Out of the Jungle and Onto the Web

Coudray describes how to strengthen your online marketing and improve your standing in search-engine results.

We registered our first domain name, coudray.com, in 1997. Back then, Internet marketing was simply putting up a Website and scoring all kinds of business. The attitude was, “If you build it, they will come.” It didn’t work out quite that way for most companies.

First-generation Websites weren’t much more than static brochures on the Internet. They were designed in much the same way as traditional media. The results were about the same as well. Starting in late 1997 or so, we began seeing dynamic Websites that changed based on user interaction—amazon.com, buy.com, Travelocity, and so forth. These were big B2C sites with lots of venture-capital money behind their dot-com-bubble growth.

These sites had the money to program relational databases to deliver pages based on what the consumer looked at or bought. The classic example is the Amazon page that recommends selections based on what others who made the same purchase also bought.

I distinctly remember the fever pitch of the dot-com boom in our industry. The buzz was around the collaborative portal with companies like Noosh and Impresse. They sought to redefine the buying workflow for graphics purchases. Their objective was to create a wide funnel to feed and develop orders across the Internet while dramatically reducing the cost to acquire each sale. They also sought to speed up the overall transaction process.

It was a time of lots of experimentation and few successes. By 2000-2001, the Web was beginning to change—the effects are still with us today. We began to see highly targeted niche sites appear that focused on improving the buyer experience. The low-hanging fruit was to buy it cheaper on the Internet.

Customers in local markets could now search the Web for comparable product at much lower prices, or so the theory was. The Internet competitors aimed to streamline their business, stripping out unnecessary overhead and passing the savings onto the customers. In the meantime, they could further subsidize their overhead by selling ad space on their highly trafficked Websites. This spawned the rise of the Web-to-print model we see virtually everywhere in our industry today. Companies like Café Press, Zazzle, and Vista Print fall into this category.

A second effect was also at work. This was the redefining of the role of the producer in the equation. Many, but not all, of the Web-to-print companies were—and are—brokers. They’ve established regional manufacturing arrangements with existing producers. They are effectively taking over the marketing function and simply providing job flow to the printers. Of course, the margins on these jobs is much lower, but the producing companies aren’t doing as much of the work.

This has worked relatively well for those companies for the last eight or nine years, but there’s a sea change happening right now. External factors are coming into play that will allow local companies to regain ground lost to these national and international Internet-based companies.

It’s no surprise to anyone that traditional media like newspapers, magazines, television, and radio have all lost ground to digital advertising and marketing media. Traditional directory advertising has taken a huge hit as more and more companies drop their advertising in this area as well.

Changing approaches to buying
Three major events have taken place over the last two years that will affect your business moving forward. The first is the rise of the smart phone and the introduction of local search marketing. Google recognizes this and now the results of Google Places often will control more than half the search results of page one for a local search.

The second factor is the migration online of the traditional print directories. Yellow Pages is now yellowpages.com. There are superpages.com, yp.com, citysearch.com, merchantcircle.com, manta.com, hotfrog.com, and so on. In markets where local companies have done a poor job of search-engine optimization (SEO), the entire results of a local search for the first page of Google will be made up of Google Places results and directory results.

The third factor—and this is huge—is the consumer trend to search online but buy locally. Here are some of the recent (December 2010) results of several prominent online surveys. According to Yahoo Local, as of the end of last year, 97% of consumers started their searches for local purchases online. For all small businesses, according to Discover, 45% still don’t have a Website. The same survey reveals that these businesses feel it is a myth that it’s necessary to have a site because their market is local and they know the people locally.

Gartner, Inc. reports that in 2010, 70% of social-media programs failed because businesses had no idea of how to incorporate them into their marketing or how to measure the results. The same report goes on to say that within five years, 70% of collaboration and communication applications will be on smart phones (can you say App Store?) and will be designed specifically to communicate user experience.

A clear picture should develop when you consider all three of these major factors. Consumers today want the best deal, but they want to shop locally. Past motivation to buy on the Internet came from local companies doing a poor job of being findable in their own markets. Between Google and the directories, local companies are being pushed off the first page search results.

The single biggest factor in having a local customer make the decision to buy locally appears to be consumer reviews and comments. Sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, RipOffReport, and BizBuzzzReport.com let consumers review and post their experiences with local companies, good or bad. There’s an entire industry growing up around these review sites, the Online Reputation Management Industry.

The growth of these sites comes because 78% of consumers trust consumer reviews over company advertising (16%). Wow! No matter what we say on our Websites, the consumer sees it as hype and unbelievable. Yet, when it comes to credible testimonials and unbiased reviews, most people trust the consumer-based reviews.

You can help yourself a great deal by joining the Better Business Bureau and taking part in their BBB Online Program. This program allows you to put a BBBOnline badge on your site and it links directly back to their site where you are rated on an A+ to F basis. You can also take part in ETrust or McAffee HackerSafe programs to add further credibility.

There are three things you can do, relatively painlessly, to improve your local position in the search results dramatically. The first is to claim your business on Google Places. This is free and only takes a few minutes. When someone searches for “custom T-shirt printer Dallas” your results will pop up on a Google Map as a pin with a letter from A-G. Your place in the list depends on how complete your profile is and the relevance of your chosen keywords.

Second, fill out as many free local directory listings as you can. They aren’t hard to find. Make your profiles standard across all directory listings. Make sure all the information in the listing is accurate, spelled properly, and is consistent from directory to directory. You won’t be the only one in the directory, but you will be the most complete. Make certain you include a valid URL (http://www.yourcompany.com format) link in your directory summary.

Third, begin to ask your customers to put up a review of your performance on Yelp, Angie’s List, or whatever local review sites you can find. Get listed on BBBOnline. This can have a huge impact (positive or negative) on your business.

A word of caution, if you’re worried about what consumers will say about you, it would be a good idea to look carefully at how you do business and what causes your customers to be unhappy with you. If you’re late on delivery, or you don’t keep your promises, fix the problems before they start showing up on the review pages. You have no control over who posts reviews and consumers know they can punish you with a negative review if you don’t treat them right.

You may find there are already some unkind reviews about you out there. It’s not the end of the world. Consumers aren’t that obsessed with finding all positive reviews. They are more concerned with how you handle the situation when things don’t go right. What do you do to make the situation right? Do you have guarantees? How do you stand behind your work? That’s much more important than an angry customer ranting about you.

There’s another very interesting thing that happens when you ask for reviews. Your good customers will stand up for you when someone goes off the deep end. If the negative review is truly an abnormal situation, your supporters will rally on your behalf. I’ve seen it happen over and over.

It isn’t too often that we see market conditions shift away from us, and then return in our favor. That’s exactly what’s happening now. Consumers really do want to put a face with the order. They really do want to do business locally, but they want to do it on their terms and they want to do it with confidence. When you recognize these facts, it’s pretty easy for you to make a few small changes and experience a big advantage back in your direction.

Mark A. Coudray is president of Coudray Graphic Technologies, San Luis Obispo, CA. He has served as a director of (SGIA) and as chairman of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology. Coudray has authored more than 250 papers and articles over the last 20 years, and he received the SGIA’s Swormstedt Award in 1992 and 1994. He can be reached via e-mail at coudray@coudray.com.
 

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