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How Local Small Businesses are Evolving Their Online Marketing Strategies

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SEO experts are happy to tell small business owners how to improve their visibility on the web. But it’s equally important to listen to small business owners, especially of the brick-and-mortar variety, to understand how they’ve been able to evolve their marketing strategies in a world increasingly dominated by search.

From mechanics to lawyers, small business owners have been cultivating reputations and generating word-of-mouth buzz long before the advent of fancy algorithms. But as soon as businesses turn to the web to market their services, some realize how critical it is to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, while others still hold on to traditional outlets.

“We are in a period of great transition,” said Ely Dahan, a professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. “There used to be this thing called the Yellow Pages, and if you had the right spot and the right-sized ad, you’d get calls. But if you’re not online today, no matter how big or small your business is, you’re likely going to get hurt.”

Google has been pushing to get more local small businesses online, even offering free websites. Still, it appears small businesses are merely scratching the surface when it comes to penetrating the web for marketing needs.

Nearly half of small businesses have yet to step foot online, according to Dahan. Among the culprits: skepticism.

Marketing on Google

Gary Harter, 53, has been selling countertop laminates in the San Fernando Valley for most of his life, but his foray into the world of online marketing is only about a month old.

“I’m not particularly tech savvy, and besides, we built our business by word of mouth, so I never thought we needed something like the Internet,” Harter said. “That all changed when Google approached us.”

The search engine behemoth hit Harter with all sorts of whiz-bang analytics about the potential value of tapping into contractors who are searching for “Formica” in his ZIP code.

“They put this stuff in front of me, and I was like, oh boy, here we go getting Big Brother involved,” he said. “But when I actually took a look at their findings, I felt pretty enlightened and willing to give it a try.”

It’s too early to say if Harter’s $900-a-month engagement with Google will net more customers. However, convincing Harter that a web marketing program is more valuable than his usual word-of-mouth strategy is noteworthy in itself. His desire to partake in online marketing speaks to the fact that decades-old mom-and-pop businesses are open to reaching a target audience through alternative means.

Getting Found on Yelp

“A lot of it comes down to the marginal cost of investing in web analytics and whether you have the money to get into the game,” Dahan said. “If you’re a bigger company, investing in web analytics is similar to hiring an accountant – it is one more area you are farming out. But if you are very small, it’s a completely different story.”

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For example, Dahan recently did some consulting work for an automotive company that required hundreds of thousands of dollars to design a fully optimized website. That differs vastly from what Bob Little of Culver City, Calif. spent to bolster his auto shop’s web presence: zilch.

Little, 55, remembers visiting local churches and schools when he was younger to help his father advertise for Ed Little Auto Service. He also recalls doing a local cable spot that didn’t run until midnight. But nothing has been more effective than Little’s free profile on Yelp. With 256 comments and a rating of five stars out of five, Little said he receives 10 calls a day because of the Internet.

“I have so much business coming in that I’m making appointments weeks in advance and referring people to other shops,” he said.

But there are also risks when relying solely on Yelp for business. Little doesn’t have control of the comments, “so I gotta make sure I don’t piss anyone off,” he said. In fact, there are instances where perfectly well-run businesses have been pillaged by negative comments, forcing a costly digital cleanup and, in some cases, shuttering a division altogether.

“Reputation is huge, and we are in the infancy of tapping into crowd wisdom as a way of learning about a product,” Dahan said. “And most of the people who are commenting on sites like Yelp are not the typical consumer.”

Hanging onto the Yellow Pages

Not everyone is ditching traditional advertising, either. Steven Kesten, an employment lawyer from Marin County, Calif., does a combination of advertising online and in the print version of the Yellow Pages. Kesten said his daughter convinced him in 1999 that everything was going online and not doing so would damage his business.

“But I couldn’t let go of the Yellow Pages,” he said.

And to this day, nearly 50 percent of Kesten’s business comes from someone physically looking up the letter “L.”


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