A few weeks into the COVID-19 Pandemic and the world was terrified, the news everywhere is bad, nobody can go to work, and most businesses had to close their doors to the public. I was confined to my home and faced with the reality that I can’t go out to eat anymore.
I eat out everyday, sometimes for every meal; it’s convenient, it tastes better than anything I can cook at home, and I hate doing the dishes. There are several restaurants I visit weekly, I casually know the people who work there … I’m a regular. And in Indianapolis where I live, the city had turned into a food mecca, with an explosion of local entrepreneurs introducing new culinary delights alongside the hum drum chain restaurants.
I try to support local restaurants whenever possible, often at extra expense and effort. I believe the food is better, and the people involved show a higher-level of engagement with their customers, they share a mission. I grew up working in a local restaurant, where I started as a busboy and dishwasher.
When restaurants had to shut their doors and serve only through carry-out or delivery, it had a devastating impact on their business. Thousands of employees were laid off, sales plummeted, people on social media are urged me to buy large quantities of gift cards just to help out.
But what’s really surprising to me was … of the 3 or 4 restaurants I frequented weekly … plus the 30 or 40 other restaurants I’ve visited in the past year, only two restaurants reached out to me directly during this pandemic. And those two were the national chains Jimmy John’s and Chipotle. Jimmy John’s even sent me a coupon for a free sandwich on my birthday.
Not one of my favorite local restaurants, all successfully run by talented, hardworking entrepreneurs, bothered to send a single piece of direct communication telling me how I could still purchase food. Some threw in the towel, applied for government aid, and temporarily closed their doors.
To me, what the COVID pandemic did was expose the marketing flaws in many local businesses. And that may seem like a cold thing to say during a tragic moment in history, but there are businesses in almost every category still thriving during this pandemic. And they thrive in part because they haven’t abandoned evergreen marketing practices – like having a direct line of communication to their customers.
Thinking back, I realized none of the local restaurants ever bothered to capture my contact information. No email, no physical address, no phone number, nothing. Nor did they remind me about their gift cards for sale during the holidays, or ever try to sell me a dessert or cup of coffee after a meal. They simply overlooked – or didn’t grasp – the benefit of building a customer database, or in trying to maximize the value of my recurring visits.
I discovered that my favorite restaurants were updating their followers on a variety of social media platforms, and let me emphasize the word followers, who may or may not be customers, there is no way for social media to distinguish who is a regular customer from a bad-tipping tourist.
Anybody can be a follower, or a fan, but customers are different. They shouldn’t have to do all of the work to find out how you are conducting business. They deserve and appreciate to be touched directly through old-fashioned things like coupons in the mail, or promotional letters or postcards, and timely personalized emails. And they don’t mind if you try to up-sell them on other products and services, because they already like your other products and services! Direct communication helps your business bond with customers, the same way it does in your personal life.
Imagine how your family and friends would respond if you only talked to them through Facebook? Probably not well.
This lack of fundamental marketing prowess extends beyond restaurants to every kind of local business. I had a hair appointment scheduled a few days before the Governor shut down the local economy. I felt lucky to sneak in a haircut before my barbershop had to shut their doors. But when I arrived, I found a locked door with a note taped to it urging me to visit their Facebook page for further updates. Sure, I’ll do all the work.
Look, I get that the COVID pandemic was (and still is) a unique and serious situation, there is real danger to everyone’s health, but how hard would it have been to send me an email, a text, or call me – a long-time customer who tips well and had a scheduled appointment that day?
Not hard, and as I write this, businesses are gradually re-opening and I still haven’t heard from a single one of the local businesses I frequent about how they plan on serving customers moving forward.
Guess I’ll have to go find their Facebook pages, or choose somewhere else to take my business.
Entrepreneurs are increasingly influenced, overwhelmed, distracted and seduced by the latest digital or social media craze. Remember Groupon, or My Space?
There is enormous pressure for entrepreneurs to comply with these fads from peers, employees, investors, banks, trade publications, the press, family members, even customers.
“Guard your money and time against individual or mass delusion, blindly following popular fads or false prophets or seductive fiction and insist on evidence. Invest prudently. Be an independent thinker.” The Ultimate Marketing Plan, 4th Edition, by Dan S. Kennedy
If you are an entrepreneur, and for example, know more about internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk than marketing expert Dan S. Kennedy, a best-selling author, strategic advisor, consultant, business coach and editor of six business newsletters, then you are missing out on some of the most practical, actionable, time-tested, proven marketing advice that can be applied to any kind of business.
