Bits And Pieces

Strategies For The New Offensive
by Stevie Sigan

New technological trends have transformed consumers, requiring businesses to adapt an online marketing strategy, promote a digital brand and pump up the defense to monitor it all.

“I speed-read hundreds of bits of articles a day, absorbing lots of information, but rarely actually thinking about it,” says Greg Stekelman, avid blogger and author, in a speech for the London-based discussion group, Media and the Inner World. “Instead, it is simply instantly transformed into a series of rapid-fire punchlines and pithy one-liners. I find myself refreshing pages over and over again, waiting for more news, desperate for change, for a status update.”

Stekelman’s observation speaks volumes of how social media has changed the way consumers process information. His observation is emblematic of a user-generated epidemic fueled by sites like reddit.com and cracked.com, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and blog posts, all of which encourage a highly erratic and freakishly quick consumption of news.

Consumers now have a “visceral negative reaction to corporate marketing speak,” explains Robert Sacks of The Precision Media Group in his media predictions for 2012. The shift from a lengthy marketing agenda to an integrated online strategy is dependent on successfully creating short, timely bits of information for today’s media-savvy consumers. “The need to publish high volumes of information in bite-sized pieces is challenging a highly efficient workflow,” Sacks adds.

And this freshly fragmented audience can be hard to read.

“From the business owners’ point of view, the more segmented the market gets, the more challenging their marketing strategy becomes,” says Chris Shay of dba/design and marketing in Peoria Heights. “The challenge is how to think through the needs of their target customers and come up with strategies that tie into those needs and create a logical entry point for a prospective customer to find and engage with them.”

Short and Sweet
Randy McDaniels, president of McDaniels Marketing in Pekin, is embracing the shift. His company underwent a restructuring last October in an effort to streamline its name among its varying channels. The realignment of its secondary branches under one name, McDaniels Marketing, was a proactive attempt to bridge any disconnect consumers may have been feeling.

“For a while, there was a trend for companies to have several different logos and divisions within one brand,” he explains. “But since you have 25 different places to find someone’s messaging now, the last thing you need is to be branding a message that’s not aligned.”

And the company practices what they preach. Along with its new logos and shortened name, McDaniels Marketing aids its clients in rebranding campaigns using the same logic. “We have restructured quite a few clients’ brands,” says McDaniels. “If they’re disjointed and don’t have a lot of consistency, we work to get them all to align so their audience will recognize that they’re all part of one organization.”

State Farm Insurance embodied similar thinking in January when it adapted its 59-year-old logo for more effective digital application. The logo—three interlocking red ovals containing the words auto, life and fire—is now textless. A similar move by Starbucks last year left its 16th-century goddess icon without the words “Starbucks Coffee.”  The idea: no text, more flexibility.

“The pinnacle of branding is when you can just see a symbol and know the brand,” says McDaniels, citing Nike, McDonalds and Starbucks as examples. “It’s a big step to get to that level.

“Most of our clients still need their words,” he jokes. “But shorter is always better.”

Giving Up the Reins
Staying memorable in today’s jumble of competing messages also requires a chameleon-like ability to shift readily between mediums. Representing your company digitally in a way that produces a lasting aura online can enhance your word-of-mouth reputation and drive increased sales.

Of course, the danger of expanding into social media, online forums and the like is in guarding that territory lost when handing the reins over to users. (Call it the negative side of giving the public a voice.) You never hear from the satisfied customer—only the very satisfied and the very unsatisfied will be tweeting about and “liking” you on Facebook. And so, it becomes a game of increased defense. Social media isn’t going away, and its persistence demands higher defense mechanisms be put into place to monitor your company’s image online.

“One of the problems with social media is that you want to be able to oversee it and make sure that no unbalanced person gets on the site and starts saying crazy things,” says Shay. “A lot of my clients are relatively small businesses, so they have to figure out how to do it. How do they allocate the time? Who do they hire to do it? How do they supervise them?”

Hickory River Smokehouse understands the importance of its online presence. For two straight years, it has ranked first among 94 listed restaurants in Peoria, based on 110 reviews on TripAdvisor.com. TripAdvisor properties are listed on the site in a number of ways: via the owner’s direct post, through a traveler-submitted review or as contributed by its editors. But no matter how it gets listed, TripAdvisor allows registered company representatives to comment on user reviews, correct misinformation or otherwise manage a listing.

