How to grow your audience, your referrals and your business

January 23, 2017 -  By

iS495495672green-arrowsLandscape Management, Landscape Digital Institute and I partnered last year to launch the first landscape industry digital marketing survey. We think you’ll be interested in the results.

In addition to showing how landscaping and lawn care companies are using digital marketing now, we’ll reveal how industry practices compare with proven digital, social and email marketing practices used by leading organizations and brands.

There is a formula for success. It requires a strategic approach and consistent implementation to accomplish specific business objectives, such as growing your audience, your referrals and your business.

A clear indication that landscape industry companies are embracing digital marketing is their use of websites. Eighty-three percent have a company website, but more significant is that 70 percent have a modern website that’s mobile responsive, and many of them are optimized for search and equipped with analytics for tracking.

Respondents named several challenges to the consistent implementation of digital marketing, with lack of time being a leading factor. The data indicate that 68 percent of business owners manage all digital marketing activities. This figure explains why more than half are dedicating only one to five hours per week to it.

Pie1 Which of the following describes your company’s weekly time investment (total of all team members) to its digital marketing, including coordination with any outside help?

  • 0 hours
  • 1-5 hours
  • 6-10 hours
  • 11-15 hours
  • 16-20 hours
  • 20+ hours

Percentages don’t equal 100% due to rounding.

As a result of this constraint, more than half of companies that responded are relying on paid digital marketing practices, including social media advertising, search engine marketing (pay per click) and search engine optimization (SEO) services. But most significant is that only a fraction of companies have a written strategy that guides their expenditures and actions, including the creation of content.

Lacking a strategy is failing to plan, and that often means planning to fail.

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It turns out green industry companies are committed to discovering what works with digital marketing. Many prefer digital learning methods, such as webinars and online courses, over more traditional networking and education events. This may suggest time or expense limitations, or most likely an effort to make the most of both valuable resources.

How companies grow their audience with content

The early days of email and social media marketing were like the Wild West. When the prevailing attitude is “anything goes,” you get innovation that leads the industry forward and opportunists that seek to game the system.

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The latter soon became known as spamming. Even the Federal Trade Commission got involved to regulate commercial digital marketing practices.

But of course it still goes on, in part because many marketers are either not aware of what works or unwilling to commit to doing the work. There is no question that lack of time is a major contributor to this problem. Nevertheless, although we are at least a full decade into the digital marketing revolution, what was true in the beginning has not changed: Content is king.

In a digital world, content is the air that marketing breathes. You either have it or you will become a casualty of the system. Useful, interesting and entertaining content is what drives all online activities. It’s what has made Google and Facebook two of the most successful companies on the planet.

In 2007 the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) defined the term “content marketing” to describe the practice of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content (articles, blog posts, videos, social media posts, etc.) to attract and retain a clearly defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer actions.

Our survey reveals only 22 percent of landscape industry companies are practicing content marketing, and more than half of them admit to flying blind. That is, they do not have a written content marketing strategy.

The general purpose of content marketing is to create and distribute valuable media that attract and engage a targeted audience the business can serve with its products and services.

It’s interesting that what we call content marketing is actually more like traditional selling than marketing. That idea should help landscape companies grasp how content marketing can be used to accomplish their business objectives.

Just as selling professionals guide prospects through a sales process to determine if their firms’ solutions are right for them, a content marketing approach to digital marketing also guides the prospective buyer’s journey by educating and inspiring them to take actions that are in their best interest.

This is readily accomplished in face-to-face selling situations where the observation of body language and other behavior provides valuable feedback. Accomplishing the same thing with digital marketing requires systems and practices that mirror the methods skilled sales professionals typically use.

Empathy mapping is one method that seeks to understand what prospective buyers are thinking, seeing, feeling and doing at every stage of the journey, beginning with the moment prospects first click on your website. The question becomes, “What action do we want them to take next and then after that and so on.” These steps should be written down so the process can be studied and refined, just like with a sales process.

In sales and marketing, the advantage goes to the companies that have mapped out the buyer’s journey so they can adapt the customer experience for every buyer. This approach requires the development of buyer or audience personas that define prospective customers down to the words they use.

For example, do they say “landscaper” or “landscaping company?” You need to know because these keywords are essential to every content marketing strategy.

Discovering this information requires work. For those willing to take on the challenge, there is a payoff. Consistently creating and distributing strategic content ultimately attracts and engages a targeted audience. That content can be used to reach your audience without having to pay for the opportunity.

With advertising, when you stop paying everything stops. But digital content lives forever. Its permanence sustains your relationship with the audience that’s subscribed to it.

Have you ever wondered why Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple require you to subscribe to their services?

