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The Brief

In October, S&G opened a retail service-based business as a model case study. These are the lessons we learned from the experience.

  • Clients under business pressure will want to cut corners. Be ready to provide a solid business case for why “best practice” is best.
  • Look at your monthly reports. If they contain information that isn’t immediately actionable, or that doesn’t show bottom-line value, you probably don’t need to report it.
  • It’s important to be yourself, but you have to keep in mind the prevailing attitudes of the community the business is based in. Take a hybrid approach and be yourself, but slanted towards those attitudes to keep from scaring off the community.
  • The optimal channel mix for small businesses varies widely. Don’t assume that dominating a traditional channel will transform into instant small biz success. Constantly review which channels are actually bringing business and which are just stroking your ego.

The Article

As marketers, especially marketers dealing with small and mid-sized businesses, we tend to abstract away the companies that retain us. We forget that our clients are not simply a collection of personas, products, target customer groups, competitive advantages, keywords, and branding themes. We forget that that company is the realization of someone’s dream, that it is the lifeblood for many entrepreneurs. We forget that while we can explain away bad reports by citing global/national/local trends, calling them “corrections over a stronger-than-average previous month”, or a marketing strategy gone bad, the people reading these reports can only see them as heart attack, death in the family, and harbinger of doom all rolled up into a sickly black ball that lodges somewhere just behind the lungs and makes breathing difficult. In short, we lose sight of the people behind the clients.

I was just like you until November of last year. That was when Stunt & Gimmick’s decided to launch a small business: Digital Remedy iPhone Repair, in lovely Monroe, LA. It’s a little bit unconventional, I know, but at the time we had good reasons, and I think those reasons still bear out and that it was the right decision. Our thinking went as follows:

  1. We Wanted A Model Case Study: We have plenty of case studies of work performed for other companies, but we wanted an ideal case study. The kind of client that never happens – where you’re taken completely off the leash and allowed to do whatever you want, and the client follows your directions to the letter. We could have waited for this mythical beast, but instead we chose to go out and make our own unicorn.
  2. The Market Was Right: Preliminary market research showed a strong potential to create a secondary profit center. When research tells you to invest, you either invest or kick yourself for missing out later.
  3. Cash Flow Was Good: Let’s be honest, it’s good to diversify. It’s also good to take cash stockpiles and invest them before tax time rolls around.

So we went ahead and jumped in after putting our ducks in a row. After all, we had already successfully built up Stunt & Gimmick’s, right? So why not try a little local marketing experiment? Well, mostly because now I totally understand that deer-in-headlights look that clients sometime get during meetings that involve increasing budgets, trying radical new approaches, or suggesting that a long-used marketing tactic be discarded or radically altered. Which is just one of the things I learned in the 6+ months Digital Remedy has been in business. Here are 3 more lessons I learned when I decided to open a small business:

Cutting Corners is Easy:

As marketers, we talk a lot about best practices and doing things “the right way”. Well, the white-hats do anyway, and that’s really who we care about, since black-hat marketers don’t need this article to begin with. We encourage a strong focus on fundamentals, a slow and steady growth curve, and generally try to follow the rules to the letter. Then we’re shocked when clients ask us to take shortcuts, or complain that Company Y is using X black-hat tactic and getting results, and why shouldn’t we do it if everyone else is.

These kinds of questions used to really bug me. My stock answer had always been “Well, you wouldn’t sell a shoddy product to make a quick buck, would you?” Of course, quite a few people who have ever sunk their life savings into a business that they see deteriorating before their eyes will answer with a clear and resounding “Sure I would, and reputation be damned!” When your livelihood is on the line and everyone else seems to be bending the rules and getting away with it, it’s pretty easy to be tempted into less than best-practices behavior. This is especially true in high-pressure situations – if the business is suffering, or a competitor emerges out of the blue and takes a significant chunk of market share, or if doing the right thing will require spending more budget than they feel comfortable with.

This one struck me when a new competitor opened shop in the next town over. Their (very shady) marketing person very clearly and obviously got all his friends to write Facebook reviews (and by obvious, I mean the page had 20-something 5-star reviews long before the competitor actually opened their doors). I was panicked, enraged, and terrified all at the same time. So much so, that for a brief moment I seriously considered heading over to Fiverr and purchasing some reviews. I know, right? Luckily, I regained my senses in time, and instead applied a very simple and very white-hat strategy: making sure the manager asked every customer who came in for a review if they were satisfied with our service. So while our competitor hasn’t seen a new review in months, we get a steady trickle of one or two genuine, useful reviews every week.

The Takeaway: When your client is under pressure, they WILL want to take shortcuts. Your job is to clearly and concisely demonstrate why the right thing to do is a better business decision. Too often marketers will try to wave concerns away by saying “This is best practice, so that’s what we’re going to do”, but someone with a business to run will not give a rats ass about best practices – they need a hard, solid business case for why they should take the moral high ground. Have one ready.

 Small Businesses Don’t Care About Rankings

Or most of the other metrics we give them. Because most of the metrics marketers use, especially for local businesses, are indirect or peripheral metrics. Things like number of keywords ranked in the top X position, website visitors, profile views, Facebook likes, retweets, even more direct metrics like calls and directions. These don’t matter to small businesses, because we all know that they don’t really matter to anyone. They are, for all intents and purposes, filler. Because what small business owners actually care about is how many customers walk through their door, and how much money they spend. Period. The End.

