Online advertising and marketing programs for small businesses (SMBs) have historically suffered from high non-retention or “churn” rates and little transparency around vendors and their relative performance. SMBs often don’t fully understand what they’re buying and don’t know how to evaluate providers.
The local-digital segment is cluttered with companies making similar-sounding claims and selling similar-seeming products. Small business owners have had difficulty choosing marketing vendors and telling them apart.
They’re seduced by pitches only to be disappointed by performance.
Now the market may be on the cusp of major changes because of the increasing availability and use of “big data.” More sophisticated applications of data are starting to enable more efficient advertiser acquisition by local media companies and sellers. But data will also lead to greater service-provider accountability and new insights for SMBs on which marketing firms do a better job.
Through web-crawling and other methods a number of local sales organizations are identifying areas of SMB weakness or digital deficiency (e.g., low search rankings, no social presence, no mobile site, etc.) and benchmarking them in their respective markets. Individual businesses can be compared against their competitors: “podiatrists in Seattle,” “lawyers in Houston,” “pest control companies in New York.”
This kind of information is very effective in getting SMBs’ attention and starting a sales conversation. Moreover it can be done with email, as opposed to costly outside sales reps.
Roughly six years ago an Israeli company, Palore, introduced a service called AmIVisible, which provided “visibility scores” to SMBs. This was essentially a combination of SEO ranking and presence data on relevant sites beyond search. It used these scores to generate leads for local digital media sellers. Well ahead of its time but with limited revenues, investors ultimately decided to shutter the firm.
A new group of companies has developed the “2.0” version of this model, using analysis of SMBs’ digital presence to help sales organizations do a better job of identifying prospects and customizing marketing packages to suit the actual needs of businesses – rather than simply pushing their menu of products.
I’ve written about Vendasta and Buzzboard, among a couple of others. However a new company, Lawyer Marketing Score (LMS), is starting to offer similar SMB visibility data to marketing agencies, for improved outreach and close rates.
What’s also very interesting, and different, is that the company is seeking to compile information on marketing services providers as well. LMS is collecting net-promoter scores (NPS) on the marketing vendors serving the local-SMB segment. Alignable is also gathering NPS data but for different purposes.
It’s hard to overstate the potential significance of generating NPS rankings and making them available to local advertisers. As indicated, the market has been largely opaque to local business owners because there hasn’t been any objective source of data on the sales and marketing organizations soliciting SMBs.
The sheer number of pitches and the historically disappointing performance of many digital marketing programs have generated widespread skepticism and distrust among SMBs. For example, a 2015 SMB survey from the UK conducted by Microsoft and Latitude White, found that “only one in five SMBs (18%) … trust SEO and PPC agencies.” Essentially 82% of business owners don’t trust the vendors they worked with. The US numbers are similar.
Some firms are unethical or knowingly over-promise to close sales (e.g., “We can make you number one on Google”). In other cases marketing outcomes simply don’t live up to sales promises. Customer service is also poor in many cases, which is a separate problem but affects advertiser retention.
Identifying which firms are trusted and well rated by the community of SMB advertisers could have a dramatic impact on the market. In much the same way that consumer business migrates to well reviewed restaurants or plumbers on Yelp, this could happen to marketing vendors if their NPS scores are made available and publicized.
Remarkably this has never been done before in any systematic way. I’m speculating but it could quickly separate the most effective firms from the rest of the pack. Customer service will be a major component of the scores as well.
The use of data to customize the sales presentation and speak directly to the specific needs of the individual business will dramatically alter the approach to segmentation and selling in the local-digital market. If used correctly tools like LMS could make less seasoned telephone sales reps more effective than even traditional feet on the street. Local sales prospecting could be largely automated, turning acquisition into something that more closely resembles inbound marketing.
In the most extreme version of this scenario, content marketing becomes less necessary because the precision of the data-driven approach eliminates the need to develop lots of content to generate leads. A highly customized “digital audit” or presentation addressing an SMB’s deficient mobile presence is likely to get more attention than an ebook on the importance of mobile-friendly websites, which must still be marketed itself.
More sophisticated SMB data is starting to make its way into the sales process. If used thoughtfully and correctly, data will bring about real “consultative selling” and lead to lower costs and greater overall success for SMB acquisition and retention.
Finally exposure of vendor and agency NPS scores by LMS, which is currently only operating in the legal vertical, could shake up the market, identifying the best performing firms and putting pressure on others to improve or die.