Local Service Businesses: How to Prioritize Your Digital Marketing Budget

If you're trying to market a local service business, you have a tough job – I'm talking roofers, plumbers, home builders, lawyers, dentists, auto glass companies, etc.

If you're like most, you're probably bootstrapping your marketing efforts and your staff wears several different hats. In all likelihood you're completely bombarded with marketing offers from radio and TV stations, yellow pages, SEO, PPC, and social media companies. You likely also have a very limited budget and not much time to figure out where to focus your marketing efforts for maximum impact.

We generally find there are some major challenges with small local service businesses that make the marketing process that much harder:

  1. Limited marketing budget.
  2. Sales people pushing you to do everything under the sun: SEO, social media, print, radio, TV, you  name it.
  3. Limited time to devote to researching where your money might be best spent.
  4. Limited time to wait for branding efforts to pay off – you need leads now, not 2 years from now.

Where to allocate your marketing dollars for the biggests impact

In our experience, local service businesses will get the biggest impact by starting at the top of this list and working down. Please keep in mind that every business is different and, depending on your situation, it may make more sense to swap a few of these.

1. Local SEO

Local rankings tend to be easier than national. There's just far less competition. Plus, when a search has local intent, Google will show local search results on the front page. That means if you're a plumber, instead of competing with every plumber in the country, you're only competing with those plumbers in your area.

Pros of this method:

  • Once you get ranked, it's much easier to stay there, although maintenance is still required.
  • The ROI is generally greater than AdWords and in many cases significantly greater than other advertising options. SEO definitely isn't free; you still have to spend money to get ranked and stay there, but it generally provides a better return that almost any other medium for local service businesses.
  • If you're an established company the process can be much faster and more effective than a brand new company.

Cons of this method:

  • The industry is absolutely flooded with snake-oil salesmen preying on small, local companies. Watch out for anyone making SEO sound like it's easy or a sure thing. It's not.
  • SEO takes a while to work. It can easily take 6 months to get results from SEO.
  • If you're a brand new company it can take longer, especially in competitive industries.
  • Local SEO is complicated. There are hundreds of factors that influence how Google ranks your website. Any one of them could prevent you from making progress.
  • Can be a bit more complicated to get ranked outside of a 10-15 mile radius of your physical location.

2. Paid Search (PPC Search Advertising)

These are the ads you see in Google search results. Here's a screenshot – notice they have little orange "Ad" icons next to them:

PPC Search Results

They're called paid search, or pay per click (PPC) ads because every time someone clicks on one of those ads, the advertiser pays Google. In other words you pay per click.

There seems to be a general disdain for PPC out there; I think people see the fact that you're paying for every click as a bad thing. It's not; remember, SEO isn't free and neither is any other advertising medium. In the end, the measure of any advertising medium is whether it helps you grow your business. PPC is an incredibly effective way to generate business online. It offers the ability to target specific keywords, geographic regions, times of day, and devices (mobile vs tablet vs desktop).

Pros of this method:

  • A competent PPC manager can usually drive a strong ROI.
  • You can get a campaign up and running quickly. Sometimes within a week or less.
  • PPC is the best keyword research tool on Earth. You can find out which keywords are driving traffic, leads, and sales, and use that intel in your SEO efforts.

Cons of this method:

  • Lots of snake-oil salesmen here as well. Watch out for any company that won't tell you exactly how much you're paying for clicks and how much they're taking as a management fee or markup. Tons of PPC companies do this so watch out for it.
  • Some industries have high click costs. This doesn't mean you can't pull a strong ROI, but it does mean that you'll probably have to spend more to do it.

3. Remarketing

Have you ever looked at a product on Amazon and then seen ads for that product on every website you visited after that? That's remarketing (also known as retargeting). With remarketing you can tag people as having visited your website and Google will show them ads for your services when they visit other websites.

And it can be incredibly effective. Remarketing can commonly perform better than paid search (PPC). For this reason, you may want to consider switching #2 and #3 in this list and doing remarketing before paid search.

Pros of this method:

  • Target the people who are most interested in what you offer. The fact that they've already been to your website suggests they're more interested than someone else.
  • Amazing targeted branding opportunity. Remarketing can act as a sort of hyper-focused branding campaign. By showing ads to a targeted list of prospects (only those who have already visited your website), over time you can build brand recognition with relatively little spend.
  • Cost per lead can, in some cases, be less than PPC. It makes sense, right? These people have already expressed interest by visiting your website. Most of the people visiting your website for the first time are not ready to pull the trigger. Remarketing lets you keep your brand in front of those people, and only those people, until they are ready.