In addition to collecting data on your behavior, the subscription-based models these wildly successful companies use to give you access to their services creates the right to reach out to you. When you subscribe, you’re giving your permission to be interrupted with emails. If those emails provide value, your attention can be converted into profitable sales transactions.

Nearly half of the respondents to our survey do not use email marketing. Did you know email converts at a rate 40 times greater than any of the social media channels, according to a 2013 McKinsey report?

When you’re using social media channels to reach your audience, you’re renting that audience because Facebook, LinkedIn and all of the other platforms control the access they give to their users. If you have a Facebook business page, you know this to be true because it’s difficult to reach much more than 3 percent of your community without paying for Facebook advertising. That’s Facebook’s strategy. You need to find yours.

The most common content marketing strategy is to create and distribute content that guides subscribers from where they are now to your “owned” digital marketing assets, including websites, blogs, email, podcasts and more. The objective is to control or “own” the audience.

Perfect your brand story to grow referrals

The data from our survey reveal landscape industry companies share two universal business growth challenges: attracting talented people and attracting quality leads.

marketing-survey-graph3Nearly nine out of 10 respondents report that referrals are their top source of business leads. This isn’t surprising because green industry companies are mostly small businesses whose growth is typically driven by a local network of relationships.

At some point, that network becomes tapped out and cannot deliver more referrals to support incremental business growth. Therefore, for landscape companies to source the leads and talented people they need to grow, they have to figure out how to grow their networks.

The challenge is that your current network most likely developed organically over time. Maybe you went to high school with people who are now your customers. Unless you plan to go back to high school, you need to find another way to grow your audience.

This task can be difficult because your network relationships are the result of trust you’ve earned, sometimes over long periods of time.

People know your story from being associated with you. They understand you, and that’s why they trust you.

In other words, the people in your network get you because, however it happened, they discovered your story. They know what you’re all about and why it’s a pleasure to know and work with you. Now you have to figure out how to convey that understanding to complete strangers. You need to discover how to tell your brand story so they get you, too.

This is the digital marketing challenge that even frustrates successful brands. A 2016 CMI report indicates more than 70 percent of major brands struggle with the same thing.

Your brand story, in a few words, is content marketing. That story educates and inspires people to do business with you because it stands in for the distinctive customer experience that your company delivers.

Your story is an ongoing narrative that’s infused with your passion and unique methods for getting beautiful results. You have to capture and consistently communicate your backstory to build a body of work that resonates with future buyers.

What really happens is buyers take your story and make it their own. They tell themselves a story that validates their buying decision. It’s the same one they’ll tell their friends and neighbors, and that’s how it will grow your audience.

Content sells a distinctive customer experience

One of the most vital digital marketing success criteria is the understanding that SEO is content. The more relevant the content, the easier it is to optimize it. This is what we mean when we say “content is king.” Trying to optimize lousy content is like trying to optimize junk food to make it healthier.

All the paid SEO in the world is not going to do you any good if it doesn’t sit on a foundation of exceptional content that people want to consume. Believe it or not, that foundation is your brand story.

Here’s a secret. There is something about how or why you do what you do that differentiates you from every other landscape company in your market. This is your superpower; it’s something personal that inspires people to action. It may be your knack for getting things done, inventing fresh ideas or simply delivering an enjoyable customer experience.

When your content sells the experience of what it’s like to work with you and your company, it’s doing its job well.

Takeaways, action items

When we asked respondents to compare their marketing to their peers, we got a surprising response. A segment of marketers consider themselves good, but inconsistent.

Pie2How does your company’s marketing compare with its green industry peers?

  • Beginner
  • Active learner
  • Proficient
  • Good, but inconsistent
  • Good, but old school
  • Good, and digital savvy toos
  • Expert

Anyone will tell you that you cannot be a good spouse or friend if you are inconsistent. That’s something you need to remember with your digital marketing.

The most important thing is showing up as expected. If you can do that for your audience, good things will come your way.

Here are a few suggested actions:

  1. Become a student of content marketing.
  2. Get a digital marketing strategy that aligns with your business goals.
  3. Consistently implement it.
  4. Grow your audience to grow your business.
  5. Remember to keep it personal. People trust people more than they trust marketing.

Methodology and key findings

Landscape Management, Landscape Digital Institute and landscape industry consultant Jeff Korhan partnered last year to launch the first landscape industry digital marketing survey, garnering more than a hundred responses.

Survey respondents are a typical cross-section of the industry, with a business mix representing 37% landscape maintenance, 23% design-build or contracting and 14% lawn care.

Key findings:

  • 83% have a website
  • 78% use social media for marketing
  • 67% use Facebook daily
  • 52% practice email marketing
  • 12% have a written digital marketing strategy
  • 6% have defined their ideal customer

Illustration: ©

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