Mike Johnstone, co-owner and managing partner of Hickory River Smokehouse’s Peoria location, monitors the company’s local TripAdvisor page regularly, responding to both complaints and rave reviews. To a lengthy post on October 28, 2011, from a guest stressed by the restaurant’s barbeque quality, he wrote, “First and foremost, we absolutely encourage all of our guests to provide us with honest feedback whether in the form of online reviews, comment cards or verbally at their tables. I truly feel this is the only way we can continue to grow and get better.” He goes on to defend the restaurant’s mission, and after thanking the reviewer for bringing up her concerns, offers her a personal tour of the meat smokers and kitchen facilities to “make up for where we fell short on your last visit.” 

“I, by no means, think we’re the best restaurant in Peoria,” Johnstone admits. “I think we have really good food, and we’re fairly priced and competitive in the market. But we’ve been able to maintain that ranking over the last two years because I go out of my way to make customers aware that if they’re happy with our service, there’s a way they can help a small business like mine. I specifically mention Yelp, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor…and ask, ‘Hey, if you were happy with the service, we would really appreciate your opinion.’”

Everyone’s Doing It
It’s a new frontier. Social media gives businesses the ability to interact directly with customers and develop a more personal relationship with them. And in an age in which a quick Google search or Yelp summary can determine where to go for lunch, those who choose not to be so available online are quickly becoming the minority.

The Peoria-based Marquette Group has focused on online local visibility for some time now, through Internet Yellow Pages and other sites. “Since the pre-Google days, consumers have had the expectation that every location in their town will have an accurate name, address and phone number,” explains Steve Jurken, interactive product director for the company. “With the emergence of mobile location-aware devices (smartphones) and the integration of local search results into search engine results pages, the importance of listings management is that much more critical for any regional or national company.”

One wonders how this online obligation might affect small businesses like Peoria’s Thanh Linh. Despite the lack of its own website, the restaurant’s patrons have flocked to Yelp, Urbanspoon and Yahoo! Travel to rate their experiences at the Main Street staple. With an average four out of five stars based on 41 user reviews, Yelp’s high praise may be driving clientele to check out the top-rated restaurant, despite being unable to access the menu online prior to dining. Urbanspoon also ranks Thanh Linh high—it is “liked” by 95 percent of 132 voters. But while the restaurant’s co-owner, Linh Luong, agrees that these sites might be increasing business, she has no plans to advance her online presence or marketing strategy.

“Right now, we’re the only Vietnamese restaurant in town, and I have to do everything myself,” she explains. “Everything is homemade…and I also have four children. Maybe one day, we’d love to do something [with a website and advertising]…but I’m happy with my job now. It’s small, but we keep busy.”

By creating a website, Thanh Linh might reap more digital benefits, reaching potential customers in real time and boosting those relationships through rewards for their loyalty, such as instant online coupons or discounts. But Luong’s reluctance to do so is simply a practical reality.

“Business owners understand their business,” says Shay. “They don’t necessarily partake in all the different ways to market and the different mediums—they’re not specialists in those. And now, you add something to the mix that is not just new but is constantly changing. [Social media] is a challenge.”

Therein Lies the Problem…
“Not every business will flourish in social media,” explains McDaniels. “Do they have topics that will engage people and that people will want to talk about online?”

Take hospitals. As healthcare providers, advocates for community outreach and employers of thousands, they have a large number of followers already built into the framework of the business, which helps when starting up a conversation online. Hence, strategies like hive marketing, which seeks to build a buzzing community at a central locale to feed off one another’s ideas, in the form of new mother forums, cancer support group chats, waiting-room gaming rooms, symptom-checker mobile apps and more. Such a strategy may work well for some businesses, but others—an office supply company, for example—might never be able to engage that kind of online audience.

Shay agrees. “If every business I went to was tweeting, would I listen to all of them?” she asks. “Pest control…my veterinarian…my grocery store…it’s getting kind of noisy in here!” she laughs.

“It’s easy for celebrities and political candidates to have Twitter accounts,” adds McDaniels. “People with something new to talk about every day—who are already established public figures—have no problem. But if you’re not well known, you can’t expect to get thousands of Twitter followers overnight. It all comes back to setting goals and expectations.”

