Brand Building Beyond Reviews: Is the Local Marketing Ecosystem Ready?

Photo by Priscilla du Preez.

David: Hey, Mike. A lot has happened in the last two weeks! Not least of those events, perhaps THE all-time Masters, but a die-hard sports guy like you may care more about the NBA playoffs 😉

Mike: We are in a field that is always hopping. It is one of the reasons that I enjoy it so much! Although for me, those sports events hardly hit my radar. 🙂

David: By now I should have internalized your “all local, all the time” mantra, but I had to at least try to sneak in a Trail Blazers reference. Oh well.

So, let’s talk about our field, then. I know you’ve been thinking more about expanding our discussion from last month of reviews.

Mike: In our discussion of reviews, we talked about how reviews are a joint conversation between the business and the consumer that defines the brand. That led me to thinking about branding in local at a higher level—what it means to a local business, what it means to Google, and how to “operationalize” some of that.

Seth Godin defines brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”

And while I think that is very true, it is all very soft and fuzzy for most businesses to deal with.

David: It’s interesting, my brain is already leaping to what the ideal digital vehicle(s) for each of those attributes—expectations, memories, stories, and relationships—might be. Not to quash the emotional side of branding, but you know that’s way too “woo-woo” for a Google engineer to build into an algorithm.

Mike: Exactly. When I map them to what actually happens in a local community, I break them into functional relationships that a business might have. I.e., the Customers, the Community, the Other Businesses, and the Media are all foundational pillars of who and how a business is perceived. And these “pillars” are things that can be translated from the offline to the online world.

David: Those are all worthy foundations to pursue as you try to build a brand, but I’d argue they’re relatively unequal pillars—particularly for local businesses in larger metro areas. Customers and Community are the two I’d probably focus on first, where you can make a real brand impression (and build a business) by focusing on your neighbors.

The business community in larger metro areas (at least the two that I’ve lived in, Oakland and Portland) is often too fragmented or skewed towards larger businesses, for mom-and-pops to get the same kind of value they get from it in a smaller town or suburban area. It takes some seriously creative networking, perhaps in vertical organizations, for the Business community to provide the kind of weight that Customers and Community do.

Mike: Well, it certainly varies by city, but if a business couldn’t join the Portland Business Alliance, they could very well join the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners).

David: I’d still argue that Customers and Community would be a faster path towards building a brand, even though you’re absolutely right that those smaller/niche business groups can be a great source of referrals. It just feels like the shakiest pillar of your set above, specifically as they relate to brand.

And while the Media pillar is a strong one, the odds of a big-city Media mention are extremely low, especially for non-retail businesses, unless you’re spending money on a bonafide PR agency. Don’t you think?

Mike: While I divide these into discrete pillars, there is a lot of overlap between them. Certainly, each pillar would need to be scaled to make sense to the business.

Community is, as you note, a strong one, but that is also an avenue into Media coverage. If your support of the Community Group helps you stand out, then there is every reason that you could get some Media coverage that would show up both offline and on in your local market—AND be visible to Google.

David: Good segue. So, our typical readers are probably thinking—if they agree with our mutual thesis that brand is becoming increasingly important for local marketing—what software or services can I offer that help influence what constitutes a brand?

I’m not entirely comfortable with taking Seth’s word on brand as gospel, but I’ll continue with the thought exercise.

  • Expectations are set both by your own marketing messaging as well as consumer reviews.
  • Memories should be triggered by a proactive loyalty program of some kind (text or email being the lowest-cost, most natural fit).
  • Stories are, well, storytelling—Instagram and YouTube being among the most visual means. This includes glimpses of the people behind the business, motivations, etc., and small businesses are theoretically at an advantage relative to Enterprises. But storytelling can also be much more concrete with respect to case studies or shared customer experiences.
  • Relationships are obviously the key letter of the “CRM” acronym and tie in closely with GatherUp’s ongoing focus on NPS.

None of those really looks at how you acquire customers, however, which is a million miles away from how the average digital marketing agency or SaaS company positions their services.

Mike: And if you make that same analysis from my pillars of Customers, Community, Businesses, and Media, it would look like:

  • Consumers: Instagrammable stories, reviews, loyalty
  • Community: Supporting your local community groups directly or nationally through a product like ZipSprout
  • Business: Joining and participating in organizations that allow for networking and linking offline and on in your local market that you can afford. Perhaps the BBB or the Chamber of—if not, then something more appropriate for your size.
  • Media: Keeping an eye out for stories from any or all of the above that are worth pitching and sharing with local bloggers, news media, and TV stations in your market.

But all are done with an eye towards reinforcing both Seth Godin’s AND Google’s perception of brand.

David: Unfortunately, the prevailing current with respect to Google specifically is that their algorithm is getting abused by spammers left and right. And in many cases, even the legitimately successful small businesses are not the most prominent brands in a local market; they’re just the ones executing on more traditional SEO techniques the best.

I’ll admit to being premature in giving Google credit on this point: They still have a long way to go in their quest to use brands as the means to “sort out the cesspool of the internet.”

And until Google gets there, I’m not sure that the average small business will give a hoot about buying a “brand” package from a vendor. So I guess my feeling is that it’s a little early to start selling things with an eye towards brand as the north star.

Mike: We do disagree on that point. I think it makes more sense for a small business to buy “brand building” that includes some community events and link building than for that same business to buy SEO.

And certainly any business should be able to understand the idea of brand building as a way to get more phone calls or whatever their main key performance indicator might be.

David: I wish that were true of more businesses, and we absolutely agree on what should be on a business owner’s mind when he or she buys a marketing package or implements a marketing plan. (And companies like GatherUp and ZipSprout are helping to shift that narrative in a positive way.)

I just need to be convinced that when push comes to shove, the average business will prioritize long-term brand building over discrete short-or-medium-term tactics that lead to higher rankings or more conversions from Google.

Mike: For me, I like to think in terms of a framework that would create congruence between the short-term needs of the business—Google and the customers—and the long-term needs of the business’s branding and whatever Google comes up with next as they try to improve their algorithms. These should all be working together to further the customer’s perception of the business.

It seems imperative to me that the main thing we sell has to be something other than SEO, link building, or rank. Business owners need to be able to understand the need for that long-haul view.

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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 GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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