Running a local business is not for the faint of heart. Not only are local business owners tasked with keeping customers happy on a daily basis, but they’re also expected to stay abreast of the digital trends and evolving ways in which customers search for, engage and choose businesses online. The pace at which these trends are changing is accelerating every year.
Over the past 20 years, leaps in technology have made some businesses nimble and efficient, while others have been left behind. We saw one such leap around the turn of the century, when customer expectations moved away from businesses with accurate listings in the yellow pages to those that maintained a reasonably coherent website. We saw yet another leap a decade later. Consumers began talking about local businesses on social media platforms—and now are expecting them to follow through and talk back.
Even as many local businesses—and especially local outposts of larger brands—are still catching up on the social media front, we stand on the precipice of yet another leap in consumer expectations. As with past leaps, the businesses that respond most quickly are the ones that will succeed in the next decade. Here’s what that will require:
Taking Control of Third-Party Listings
Most local business marketers today have a strong handle on their websites—as well they should. Many have invested a great deal of money in these properties, and they equate successful website interaction with business success. But here’s the thing: Your website is not where people are finding your business anymore. For every interaction that occurs on your website, four interactions are occurring on third-party listing sites, maps, apps, and review forums. Unfortunately, very few local business marketers are monitoring, much less optimizing, these properties.
Like it or not, customers now associate brands with the information and content they encounter on third-party platforms. The next frontier of digital success requires businesses to regain control of their information across all third-party platforms—both those that exist today and those that will exist tomorrow. While this might sound like a daunting task, there are APIs emerging that enable precisely the kind of control needed. The key—much like establishing a website back in 1999—is understanding the goal for your business, where you are today, and how you will get there.
The maintenance of a company’s information across third-party platforms, from Google to local directories to consumer review sites, must extend beyond manual updates of contact information and hours. These days, consumers expect complete, real-time access to core content, from menu items and specials to inventory to weather-related closures. If you’re a hardware store and a blackout hits, you need to be able to let people know—no matter what platform they’re using to search—that you’re open and have generators in stock. If you’re a local coffee shop that just added smoothies to your menu, you’d better turn up when someone searches “smoothies near me” in a map app. If you don’t, you might be watching potential business literally walk by your front window.
Also, keep in mind that this kind of data and information control is a brand safety play. Inaccurate listings, incomplete descriptions and misleading information on these platforms lead to bad customer experiences, and those experiences reflect poorly on your brand, whether you’re monitoring that third-party platform or not. Increasingly, we’re seeing scammers take advantage of businesses with weak online profile control to pose as a local business and, at best, siphon off business and, at worst, steal customer identities. Businesses can’t afford to lose control in this way.
Getting Ready for What’s Next
It’s vital for local businesses to gain control of their data and information today, lest they be even more unprepared for the next sea change in customer expectations. Because make no mistake: Change is coming.
Take voice search, for example. While this emerging technology/behavior is still in its infancy, consumers are asking more of their virtual assistants every day. In relatively short order, local business marketing has gone from traditional desktop SEO, which displayed numerous results for a query, to map-based searches, which display only a select few options. Soon, as voice search takes hold, virtual assistants might recommend only a single business that they feel can best meet a customer’s needs. You’d better be certain that assistant has access to complete and current information about your business when it comes time to make that selection.
Of course, consumer expectations evolve quickly, and it would be wrong to assume we know exactly what shape the next wave will take. But we do know that the businesses that will successfully ride the wave are the ones that are taking steps now to ensure that they control their information and that it is available everywhere possible since the business cannot control consumers’ evolving paths to purchase.