Where to Get Started
“The important thing is to come up with a good plan before starting your social media accounts,” says Tammy Finch of Web Tech Services in East Peoria. “Many people dive in and make some mistakes. Having a plan can alleviate a lot of those headaches.” 

Ann Johnston, co-owner of Central States Media, reminds her clients that you can’t plan to run a marathon the first day you go for a run. She says clients are often so eager to jump into social media, they can be disappointed to discover it’s not the be-all, end-all solution they seek. “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it right,” she says. “It’s easy to harness the power of the Internet and social media, but you still need to have a strategy, and you still have to determine what it is you want it to accomplish.”

Today, a website alone may not be enough to drive business unless you already have a solid client base. For this reason, Finch often recommends Twitter as an effective tool to increase clientele. “Used properly, social media can really help your business get the word out,” she says. “In fact, one of my medical practice social media clients got a new patient last week. She emailed to let me know and said, ‘The mystery of Twitter!’”

Similarly, Shay often recommends Internet releases as a great place to start. The “new” press release, Internet releases can drive traffic to your site and increase your rankings in search engines. “Some Internet releases can be quite searchable online,” says Shay. “And ideally, they can transport curious [clickers] back to your website.”

But for Shay, digital is not always better. She is wary of recommending e-newsletters to her clients, and stresses that direct mail can still be more effective at reaching those with buying power. She considers each client’s individual needs and tailors an integrated strategy of direct mail, site creation, digital marketing and print to try to reach every niche of their audience.

“Who needs another email newsletter? It’s a very, very busy media market—there are just a lot of messages,” Shay explains. “I like direct mail because fewer people are sending it. You aren’t one of a three-inch pile that people used to get every day. It’s more like a half-inch pile now.”

And Shay’s right—the Internet doesn’t reach everyone. Even with its reported 800 million users, not everyone is on Facebook. And even if they are, they may not be willing to listen to your message. People use the Internet differently. Some go online to seek specific information, others to laugh, blog, shop, search, read…

“It’s all about conversion online,” explains Johnston. “It doesn’t matter if someone goes to look at my website—I don’t know who they are, what they’re looking for or what they need. My job is to convert that person to start the communication process.”

“One of the things that people forget is that we’re all still people. Yes, social media’s great…but there’s still a need for one-to-one communication and getting to know someone,” says Johnston. “When I go to see my doctor, it’s still him talking to me and saying ‘How are you? How are the kids?’ Technology can work so fast, sometimes it can almost get ahead of what we’re ready to embrace.”

Tracking Results
The capability of measuring results via online marketing is frighteningly vast. Tracking tools, calls to action, readership surveys and analytics allow for increased accountability and understanding.

“We base our local marketing strategies on evidence-based research—evaluating the media usage patterns, demographics and previous results to gain an understanding of each market that our clients are present in,” explains Jurken. “With this type of in-depth knowledge, we build plans that are efficient for their target customer base.”

This ability to track success and failure also allows for increased flexibility to shift gears when needed. “You can change your strategy at any time with social media,” Finch suggests. “For example, the SCORE Peoria Facebook page was first looking to connect with other small businesses' Facebook pages. Then, through expanding their reach to the Chamber of Commerce…and other pages, they realized they were putting themselves in front of a lot more individuals who were thinking of starting a business. These are the very people that SCORE looks to help. That change was done within a matter of minutes, by simply looking for those pages and connecting.”

But despite all the new tracking tools and evaluation strategies, some online marketing attempts, such as those made via Twitter and Facebook, can be very difficult to track. It’s easy to quickly engage with potential consumers to let them know about an event, a new product or a dinner special through a compact tweet or Facebook post, but how do you tell whether or not it’s working? Perhaps there’s more to the story than just the numbers.

“It’s hard to tell how many people a post reaches in terms of those who come into the restaurant because they saw it, but I think it does give us an opportunity to stay fresh in people’s minds without being overly intrusive,” Johnstone explains. “Marketing as a whole is kind of a necessary evil. You hate to spend money on it, and it’s hard to tell what works well for you, but that’s something I really like about what we’ve been able to establish with our online presence: the cost is minimal compared to the return.” iBi

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