SweetIQ CEO: Local Marketing Has Become ‘Far Too Fragmented’

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In theory, the wealth of local services providers that exist within digital marketing today should mean that SMBs have no excuse not to take advantage of that technology and fit it to their particular circumstances and budgets. But in some ways, the flood of companies offering solutions has left a lot of SMBs frozen in limbo: too many choices, too little clarity.

Montreal-based local search marketing platform SweetIQ allows its clientele of businesses and brands to track and capitalize on information like foot traffic and online-offline conversions. Co-founder and CEO Mohannad El-Barachi (who will be a speaker at Street Fight Summit West on June 7th in San Francisco) has firsthand experience with a lot of the issues that are fracturing his industry, and he spoke to Street Fight about where these problems come from and what needs to happen to smooth them out.

SweetIQ has a bunch of different local services. What’s the company’s mission?
SweetIQ is a straight-up technology company. We’re not a marketing agency, and we don’t aim to be one. We look at local as a fairly nascent component of marketing in general, but one that’s certainly gaining a tremendous amount of importance.

As we look over the entire ecosystem, we see a lot of companies moving toward a very specific subset of local — listings management, review monitoring, things that are becoming highly commoditized. We look at local in a different context. Local is a very powerful subset of marketing that, if used properly, can dramatically increase the amount of conversions for any brand or business owner with a brick-and-mortar location, or one that services a local geography.

Our mission is to innovate and move forward local marketing by introducing products that allow brands, agencies, and SMBs to increase traffic and local sales, and measure all of the conversions that are happening.

You mentioned the commoditization of certain services. Why is that happening within local tech right now?
Listings management is probably the single easiest thing to sell, because the value proposition for any business is very clear to understand: If I’m not listed on Google and all of the major directories, consumers aren’t going to find me and they’ll go to the competition. Any company in any kind of space wants to make money. It’s easiest to find a product you can turn into a cookie cutter, one that you can sell and resell thousands and thousands of times. Companies like Yext have really perfected selling local listings en masse.

The big problem that’s happening today is you have six, eight, even ten different players that are all more or less selling the same thing. If everybody’s selling the same thing, and all of the businesses are listed on all of the same directories, then nobody really wins. If every plumber in San Francisco is listed on Google, when consumers look for a plumber they’re going to find every single one. It’s not helping them make a decision.

We’ve distinguished ourselves by figuring out how we can help a specific set of plumbers rise above, and give them the tools to be able to [say]: “You know what, I want to invest in this component of local that’s beyond listings management to allow me to gain higher prominence in search.” It’s really that angle of performance, not everyone being listed everywhere. There needs to be a better selection of directories, there needs to be better optimization of the listings themselves, and there needs to be a whole hoard of additional peripheral actions that [businesses] undertake to try to get consumers to come to their stores or select them as a local vendor.

You also mentioned online-offline attribution. That’s really become one of the biggest issues in local right now.
It is. Look, at the end of the day, all of us in this industry are working on platforms that we don’t control. We don’t control Google, Yelp, Bing, any of those guys. We can really only operate within the confines that they define for us, and the amount of data they make available in the back end.

Our first attribution model was launched about a year ago. We made certain assumptions about foot traffic based on things like phone calls, driving direction requests, and so forth. We’ve now expanded our model to include all sorts of different offline data sources. Some of the biggest players out there either own the digital web properties, or they own the POS systems, or own cell phone data. They feed this information into our platform so we have a truer understanding of the actual foot traffic impact driven by the campaigns our clients launch. We used to have problems, and we have far fewer today because we have more detailed sources from very respectable companies.

When might we stop talking about online-offline attribution as a problem?
Only when all of the big players that control the original impressions unblock the ability for providers to get access to them — a company like Google, which actually knows when you go into a store because you have your Android device and they know where you are all the time; or Facebook, which probably has the single largest beacon network installation in the world today. We can add Yelp and even Foursquare to that mix. Once they make their data of what’s actually happening in-store available to providers — in an anonymized fashion or not, that’s up to them — attribution stops being a problem and we can figure out how to advance the industry as a whole.

Recent research has shown that some SMBs are still severely lacking in digital strategy and general online savvy. Do you think that local tech as it stands now is able to effectively democratize its products and services and be approachable to every small business, or is it too fragmented and overwhelming to reach them?
It’s far too fragmented. There are too many people trying to compete. If you’re an SMB today, you’re probably getting a hundred phone calls a month from the SEO guy and the web development shop and the guy in India who claims he can get you ranked number one on Google, all trying to sell you one form or another of digital marketing. All of this while you’re still paying Yellow Pages for listings in a book that no one uses and trying to do PPC.

It’s unclear what needs to happen. It was a big topic of discussion at the recent Street Fight retreat: how do we prevent people from selling snake oil and vapor? And I think that we as an industry can come up with some set of principles under which SMB owners can say to somebody selling them listings management: “These are my expectations and here’s what I should be getting.”

It’s still early days. We’re still not even using the same lingo. Online-to-offline attribution means different things to different people. Until we standardize and do something together as a community, I don’t think anything will change.

Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.

Hear more from SweetIQ’s Mohannad El-Barachi at our upcoming conference on June 7th in San Francisco. Click on the icon below for tickets!