by Colin Jowell

This week I begin my column with two confessions. The first advert I ever produced in Australia was developed purely to occupy space in the Yellow pages. The client had another brand, but had worked out I assume that two stabs at the “shop around” list on half pages were more valuable than a full page advert. The second confession is that this was less than ten years ago.

It’s staggering how much things have changed in such a short period of time. Whereas the Yellow Pages was the lifeblood of small business, today it’s a decently designed website (which you can have done for a few grand so long as you don’t want anything too fancy). And then there is Search. For the average modern small business tired of wasting their precious dollars on variable, unguaranteed advertising, spending on something that creates a guaranteed asset (the site) and captures demand (some keywords) and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was “job done” from a marketing perspective.

But have a look at this. Yes, that’s the google front page. That wasn’t meant as a trick- but rather to illustrate the following point. While it is genius in simplicity, it does not create demand for your business. It may capture demand for it. Or if you are really lucky, it will capture demand for your category after which you need to pray that you’ve got the right combination of search and web design to get high up enough on the list, look respectable enough to call, and then hopefully get a lead.

And for the companies getting it right, it really is manna from heaven. But I ran a simple experiment- looking for a house painter. Turns out the companies that turned up on the first page or two took much longer to reply than the guys further down the list. It stands to reason- the ones who were nailing search were overflowing. And there was very little apology from them for the delay- such are the joys of a buoyant economy I suppose. But ultimately I went with the guys who answered quickly, sounded vaguely enthusiastic about the job, and offered a competitive price.

It begged the question though- what should small businesses do to stand out in an increasingly cluttered channel? In the Yellow Pages heyday, the answer was simple- buy a bigger ad, add some colour, put some thought into the messaging.
But given the first interface you get is a very limited text listing, standing out in the digital replacement is trickier than ever.

The answer is to think about what else digital channels are good for- after search, it is an amazing place to generate referral. For most small businesses (and even some big ones with the resources to do more) this begins and ends with a Facebook page. After some enthusiastic promotion at the beginning and avid posting of content, for too many brands Facebook becomes about preaching to the converted rather than generating more followers. One of the more successful promotions I’ve worked on involved not just giving away loyalty rewards on Facebook, but allowing those rewards to be re-gifted to others. It worked its socks off.

Not everyone has the budget for a loyalty scheme, but the insight it uncovered is one worth thinking about- your marketing may be less about what you need to tell your customers, and more about what you get them telling each other.

Things to think about:

  • If you are investing in Search and Web design (and you should), monitoring what happens next in the channel is critical to make sure you are maximizing this investment
  • Are you providing a product or service worth talking about?
  • Don’t think about what you want to tell a customer, but rather, what they would say about you.
  • What tools, incentives, and processes do you have in place to encourage that conversation to happen?