When we think of brands, we think of iconic names and logos. The cursive white script on red of Coca-Cola. The golden arches of McDonald’s. Starbucks coffee.
There’s no question that establishing brand recognition has value. According to The Economist, “Brands account for more than 30% of the stockmarket [sic] value of companies in the S&P 500 index.” When Imperial Tobacco decided to spend $7.1 billion to expand to the US, the lion’s share of that money was spent on purchasing brands recognizable in the US.
But what about small or local businesses? Can they build a brand? How can they compete in getting recognition behind multi-billion-dollar behemoths?
Branding for local businesses is different from branding for national brands
Although local businesses compete with national brands, the mistake many local businesses make is competing with them on their platform. For example, going toe-to-toe with a national brand or big box store on price or selection puts the local business immediately at a disadvantage.
Instead, compete on your turf and strengths. Consumers value local businesses for quality work, personalized service and trustworthiness, among other things. Local business branding should emphasize these areas.
But perhaps the best asset a local business has is its location — being a resident in the community it serves. Understanding the dynamics and culture of the local consumer and being able to relate as “one of them” is an asset the business must leverage.
Physical location also matters because when consumers search for restaurants, services for their home or shopping nearby, they usually want a business no more than five miles away. Location is so synonymous with “local” that at the Local Search Association (LSA), we even have a conference dedicated to the discussion of location marketing called The Place Conference.
Local is hip, trendy and growing in its appeal to consumers. Eighty-two percent of consumers report they have used local businesses in the last year, and virtually every one of them (98 percent) will continue or increase shopping locally in the future. Branding locally is smart, raises your profile, boosts your online presence and ultimately pads your bottom line.
The impact of branding on local search
Too often, we silo our various marketing campaigns instead of viewing them as a cohesive strategy. SEO, listings, reviews and social media all work together to build your brand. Things that boost your reputation publicly lead to a good online reputation. SEO strategies that boost your online page rank reflect a good public reputation.
When you remove all the tech talk, Google’s algorithm is simply trying to find and present the most accurate, reliable and relevant information related to a user’s expressed search. If you’ve done a good job raising the profile of your business in the local community, the things that reflect such work i.e., your brand, should be captured by Google. If not, your job is to distill the things that comprise your brand into digital media forms that Google trusts.
Moz illustrates this interwoven relationship between branding and local search. Moz conducts a survey of experts each year to score ranking factors that affect SEO, specifically for local search. The 2015 survey found that 50 percent of ranking factors were attributable to business profile listing information and almost 50 percent to what I’ll call branding factors — reviews, social media activity, backlinks — things that reflect third-party recognition and interaction with your brand.
Yet even the business profile listing information can be viewed as branding in terms of your business’s core identity: your brand name, location and contact information. NAP information on your web page and your Google My Business profile which matches key search information, such as proximity, is a prominent factor in how Google recognizes and ranks your business.
Other important information that impacts local search includes matching business category and keywords from your Google My Business profile and business web page to keywords used in local search queries. References by third-party sites to your business that match your business profile also let Google know that your business is legitimate, relevant and local. Together, these signals constitute almost 50 percent of overall page ranking factors.
The importance of consistency in branding
Consistency makes sense from a design perspective, especially when images and graphics have such a large impact on recognition by consumers. Seventy-eight percent of consumers report that they want pictures, according to a study by YP. Consistent use of colors, logo, placement, format and other design aspects make recognition quick and easy. It also maximizes the visibility of marketing so that brand value is accumulated with every piece instead of being diluted across several different campaigns.
Consistency is also critical to SEO in regard to your crawlable identity, namely NAP. The more consistent citations (third-party references to your business NAP) are, the better Google will recognize your business. Exact match is best — so even keeping your address abbreviations the same on your own website is important. For example, don’t use Drive in some places and Dr. in others. Or Suite vs. #, LLC or L.L.C., Texas vs. TX and so on.
