into a self-service offering, and if not, will the level of service required to both acquire and retain local businesses be scaleable? 

Who will win?
Against these long established four pillars of local business marketing, current concepts like local search and local directories seem, well, incomplete. The same goes with mapping tools and click-to-call. How would each stack up against the four small business marketing imperatives? And perhaps more provocatively, how many of them presume that a business' main concern is to be "found," as opposed to engaging with locals who already know the who, what and where?

The future may feature a battle not just among the major search engines and local ad networks, but between the underdog traditional local media properties and the "national" search and ad network plays trying to live locally. Have local media properties undervalued their service and trust advantage in the local advertising space? Can the search engines and directories find a way to combine a brand building/traffic building message that has long been espoused by the traditional local media in their offline sales strategies, and can perhaps be retranslated online?

When players in the local online marketing space start focusing on touching all the bases, that's when things will really get interesting.

David Vazdauskas is president of Victory Branding, a marketing consultancy focused on the media and technology sectors. Read full bio.

 

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