Now, I’m not saying those metrics aren’t at all important ever anywhere. They are part of a long journey that takes people from “not interested” to “customer”. As such, these metrics are good for formulating strategy. Unfortunately, too many local marketers (and marketers in general) treat these metrics as tactical metrics. The difference will have to wait for another blog post, but for the purpose of this discussion strategy is something you do mid-to-long term, and tactics is something you do RIGHT THE HELL NOW!

So if many of these metrics are strategic rather than tactical, why the hell are we reporting them every month? Really, what is a small business owner going to do with the knowledge that they gained 2 spots in Google for a long-tail keyword? And is that information really a valid data point, or is it just noise? You don’t know, because a month isn’t long enough to place strategic metrics into context, except in a vague looking at backwards trends sort of way.

So why do so many marketers report so often on strategic metrics? My guess, probably so they have something to show every month to justify getting paid. It’s busy work, since so much of what we do is invisible to most business owners. And quite likely, too, because most marketers don’t differentiate between strategic and tactical thinking.

The Takeaway: Stop reporting things for the sake of reporting things. Every single item in every one of your reports should be able to pass the “So what?” test. This is a very simple test. Before including a metric in your report, ask yourself: “Can I relate this metric to the bottom line in one step or less, OR can I take direct action RIGHT NOW based on this metric?” If you can’t honestly answer yes to a single one of those questions, nix the metric from the monthly report. If it’s an important strategic metric, consider reporting on it quarterly or semiannually. If you can demonstrate that you generate revenue, small and mid-sized business owners won’t care about anything else on the report.

Keep the Audience in Mind

We came from the Northeast to the Deep South, and we brought our edgy, high-tech style with us. Unfortunately, we didn’t count on our target audience being so significantly different from what we were expecting. We weren’t completely unaware. Obviously, we had done some thorough market research in advance, and were very familiar with the area. What we didn’t count on is how resistant the locals were to any slight difference. This resistance manifested throughout every marketing effort we did, online and in person, and resulted in several last minute changes having to be made.

The biggest differences, though, were subtle. The way people reacted to colors and shapes. The way people related to minor design differences. The way they interpreted certain individual words. In short, it was the kind of thing that was really hard to nail down in advance through market research. We had solid research behind us, but we underestimated the difficulty in breaking into the community. This was a minor setback, but it still cost us a month to get to where we should have been at launch.

The problem is that we wanted to build the kind of brand that we wanted to run. This is not a mistake, per se, and in the long run is probably a better idea. However, you have to remember that YOU are not the customer. It’s easier to build the kind of brand your customers want, and THEN slowly transition it to be “your” brand. Otherwise, you risk shocking the system, and the system hates being shocked.

The Takeaway: Seemingly tiny variations in communities can make for a big difference in the way your messaging is received. Keep these in mind as you craft your brand. Ultimately, you have to make a choice: short term gains and rapid growth, or slower growth for long-term satisfaction. Personally, I feel like the second option is the better road to take, but I also understand how vital it is to grow, and grow quickly, for small businesses. The best option may be to take a hybrid approach. Be the brand you want, but modify it enough that it doesn’t go against local conventions too much. As you grow, keep being more of yourself, until you get to the point where you are who you want to be.

SEO Might Not Matter. Neither Might Social.

I’ve been at this marketing thing for a while, and have helped quite a few local businesses, and quite a few major companies with local franchises or locations. My first thought going into this project was “The SEO and local search is going to be so easy, we’re going to nail our few competitors to the wall!” I was completely right. A month before we opened, we were ranking in the top 5 spots for all of our major keywords, and most of the minor ones as well. In fact, we were outranking every competitor in the area by a good bit. So we went to phase two: social. Remember, we had recently increased a client’s Facebook reach by 700% in a month, without using ads. So we hit the social hard, and were bigger and better than the local competitors shortly after opening. And guess what? None of it mattered all that much!

Now, this is not a hard and fast rule. In big metropolitan areas or other places where technology adoption is high and the level of general tech savvy is above the mean, SEO and social are absolutely critical. In Monroe, LA, however, they meant very little. Most of our customers were coming in by word of mouth, or through PPC ads. Contrast this with the last electronics repair place I did consulting for, where a large majority of clients came in through Google Places and Yelp.

The people of Monroe clicked ads far more often than the industry standard, and had difficulty distinguishing between paid search ads and organic results. This isn’t terribly surprising. People have been complaining about how hard it is to tell Google search ads from results for years (I personally love how the article keeps complaining about the “tiny yellow button.” Still, it was shocking to see in person how moving away from a major hub could so drastically change the way people found businesses.

The Takeaway: Your channel mix HAS to be adjusted for local market conditions. Don’t assume that strong SEO, or strong PPC, or strong social, or whatever channels you’re used to using are going to get results. You can completely dominate the SERPs and still get no traffic. You can have thousands of highly active and engaged Facebook fans or Twitter followers that never buy a single product you’re selling. You can be sitting on top of paid search results every time and still not get any conversions. This is one of the hardest aspects of doing local marketing well, and one of the reasons going with a cheap-o “SEO company” that turns out to be some shady guy in a basement, or a “social marketing guru” that speaks wisdom in 140 characters or less and promises to optimize your Tumblr, is such a bad idea for most local businesses. Without a real marketing professional to at least occasionally look over your efforts, you can rock a channel and still end up with a hugely negative ROI.

Running a small business, especially a new and untested small business, is hard. It’s very hard. As marketers, we need to look back on our own days starting out, and remember that our clients can go from ecstasy to agony in the space of days or hours. Local businesses that entrust us to make them a success are putting a lot of faith into the hands of, often, a complete stranger. Keep that in mind the next time your client calls you at 2am in a panic, or makes yet another ludicrous demand, and you’ll both be better off.