Moz not only names the top positive influences on local search in its study, it also identifies the top negative ranking factors. Of the top 10 negative factors, nine deal with incorrect, inconsistent or mismatched business NAP or business category information. So make sure you do not have outdated information listed, use phone numbers not listed on Google My Business or list services you no longer provide.
Check out last month’s column, where I provide a number of sources where you can claim your profile and make sure your information listed online is accurate and consistent.
Boosting your local reputation and building your brand
While 50 percent of Moz’s local search ranking factors relate to NAP and business profile signals, much of the remaining 50 percent relates to online reputation. This includes getting other authoritative sources to include links to your web page on their site (backlinks), reviews, social media activity and general online interactions with your business such as clicks, clicks to call and check-ins.
Building a brand is getting people to talk about you and getting Google to hear that chatter. While the principles of establishing an online reputation or brand may be similar for national brands and local businesses, there is a significant difference in how that is accomplished. Local businesses have a smaller and more targeted audience, a defined geographical reach and a unique presence in the community they serve.
With the above business profile information being SEO tip number one, here are nine more tips on reaching out to the community around you to grow your reputation, build your brand and boost your local search ranking.
1. Target local publications
Who is talking about you matters. While getting The Wall Street Journal to mention you and link to you in one of their articles would be a big boost, local sources are arguably, for your purposes, even better. For example, here in the Dallas area, local news sources and community magazines are where people turn to find local information. Thus, being written about or, even better, linked to by The Dallas Morning News, D Magazine, Dallas Observer, Texas Monthly, Dallas Business Journal or Guidelive.com builds name recognition through those publishers’ audiences.
Many of these are likely unfamiliar to non-Dallas residents but have free event calendars or short-list directories of local businesses and restaurants or guides like “Best Brunch” that locals rely on. Some also recognize annually those businesses or professionals considered to be the best locally, such as Best Lawyers, Best Doctors or Best Realtors. Every major city has similar local publications, and Google and Bing will reward your business, too, with a boost in local search page rank when you are listed, linked or mentioned in them.
2. Don’t forget about smaller hyperlocal publications
Other hyperlocal or targeted publications may be easier to get into while proving to your customers that you are truly local. For example, in Dallas there are a number of publishers that serve the Hispanic community; AroundTownKids is a website geared toward moms and kids in the DFW area; Community Impact Newspaper publishes hyperlocal content such as updates on road construction, store and restaurant openings and current events for specific suburbs such as Frisco. All of these can provide valuable links and citations to your business.
3. Get mentioned in reviews
A friend of mine defined reputation as follows: “Your reputation is not what people tell you they think of you, it’s what they say about you when you’re not around.” Today, consumers do that every day through numerous review outlets. Reviews impact decisions for 67 percent of consumers, according to a recent Moz survey.
Quantity is important as a signal to Google regarding the popularity of your business from third-party independent consumers. And while 90 percent of consumers would leave a review if asked, only seven percent have been. So ask for reviews not just on Yelp, but also on Google, TripAdvisor, Yellow Pages sites and other directory listings.
Bad reviews do matter, both to public perception and search engines. So manage those inevitable bad reviews on an individual basis and understand that more good reviews will cure many wrongs.
4. Engage with your community online and in person
Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy says there are two main impressions that people develop about a person when meeting them. First, they determine whether they can trust the person and second, whether they can respect the person.
The same evaluations are made about local businesses and their brand. Engaging with your customers is a way to meet this first prong. Communicating with your audience makes you familiar to them and proves that you are active, trustworthy, personal and likeable.
With consumers spending more and more time on social media, it is an ideal channel for branding. Building awareness through engagement on your social media channels will lead to social media activity such as fans, followers, likes and check-ins. In turn, the volume of activity acts as a brand signal to Google that you and your product/service are liked by a consortium that makes it a more likely match for others searching for similar products or services.
Engagement should be regular and frequent. It doesn’t need to be long, and in many cases, short and simple is best. It may be more productive to break longer posts into bite-sized pieces to help stretch out your content into a larger number of posts.
