Frustration With Digital Marketing Vendors Boils Over for One SMB

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In this regular Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send us an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!

David: Hey Mike, I read with great interest the email thread you had with Marc Reisner, a contractor in Port Sanilac, MI last week. If it’s possible to distill the 30 million small business owners in the U.S. into a single persona, Marc strikes me as a great candidate.

Mike: Well at least the 45% or so that don’t yet have their own website but have aspirations for bigger and better things. His story of frustrations and ill-spent money so resonated for me that I took the time to track him down and talk with him. When you pitted his (digital marketing) naivete against the sales tactics of the companies selling local search over the phone, bad things were bound to happen. What was your takeaway?

David: Well, I had a number of them. Let’s start with the very real drag on the entire digital marketing industry that over-aggressive sales tactics and under-performing products have had on our target customers’ willingness to purchase from any of us in the future.

Marc has been disillusioned by past performance and that poor performance has understandably tarred the entire industry with the same brush.

Mike: Yes even Google became tarnished in his mind after phone scammers, pretending to be Google, hit him up. Interesting that they are not going after those types more aggressively to defend their name. Although I suppose it’s like playing whack-a-mole.

David: And if even Google — a company with a sterling reputation among small businesses — has taken a dent, I am not sure how anyone else’s “no-name” brands (yours and mine included) would ever stand a chance of bursting through the slime.

I applaud the LSA’s new certification attempt to fight this problem, but it has two giant hurdles. #1, guys like Marc have no clue who the LSA is. #2, there’s an unavoidable conflict of interest, given that many of LSA’s members are the very companies with this sales/product discrepancy — he mentioned Yodle (now and Yelp specifically.

I think the answer has to come from within our own companies, don’t you?

Mike: He lives in a town of 600 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His local reach is bound to be very limited. It’s not clear to me that he would get much if any benefit from ads or local SEO that these companies were selling. Obviously, these outbound organizations are all too often looking for warm bodies not well-qualified businesses. Sales quotas are a dangerous thing when education is needed. Clearly these companies didn’t properly qualify Marc and make sure that he could in fact benefit from their efforts.

David: Yes, sales quotas which are amplified and distorted by the presence of venture capital in many cases. Thankfully, market-distorting investments in our space seem to be subsiding, and unlike the rest of the industry, I don’t think Yext’s IPO will change that trendline.

Then there’s also the product side, though. I’m not sure who inflates performance more: Trump touting his inauguration numbers, or Yelp reporting so-called “leads” sent to their business advertisers. As you note in your conversation, Marc has a well-honed sixth sense for the actual performance of a marketing product, and Yelp didn’t even come close to passing his sniff test.

Mike: This isn’t the first time Yelp has been accused of overselling. Yelp’s tactics seemed predatory to Marc because, in a sense, it was the wrong product at the wrong time in his digital marketing timeline. He really needed to be focusing on fundamentals like a website and reviews.

But even that is often too complex or limited for someone in Mark’s situation to develop. It comes back to the discussion we had long ago where an integrated, easy to use web solution, but one that he owns, is what makes the most sense. And I am not sure that really is out there yet.

Google has created a dynamic where you need a well-done, long standing website to succeed at Google but few if any of the business folks like Marc get that.

David: Yes, and in the case of websites in particular, you have the paradox that Google is, via the Knowledge Panel, keeping more and more traffic that your website used to receive (though it’s no less important). And you have Facebook giving the awful advice that SMB’s should just use their Facebook Page as their website.

When the two gorillas are both reinforcing the wrong message–which, to be fair, the SMB may not even be aware of–it’s even harder for the right message, delivered by a well-intentioned salesperson, to resonate.

Mike: Yikes… That is a paradox that we are seeing even in large clients. They don’t fully understand why their local web traffic is declining and why they need to sustain that effort to continue to do well at Google.

Mark did come away with the conclusion, that I find very valid, that word of mouth is still one of the best tools for an SMB. He just doesn’t realize that even that too is being “eaten” by software in the form of online reviews.

I think everyone has a role to play in solving this problem. Certification will certainly not provide the solution.

David: Companies of all sizes need to have a longer-term view of the success of the small business sector as a whole, far beyond monthly or quarterly sales numbers. The worst thing we can do is sell an SMB, who’s already up against long odds of success, a product she doesn’t need. And one that puts an even greater strain on her finances.

Personally I’d like to see some of the larger companies in the space start with a less self-interested sales mentality. A longer-term view of a product set that helps a small business owner maintain and grow their business over time will actually grow the digital marketing industry’s addressable market and create loyalty with its customers.

That hope probably mirrors Marc’s naivete, but the status quo is clearly driving up acquisition costs and churn rates to an unsustainable level for all of us.

Mike: Amen to that!

Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either [email protected] or [email protected], or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike Blumenthal, he’s a co-founder of Local University. Mike Blumenthal is the co-founder and analyst at Near Media where he researches and reports on reputation, reviews and local search. Mike has been involved in local search and local marketing strategy for almost 20 years. He explores the online to offline local ecosystem and helps businesses understand it and benefit from it through writing, speaking and education.