Every business needs to have a fundamental digital infrastructure in place to effectively communicate with buyers in all stages of the buying process. Some businesses more than others: for example, if you sell merchandise online, you will need to make a larger investment into your digital operations.
These are not advertising tactics. This infrastructure is just like any physical space you rent or own to conduct business—only it’s virtual space. Anything beyond what I describe here becomes advertising. A website is not advertising; it is a tool (a virtual address) that enhances your advertising. Optimizing your websites so search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.) and their mapping services can help people locate your business is not advertising—it’s making sure you can be discovered in what serves today as the new White Pages of the phone book (and unfortunately, Google doesn’t list everyone’s business in alphabetical order).
The word digital encompasses many different tactics and products. Most local businesses have already made the necessary digital investments: a robust website full of helpful content, the basics of search optimization and search engine marketing, some way of contributing compelling content via social media (if necessary) and monitoring review sites, and customer relation management software (CRM).
Therefore, the investments you make in this digital infrastructure should not come from (or dilute) your advertising budget. They are more like capital expenditures just like rent, equipment, signage, and remodeling. And in each case below, you should seek a trusted, reliable third-party vendor to manage each of these functions, just as you do with other large capital expenditures.
Your website. Your site should be friendly to every conceivable browser (Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc.) and platform (desktop, mobile, tablet), and should contain foundational advice and content to aid potential customers in their decision-making process. The more your site helps through its content, the better it ranks in the world of search engines. Try to emulate a successful business like yours in another market, one you admire. Even better, hire their vendor. Simply put, your website should work to capture leads and move a customer toward a sale just as a salesperson would.
Search engines and maps. The single most successful tactic for search engine success is making sure people know who you are and what you do before they go to a search engine seeking information about your category of business. Pretty simple. There are three primary search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo), and if your website is built and managed properly, you should show up in organic searches for your products and services. Each of the main search engines has a popular mapping service and identifies your business by location. This is very critical, because so many people rely on mapping services to go anywhere. Your developer needs to make sure your business is listed on all the mapping services (don’t forget Apple) and that your website is geographically targeted to prospects and customers in your primary trade area.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is different from Search Engine Marketing (SEM), which involves purchasing keywords that potential customers might use when searching for your product. To use the phone book as an example, SEO is a bit like the White Pages, in that customers know what they want but don’t want advertising to guide their decisions; it’s a search for credible research. SEM is more like the Yellow Pages: these are ads meant to guide you toward a particular business.
I believe a certain level of SEM should be a part of your overall search strategy—if you sell apples, it’s a good idea to serve ads to people searching for apples. But numerous businesses get carried away with search engine marketing, giving this tactic far too much credit for influencing the purchasing decision (something called last-click attribution). Simply put, this is attributing all credit for a sale (or lead) to search engines, because it’s the last place someone visited before making a purchase or providing you with contact information—when in reality, numerous other marketing tactics likely influenced their decision making. Think of it this way: when you go out to dinner, the decision on where to eat is made before you arrive at the restaurant. Last-click attribution would be like giving the restaurant’s physical sign all the credit for your choosing to eat there, because it’s the last thing you saw as you entered the restaurant.
Social media and review sites like Yelp. The great thing about social media is that if you continually please your customers in ways they want to share and brag about, then you have the potential of replacing much of your paid advertising. St. Elmo’s Steakhouse, a 100-plus-year-old institution in Indianapolis, is a good example of a business that doesn’t need to do a lot of paid advertising and is thriving through the use of social media. One of the world’s most successful restaurants, it provides customers with a first-class dining experience, serving food so delicious that even celebrities make it a point to visit. (St. Elmo’s is famous for shrimp cocktails smothered in the hottest cocktail sauce you will ever taste. Prepared with freshly ground horseradish, this sauce will make your mouth burn and eyes water, yet you’ll crave more.)
Customers are encouraged (and willing) to share their experience on all forms of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. If yours is not a St. Elmo’s type of business that can elicit this type of response, or create fans, then your social media efforts could backfire. Customers could complain, their complaints could become viral, or even worse—internet trolls (people who have nothing better to do than bitching online) could pile on and make it their job to bully you. You must weigh these risks when entering this space and determine whether you want to invest in producing interesting content.
If your business interacts with a lot of customers, there probably is some type of rating site where customers are invited to share their experience with your service or product. You need a good third-party vendor who will develop a system to engage existing and new customers and encourage them to give positive reviews on sites like Google and Yelp. My advice here: get used to not pleasing everyone (unless you can deliver service like the previously mentioned St. Elmo’s Steakhouse). Bad customers will get good, reasonable, and even superior service and still find reasons to complain. Someone on your management team (or you) should have the responsibility of managing a vendor who will respond and resolve all complaints posted online. A quick response and resolution go a long way at proving you are paying attention to customer feedback.
Customer relationship marketing software. Every business needs a way to record customers’ contact information into a digital database—for the purposes of future marketing communications—by capturing their physical address (direct mail), email address (email marketing), and phone number (telemarketing). How elaborate this system is depends on the size of your business. It can be as simple as MailChimp (an entry-level, free email marketing service), a higher-level product like Infusionsoft or HubSpot, or a customized system from a company like Salesforce. Bottom line: your database will become one of your most valuable assets, with the potential to reap additional sales and referrals, and even to sell or rent your list to other marketers.