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Three Important Online Trends For Local Business

It’s been roughly a year since Marchex launched an online presence and reputation management product for small and local businesses, and we’ve learned a lot about what these businesses truly care about when it comes to their digital footprint. This article summarizes three key things we discovered after over a year of product testing and conversations with small businesses.

Local Businesses Want To Manage Their Digital Presence

We didn’t start as a small business product. We actually started building a local search product for consumers, and in the process realized local search is largely a solved consumer problem. Through research and testing, it became evident that in fact it was small businesses that were being underserved in this rapidly evolving digital environment. Online reviews and conversations needed to be managed, listings needed to be kept updated, and new opportunities needed to be grasped. And it was apparent local businesses understood this had a direct impact on revenue and the ultimate success of a business.

So, the need for small businesses to manage their digital presence was clear. But what was less certain was whether local businesses would actually want to actively manage their presence online—and if so, how would they want to do that?

Throughout our product beta process we consistently got positive ratings from test users (over 80% would recommend the product) and strong usage statistics (users spent an average of seven minutes on the site). We also discovered that businesses are equally interested in their competitors’ reputations, and the valuable market intelligence this data provides.

So why such a great appetite? In short, small businesses—especially those that get reviewed or mentioned prominently on the web (think restaurants, contractors, salon owners, mechanics, etc.)—have long felt the impact of consumer-focused sites, and believe their businesses have not been provided a proper platform from which to engage in the online discussion. Small business owners tell us consistently that they feel their business has been “hijacked” by review sites. They are also becoming more digitally and social media savvy and thus more aware of conversations taking place online, as well as more cognizant of the impact the conversations (positive or negative) have on their businesses. They just don’t know how to deal effectively and efficiently with all the complexities of managing their presence online.

The Review & Mentions Landscape Is Expanding And Diversifying

For a few years now, Yelp, Citysearch and Google have been the predominant review sites. But the online universe is expanding and extending into vertically-focused sites—all of which require the attention of small businesses. For example, the travel rating and review site TripAdvisor has grown to more than 40M total reviews over the last few years, and continues to grow. The number of reviews on Zagat increased 61% from 2008 to 2009 and is trending to increase another 80% this year; DealerRater review volume grew 126% in 2009 and is expected to grow another 159% this year. We’re seeing the same trends in other categories including real estate, automotive and contractors. Add blogs and social media to this mix, and the landscape gets wildly complex and difficult to manage for businesses that don’t have the right tools at their disposal. In fact, 70% of local businesses are mentioned on the web in either blogs, local publications, tweets or vertical sites. And the growth of social media and mobile usage will only accelerate the content that small businesses need to stay on top of.

Customers Are The New Marketing Department

Small businesses have always recognized “word of mouth” is critical for success. But social media, email, blogs and exposure on the broader web changes the word of mouth game for small businesses. Consumers now have the ability to broadcast sentiment to thousands instantly. So it’s becoming increasingly important for businesses to not only listen, but also engage customers digitally (especially their most loyal customers) and turn them into evangelists.

Essentially, a small business’ best customers are becoming that company’s marketing department out of necessity, rather than choice—as a matter of survival. Loyal customers have the power to generate new business, craft a brand image, inspire loyalty and counter negative sentiment through tweeting, blogging, reviewing, following and so on. And the onus is on the marketing industry that serves small businesses to provide simple, effective, affordable digital tools to help such small businesses listen to, engage with and mobilize customers wherever they may be in the digital landscape.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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