I have good news for all entrepreneurs, you can, and should, be wary of the herd mentality when it comes to the latest marketing fads; ignore the self-anointed digital and social media “experts”, who claim offline marketing to be obsolete, who’s advice will yield nothing more than fleeting likes from UN-targeted followers, rather than a steady stream of loyal paying customers in a local retail economy.
Believe me when I say most local retail businesses could withdraw from the social and digital advertising world entirely; and it wouldn’t impact their business one bit. They wouldn’t miss a beat, and it would buy them more time to focus on what measurably DOES work.
In fact, ignoring the herd mentality will become your competitive edge, because focusing more attention directly on paying customers will help you build a stronger bond than any of your national and e-commerce competitors can build. This bond, and your customer base, will become the most valuable equity in your business.
The REALITY OF DIGITAL MEDIA
Every business needs to have a fundamental digital infrastructure in place to effectively communicate with buyers in all stages of their buying process. Some businesses more than others: for example, if you sell merchandise on your website, you will need to make a larger investment into your digital operations.
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 web developer. Simply put, your website should work to capture leads and move a customer toward a sale just as a salesperson would. If it’s a brochure, you’re wasting money.
Search engines and maps. There are three primary search engines; Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Each has popular mapping and business listings that can identify your business by location and type of product or service.
This is critical, because so many people rely on search engines for just about any type of information. Your web developer should list your business on all mapping services for each search engines so when people search for your product or service—in your geographical area—you should organically appear in the results. The search engines won’t do this work for you.
There are two types of “search” marketing tactics—SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, and SEM, or Search Engine Marketing.
SEO is a bit like the white pages in a telephone book, people know what they’re looking for—whether it’s specifically your business or your product and service— and want a list of options or information. If your website is built properly as described earlier, you should show up in these types of relevant searches.
SEM involves purchasing keywords customers use when searching for your product or service. Using the phone book as an example again, SEM is more like the yellow pages where people are open to letting advertising guide them through the decision-making process.
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 it’s easy to get carried away with SEM and SEO and give search marketing too much credit for driving people to your business—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 the customer visited before engaging with your business—when in reality numerous other marketing tactics probably 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 choosing to eat there, because it’s the last thing you viewed before entering 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.
Customers are encouraged (and willing) to share their experience on all forms of social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If yours is not a St. Elmo’s type of business that can elicit this type of response, or create fans, or produce visually stunning images of delicious food, 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 complain online) could pile on and bully you.
Why would you want to publicize, or give a forum to inevitable complaints people may have about your type of business? In essence, for most local businesses, social media becomes a public complaint box. You must weigh these risks before investing in this space.
Greg Hubler, the owner of the local Ford and Hyundai dealership in Muncie, Indiana, just opened a beautiful new building to house his Ford store. He spent millions of dollars, the project took years to fund, plan and finally construct. The design reflects Ford’s entire history of experience and research into what customers want in a shopping experience.
Yet here is a recent review from a customer on a social media review site, giving Hubler Ford a 1 out of 5 stars: “Pleasant employees. Quick Service. The new facility is pretty awful. Ugly, cold, and gray punctuated with small “pops” of orange that some decorator must have told them was cool. The “quiet room” furniture was not comfortable, and the room was far from quiet. Loud country sounding music seeping in and making it hard to read my book. Another customer agreed with me. So glad my recall didn’t take too long. I still love Fords.”
If your business interacts with a lot of retail customers, like a restaurant, there are rating services where customers are invited to share their experience about your service or product. You need a good third-party vendor—or an employee assigned to this specific role of monitoring reviews on a daily basis.
My advice here: Get used to not pleasing everyone. Customers can get good, reasonable, and even superior service and still find reasons to complain online. Someone needs to respond and resolve all complaints immediately. A quick sincere response is often all it takes to resolve any issue and keep a customer
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 KEAP, 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.
As the world emerges from the greatest economic recession since the great depression, embracing (and implementing) direct marketing can mean the difference between profit or peril. And if you took the time to read this article, and only take one thing away from it, please start finding ways to capture customer contact information, and communicate with them, regularly, delight them with personal outreach, and helpful information and special promotions. Try to sell them other products or services, and creatively encourage them to bring their friends.
Shane Nichols is a local marketing expert, consultant, and author of the book The Intelligent Advertiser, The Definitive Guide to Local Broadcast Media. He writes frequently on his blog http://intelligent-advertiser.com