5. Give them something to talk about
Consumers like to tell of unique experiences and sharable moments. Being treated specially, doing the unexpected, pleasant surprises and personal experiences all trigger positive responses. Try an extra piece of cake or an ad hoc discount. A personal note or a shout-out via picture or post are free but personal ways to get a smile. Whether it’s via a review, post, like or comment, these moments all encourage people to share and Google to take notice.
Involvement in the community outside of your storefront can also be effective. Sponsorship of or participation at local events emphasizes that you are part of the community. It also gives you content to share that will hopefully promote customer interaction online or even chatter from local media outlets.
6. Use lingo that proves you’re local
Every locality has nicknames for certain areas of town, streets or districts. Use those to describe your location and use local landmarks. For example, “We delivery to the M streets” (an area in Dallas) or “5 minutes from SMU” (a university in town) proves you know the area.
Celebrate local events and culture. In Dallas, many restaurants recently promoted specials around Cinco de Mayo, popular here because of DFW’s large Mexican-American population. Local sports teams, whether they’re pro, college, or even high school, have large followings, and events around game time or playoffs shows your local roots. Local weather can also give you content for promotions. The heat in the south or the cold up north, or even specific weather events like hurricanes or snowstorms can demonstrate you cater to local needs and provide opportunities to promote your business.
7. Use content to demonstrate your expertise
Amy Cuddy’s second prong for making an impression is “respect of the person.” In other words, expertise or competence of the person. In marketing principles, it’s the second prong of “being found and being chosen.” Consumers expect local businesses to provide high-quality products/services and better customer service, so it is important that you demonstrate your ability.
Pushing out content that is not sales-related, but rather educational and related to your business, will help prove you know your area of business and provide confidence to the buyer that they’ll be happy with the purchase. For example, I receive newsletters from Spriggs Brothers that provide organic lawn care, landscaping and gardening advice based on season, weather, soil type and other local conditions. Their newsletter does a good job demonstrating their expertise while providing timely and helpful tips.
Gaining consumers’ confidence will lead to higher click-through rates from searches, clicks to call and other online activity captured as engagement with your business.
8. Borrow some national brand cachet through co-op programs
Co-op programs compensate local retailers for displaying national brands in advertisements. For example, a local tire dealer may display logos from Goodyear, Michelin and Bridgestone in its own marketing and receive payouts in return for the brand exposure. But the benefits to the local business go beyond financial subsidies. National companies invest heavily in their own branding, and a local business’s affiliation with the brands can boost its own reputation.
From an SEO standpoint, while you wouldn’t want to overshadow your local search SEO strategies, brand names do carry authority with search algorithms and would help correlate the business category those brands are associated with to your local business when serving up relevant search results.
9. Focus on branding, not conversions with ad impressions
What actually got me thinking of the branding topic was the debate over the ad measurement “impressions” that has gotten such a bad rap in digital marketing. Everyone — from SMBs to big brands — is critical of its pricing structure, its transparency and its ambiguous reach.
The criticism often revolves around the lack of demonstrable ROI by impressions compared to clicks, calls and online to offline attribution and the question about whether ads are truly viewable. In order to “assure” viewability, there are calls to redefine what constitutes a viewable impression, including, among other things, requiring time spent with the ad for a minimum standard of one second.
Yet researchers at MIT found that the human brain can process entire images in as short a time as 13 milliseconds. That’s 0.013 of a second, or almost 77 images per second. So even a very brief view of an ad can be processed by a viewer. While an action may not be taken, there is value to establishing familiarity with an image . . . or brand.
Certainly, you should be aware of illegitimate impressions. But with the growing unpopularity of display advertisements, CPM rates for display have not risen nearly as much as for many other forms of digital media.
There are two battles in marketing. The first is to be found. As we’ve seen, brand is a material factor in Google’s search algorithm. And local businesses have a great opportunity to promote their brands where it matters — in their community.
The second battle is to be chosen, and having a recognizable brand helps here, too, when your local business appears in search results and its name is recognized. It’s even better when your brand name is top of mind and entered as a search term in whole or in part. In sum, building your brand should permeate all your marketing strategies and campaigns.