Cons of this method:

  • It doesn't require graphical ads to be designed, but you'll likely get a better result. That means you have to have ads designed in multiple sizes, which costs money.
  • It adds complexity and will increase the overall cost of your marketing efforts.
  • Note that there aren't a whole lot of cons here. If you haven't tried this you really should consider it.

4. Content marketing:

You could also call this inbound marketing, but the two certainly aren't exactly the same. Content marketing is really hyped up these days, but it's important to understand what works and what doesn't. Content marketing is significantly different for every industry.

For example, auto glass companies tend to have short sales cycles. Content designed to generate a direct response needs to be focused on achieving organic search rankings, answering pre-sales questions, describing benefits over competitors, warranties, etc. You basically want to lubricate the move from prospect to customer as quickly as possible.

Content for a home builder will be dramatically different. Sales cycles will be much longer and prospects are going to be doing far more research. For this industry content should focus much more on customer feedback, video testimonials, tons of photos and walk-throughs of the homes, follow up customer interviews long after they've moved into their new homes, etc.

On top of this, to do content marketing well, you have to understand the purpose of the content as well as the various stages your prospects go through before becoming customers. 96% of visitors to your website are not ready to buy now. How do you convert the 4% who are ready, but also stay top of mind for the 96% who are not yet ready to purchase?

Likewise, you must define the purpose of a particular piece of content. Is it designed to achieve organic search rankings, convince visitors to request a quote, position your company as a thought leader?

Blogging is a form of content marketing, but if you're blogging just for the sake of blogging, you're doing it wrong. Case in point: We once blogged twice a week for 3 months for a client. Reviewing the stats after 3 months we realized the blog drove 0 leads; not a single person who requested a quote ever even looked a blog post. But they were spending quite a bit of time on our service and testimonials pages, so we quit blogging and focused on developing those pages. The result was a significant increase in leads.

Pros of this method:

  • It's one of the most effective ways increase leads after someone is on your site.
  • Tends to increase organic search traffic (in other words it can help with SEO).
  • It can build brand awareness and demonstrate thought leadership. Depending on your industry, this can be a seriously huge benefit.

Cons of this method:

  • It can be complicated and quite a lot of work. Be sure to only bite off small pieces at a time.
  • You must thoroughly understand your customer, their buying process, and what type of content that will help them through that process. You need to have a target customer in mind and a reason for every piece of content you write. It's easy to just start pumping out blog posts just for the sake of blogging. Don't do that or you'll just waste time and money.

5. Display ads:

We're sort of getting into branding now. Display ads are the graphical ads you see on other websites. This is similar to remarketing, but instead of targeting only people who have already visited your website, you target people based on interests, demographics, which websites they frequent, etc.

Display advertising tends to be a bit more weighted toward branding than direct response, which is why it's lower on this list. Don't get me wrong, if you're an established company with a decent marketing budget, display can be an awesome way to drive brand awareness and generate leads. Smaller companies with limited budgets who don't have time or money for brand building may not want to tackle this right away.

Pros of this method:

  • Awesome brand building tool.
  • Can still provide a great ROI and drive leads.

Cons of this method:

  • Weighted more toward brand building than direct response. That means initial lead costs may be slightly higher than other methods.
  • It can be more complicated than paid search to manage effectively.

6. Social Media:

Yes, social media is last on this list. Don't get me wrong, social media is a killer tool for brand building and customer support, but it's not going to drive a bunch of leads for a local service business. Why? Because nobody goes on Facebook to find a roofer. People on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram have different intentions. They're looking at pictures of cats, not searching for a roofer. If they are they go to Google.

So it's great if you keep the purpose in mind. Plus, every website should have social components to encourage content sharing.

Pros of this method:

  • Great branding opportunity.
  • Awesome customer service tool.

Cons of this method:

  • Don't expect social to drive direct leads – it won't.
  • It takes a lot of time, money, and creativity to do it right.

John Crenshaw
John Crenshaw
UFO company founder. 15+ years experience in performance marketing.
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