Is online marketing really necessary?

Construction worker with iPad

Recently, a small business owner commented that many self-employed tradesmen are still successful despite not having any online presence. He saw that they just go about their business, getting the job done without having much idea about social media and the latest trends in online marketing and strategy. So, he put forth this provocative question: is an online strategy even necessary in the first place? Wouldn’t traditional word-of-mouth suffice?

At first glance, there may seem to be some truth to that. Unlike IT workers, self-employed tradesmen can’t be easily replaced by anyone physically far away. Competition is limited by their peers in the local area. Hence, most of their work is acquired from word-of-mouth within the local community. In a sense, this is an advantage that seems to shield them from the ravages of the Internet that is plaguing other industries. As a result, most of them carry about their businesses completely ignoring the Internet.

But I have bad news for them!

On one side, the Google horde is heading their way. On the other side, consumer behaviour is shifting. In military jargon, this is a classic pincer movement. Many military units were defeated because they are not aware that the enemy is enveloping them with the pincer movement. When they realised that, it was often too late. In the same way, tradesmen who aren’t aware of this dual trend will be disadvantaged by their peers who are.

First pincer: Google horde

As you know, Google and Apple are duelling over maps (see Apple is losing the plot and is becoming a commodity). Google, in particular, has invested a lot of time, effort, manpower and money on their powerful and accurate Google Maps application. As shared this article on my Google+ post,

Mapping systems matter on phones precisely because they are the interface between the offline and online worlds. If you’re at all like me, you use mapping more than any other application except for the communications suite (phone, email, social networks, and text messaging).

What is happening is that Google is taking the world’s physical information and making them accessible from the Internet. Not only are these information merely accessible from the Internet, Google is applying their search algorithms on them. To do that, they are combining the conceptual world into the geographical world onto their maps. For example, restaurants, schools, buildings, shops, petrol stations exist in the context of their physical location represented in Google Maps. One of their services, Google Places, is to help businesses owners list on their mapping application.

Before the Internet, consumers use physical Yellow Pages to look up businesses in their local area. With the rise of the Internet, consumers search for local businesses on their computers, usually on a desk. Today, with the rise of Internet-connected smartphones, consumers can search anywhere, anytime, literally on the palm of their hands. Not only are smartphones continuously connected to the Internet, they are usually equipped with a GPS chip that can pinpoint its exact location. Now, consider the confluence of these 3 technologies in a smartphone:

  1. Mobile Internet broadband connection
  2. GPS
  3. Online maps (e.g. Google Maps)

Whoever controls devices that have these 3 technologies will have a very powerful influence on consumers—they have the power to direct consumers within a specific range of a local business towards it. For example, Google, through its control of Android smartphones, has the capability to direct people who are within a few kilometres from a local tradesman to his business.

Second pincer: consumer behaviour

Now, we will look at the second pincer—consumer behaviour. According to Google,

97% of consumers search for local businesses online.

In Australia, smartphone penetration has risen to 52%. That means that Google is bringing their search engine to the palms of half the population. These people will be able to do an online search at any time they fancy. Most of their smartphones will have technologies to determine their physical location (whether by GPS or mobile phone towers triangulation). This location-aware technology will enable consumers to instantaneously find nearby businesses who can provide the goods/services they need.

Make no mistake, consumers behaviour is changing to the point that doing an online search has become a reflex whenever they need something. They are much less likely than before to ask their mates if they know of any good nearby tradesman because it is too slow compared to doing an online search on their smartphones. In other words, the word-of-mouth referrals that they’ve come to rely on for work will be getting less and less reliable.

Are you listed where you can be found?

So, by now, you should realise that if your business don’t have an online presence or location-listing (e.g. Google Places), it does not exist as far as more and more consumers are concerned. Consider some of the comments from consumers in a forum:

“Yes, Google is the first place I go to for anything too. If they’re not online they don’t get my business. It’s more about convenience. I’m at my computer [read: Internet-connected, GPS-enabled smartphone] anyway.”

“I’ve tried to find certain tradies online and struggled. And many of those that were online only had a directory listing (no website) which didn’t tell me anything at all about what they did or didn’t offer. I’m not interested in having to call (which costs me money), leave a message most of the time or have their receptionist tell me they “don’t know.. so-and-so will need to call you back”, and then wait for them to tell me whether or not they can even help. I’d rather get online, check out their site and THEN call if it looks like they can help me. I can’t rely on a flyer landing in my letterbox at the time I’m considering a tradie service.”

”I am the same. If they aren’t on the internet then I am not going to utilise their services”

“Yes, we had a problem with a hot water system a few weeks ago. It was leaking badly. We discovered early morning. Did a Google search and found a company that looked professional from their website and said they were on call 24/7. So we took them at their word and rang at 6am. They answered the phone within 3 rings (another important factor in my books). They knew the make and model and informed us their supplier doesn’t open till 7am but they would be there later that morning to replace and reconnect. And they did. We’ll keep them as our plumbers in future.”

So, does your business have an online presence (i.e. website) or location-listing?

Smartphone GPS

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