Back in the day, the YellowPages was where it was at. If you could get noticed in the book, you were sure to get customers calling. When I was doing consulting, I spent a lot of time with the sales team at directory companies. I heard stories about how small business owners would line-up outside the YP office, waiting to get their ad in the book. Picture black Friday at a Walmart and that is what they claim it was like. I believe them too, a lot of these guys are driving BMW and Lexus’ around town as a result of the commissions they’ve made in that era. They’ve paid off houses and student loans from the run they had. From what I understand, working for a directory service like the YellowPages felt similar to what working at Facebook or Google feels like today. The business came to you and you were basically an order taker; and a well compensated one at that.
But then everything changed. It was gradual too, so it snuck-up on people and caught them off-guard. The Internet started to gain traction and small business marketing budgets starting to diversify and allocate a portion for online advertising opportunities. They still spent a good deal with “the book”, mostly because the web was still a nascent marketing channel and the opportunities were limited. So YP sales people kept taking orders and continued to make money; granted a little less but still a good income. So, although everyone knew the web was gaining a little, they remained calm. Directories rolled out a few new features to help YP ads stand out. They released a website to increase advertising opportunities and tried to evolve. They just did it so slowly.
Eventually, small business owners started getting calls from SEO companies and PPC experts. They learned about new technology and advertising platforms. They learned how to optimize a website. Long story short, they learned new techniques for marketing online and started to invest more into it. Unfortunately, many of these so-called SEO and PPC experts were simply wannabe entrepreneurs that wanted to capitalize on the opportunity. They all had a great pitch but very few of them could back it up. So they took the SMB’s money and did their best. Sometimes with less than spectacular results.
Despite all of the noise and fakes that were popping up there were some legit companies that knew what they were doing. Many of them were local agencies that had morphed into digital marketing firms, leveraging real advertising and brand capabilities to deliver digital marketing solutions. This was a great era for the local small business because they had access to a real agency and the talent and big picture thinking that comes with that; and since most agencies were just getting their own feet with digital, they were pricing themselves in an affordable way and giving the SMB a great value for the money spent. But again things transitioned and bigger brands came knocking. The traditional clients that the agencies worked with starting needing more and more digital work done. The demand made it difficult for agencies to manage both small and large projects and a decision was made to focus on the big billers. So a lot of agencies abandoned main street and went back to focusing on larger clients and projects.
The next era of evolution was the era where smaller agencies start popping everywhere. Entrepreneurs who worked at the large agencies recognized an opportunity to start a boutique agency that would serve the SMB market. They priced themselves a little lower, applied the same agency thinking and process and started to get to work. This was also the era when web services went big-box and companies like GoDaddy, Web.com and SitePoint started to grow. They got into the web design business, SEO game and provided marketing solutions of all kinds to small business owners. These options continued to grow and grow. Soon, we had too many and that is kind of where we are today. With all of the choices, a lot of small business owners feel paralyzed.
I completely understand too. It seems like everyone wants the SMB dollar but few are providing any real value. You’ve got your freelancers, boutique agencies, big-box web companies, YP sales rep and a bunch of local experts that all claim to increase your bottom line. But who do you trust? I can’t say I have the answer either. I’ve seen situations where a big-box is the right choice; then I’ve seen situations where the freelancer works great. For some, working with a smaller, boutique agency is the way to go. At the end of the day though I still think it comes down to a gut-check.
Service is the differentiator in a digital world. It’s also where a lot of big-box companies drop the ball. Unfortunately, freelancers seem to struggle with this too. In my experience it is the boutique local agency that does the best job. The team of 5-10 smart minds that left the big corporate marketing world to start a small business for themselves. These are the people that know what you are going through as an SMB. These are the people with real skin in the game. They have a reputation to maintain and a business to grow and that can’t happen without them growing yours. So, my advice is to steer clear of the freelancers, big-box service companies and inflated agencies. Find a local firm that you can meet in person and get to know.