One of the highlights of autumn is seeing how merchants in small towns and suburbs rally around their local high school football teams. In the town where I grew up, Camdenton, Mo., the windows of local storefronts are festooned with the purple-and-gold colors of Camdenton High School, and similar scenes are played out across the United States.
Local merchants connect themselves with their communities when they show their colors. They also generate more commerce, as they stock their shelves with scarves, branded calendars, and other merchandise appropriate for their locations and seasons. In their own way, businesses that change their colors and their merchandise for the football season are adapting a brick-and-mortar form of prompted search marketing. Prompted search is an important form of location marketing that businesses need to understand to be agile and relevant.
Prompted search is a term I’ve coined to describe what happens when an event, such as the start of the football season, triggers a search for a brand or product. For many brands, high-profile external events such as the Super Bowl, or self-generated events such as product launches, inspire a flurry of real-time marketing efforts (some of which are better than others) as well as more traditional forms of marketing and PR. But it’s difficult for brands to capitalize on the change in consumer behavior that occurs when major events happen. When a business launches a new product, or, say, the latest Harry Potter adaptation hits the market, retailers are often challenged to update their location pages in a timely manner to show the availability of the product for consumers who rely on local search to find what they want nearby.
Ensuring that you are found when prompted searches occur at the local level should be an incredibly important element of your marketing spend. And there is a downside if you fail to do so. If your brand is not found when an event prompts “near me” searches for your brand or category, you run the risk of generating interest in a competitor’s store that carries the same products. Or you may create a poor experience when a potential customer is in that zero moment of truth moment, making a purchase decision (after being prompted by your brilliant marketing campaign), seeking driving directions to your store … and not finding you anywhere.
Unfortunately, too often, marketers under-invest in local search (a bottom-of-the-funnel activity) while they over-invest in filling the top of the funnel. This over-investment means that brands lose business because potential customers cannot find their location in the moment they conduct a local search and are interested in visiting their business. According to Google, 50 percent of consumers who conduct local searches on their smartphones visit a store within a day. The question is whether they will visit your store after an event prompts a local search.
The first step to getting savvier about prompted search is to understand the two contexts in which prompted search occurs: your own events, over which you more control, and external events.
Your Own Events
Events you plan yourself may include product rollouts or the launch of an advertising campaign — examples being Dos Equis’ recent reintroduction of the Most Interesting Man in the World, or Starbucks promoting its fall flavors. Both Dos Equis and Starbucks should plan for a spike in searches for their brand names as well as non-branded searches (in the case of Starbucks, fall-related searches such as “pumpkin spice latte near me” that are prompted by Starbucks advertising). Or a local, independent coffee shop competing with Starbucks might want to hijack those prompted searches, by adding the attribute “Pumpkin Spice Latte” to their listings on Google, Apple Maps, and Foursquare, and even on their Facebook pages to capture some of the prompted searches that a Starbucks national ad campaign generates.
It’s not always easy to plan for prompted searches even with events you plan. For instance product launches are often planned in utmost secrecy, making it nearly impossible to plan a local search strategy to direct traffic to your stores. And as we’ve seen with the launch of the Google Pixel phone, even secretive product rollouts can be fraught with danger when retailers accidentally leak information ahead of a launch. Nevertheless, you can plan with a reasonable degree of certainty and be ready to tweak the details.
External events create opportunities to generate sales or brand awareness. Examples include predictable events such as the World Series or less predictable events such as a change in weather conditions. In both cases, you’re being opportunistic. After the 2015 World Series, in which the Kansas City Royals played the New York Mets, a national dining/bar chain such as Buffalo Wild Wings, which has locations in Kansas City and New York, might have launched local marketing campaigns with dining specials throughout the World Series to attract traffic from fans doing “where to watch the World Series near me” or “Buffalo Wild Wings” near me (especially since a smart campaign would have naturally prompted people to find their nearest Buffalo Wild Wings).
External events are highly contextual, are often seasonal, and many times have strong brand awareness (e.g., the Super Bowl). Marketers can benefit from the popularity of an event that has strong awareness just like local those merchants in Camdenton do each year when they capitalize on the launch of the football season — an event that everyone in Camdenton knows about. Marketers can also capitalize on topical, news-related events, an example being a hardware store advertising shovels or driveway salt when the weather service forecasts heavy snow. Businesses in these situations need to apply strong content marketing savvy combined with agility. You need content marketing sensibility to understand how to link your business to a newsworthy events, and agility to react when conditions around you change without much warning. The key is to be aware of the context of your customers. Camdenton merchants know their customers care very much about the beginning of the football season. They tailor their local marketing accordingly.
Here are four local touch points to manage prompted search either in context of your own event or an external one:
- Location data listings, where you can tweak high-level attribute data such as a change in store hours to accommodate a prompted search for a seasonal promotion.
- Store locators, which are especially useful for sharing content that encourages a purchase related to a prompted search, such as an offer for a product you’re promoting
- Location pages, which are optimal for including longer-form content in context of a prompted search that requires higher consideration.
- Local social media pages (such as your local Facebook page), where are great for real-time, reactionary content targeting your followers.
The existence of prompted search is another reason why brands need to treat location data as a precious asset, constantly managed, updated, and shared where people conduct near-me searches. The key to making your brand visible during prompted search is being able to quickly update your data. When you change data and content rapidly, you adapt successfully to a world in which context changes constantly.
Gib Olander is vice president of product at Chicago-based SIM Partners.