Frustration With Digital Marketing Vendors Boils Over for One SMB

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 or, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

  1. MIchael Taylor
    April 17, 2017

    One of the key weaknesses of SMB resellers is a lack of understanding of the value delivered by the products within their digital portfolios, and how they can be applied to companies of various sizes, needs and geographies. Too much feature selling and tech speak not only confuses buyers, but under utilizes the value a sales force could be delivering to SMBs. Building buyer personas and need profiles based on industry categories, size of geography and how customers are won would better inform media sellers what to offer and align products to outcomes needed by the SMB within their category. Better understanding the value of individual products, and combinations of products to match the needs of SMBs, is where sales training needs to shift and where sales messages need to be reformulated. Recasting sales strategies and performance pressure by sales management — that’s another battle only won company by company,

    1. Tim Abrams
      April 22, 2017

      MIke, I’m in total agreement with your view. Tim

  2. April 18, 2017

    I am not entirely sure that the way that a lot of these services are sold makes sense to many smaller businesses – Local SEO / SEO / Paid. It’s all search engine marketing. This really has to come from a perspective of how can we best help you (paid, local, organic or all the above) rather than what can we best sell to you. It is what we try to do but the wider landscape… I suspect I am also naive.

  3. April 20, 2017

    David brings up a great point that companies shouldn’t continue to “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.” Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening in the near future. Too many companies in the digital marketing arena are too focused on their own bottom line. Either they are too small to have dedicated sales teams pumping out calls to SMB’s or they are growing and solely focused on sales numbers. There are not many in between who are focused on growing their company and also bringing great value to SMB’s. There is so much distrust in digital marketing and SMB’s are fed up.

  4. Mike Blumenthal
    April 20, 2017

    As David pointed and as Brian reinforced, it is unlikely given the pressures on these companies that anything will change in the near future.

    And at some level, the sort of hard sell that he experienced with its many restrictive contractual covenants is often “baked into” the attitude and culture of these sales organizations.

  5. David Mihm
    April 20, 2017

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Marcus, you bring up an interesting point. I think transparency in what you are selling is very important. But generally I agree with you that if the cost is low enough, the SMB customer doesn’t really care about where their customers are coming from–just that they’re coming. And some of the case study work Mike has been doing that we talked about in our last discussion about Adwords Express would suggest that there may be areas where paid search is actually more cost effective than organic.

    And Michael, I definitely agree with you about too much tech-speak being used to sell these products, and not enough targeting.

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