Let's talk marketing to local, small business website owners


You see a bad, broken, imperfect website in the wild locally. What do you do?

Eight years ago when I moved to the Charlotte area, I made a pact with local web developers. As a WordPress specialist moving into an area with few of the same, I volunteered not to compete with their local small business prospects. Ninety percent of my own business came from across the country or the world at the time.
I did not need the local business. I did need the community.
My business did well at times and dragged at others in the ensuing eight years. I helped build a community in the area and it sprouted a life of its own and has grown and forked and splintered and grown again and again and again.
The Charlotte area has over 1.2 million people in it. I do not know everyone. In fact for many of those years, I got caught up in my personal and family life. My business coasted on personal referrals and word of mouth business. I purposefully chose to continue operating as a one person agency.
On a couple occasions I stepped in to help local agencies as they got lost or stuck. The experiences were not positive. I kept going by myself.
Last year I started rebooting my life. This year I started rebooting my business. Business is growing rapidly now. I have a new drive and a new focus.
I’m throwing out many of my former self-imposed rules. I have worked with a few more local businesses but not with many. It is new ground for me. I see a lot of sites that need a lot of help. I see even more sites that need just a bit of help, to fix or improve key things to help make their business flourish.

This raises some questions

How do I approach local businesses, small business and point out these opportunities?
I want to avoid untactful approaches that might indicate that their baby is ugly. I do want to share some of the wisdom and apply it in a way to improve the local online ecosystem.
I have a working hypothesis that a rising tide will lift all boats.
Specifically, if local businesses all start using more best practices with their websites, they will do better and their customers will benefit as well from receive better customer service and products. This also raises a bar that makes it more difficult for scammers to enter into the picture and hijack websites, spoof emails, steal sensitive information and more.
I have some altruistic motivations. My oldest son is going to college this fall as well. My profit motives are strong as well.
Building the Ultimate small business, local business marketing approach for web developers and designers
This is what I want to build here. I’m starting with my own brainstorm on the topic. This is what I will publish first.
Then I will perform some research on these topics to correct my perceptions or misinformation or untested ideas.
Finally, I want to seek out direct advice on this topic from many other web developers and agencies.
I am not looking to develop a secret sauce. As I mentioned, a higher tide raises all boats. If I can help other developers in my area great. If I can help other developers in the other top fifty markets or the other 7200 smaller markets or any area or region in the world, great!
I am working to be transparent with other developers and with my current and future clients.
I’m not looking for the ultimate mind hack that gets my foot in the door and closes business deals with helpless unsuspecting business owners separating them from their money and leaving them with garbage that needs to be fixed after I leave.
I have fixed to many expensive and bad haircuts over the years.
I do not mind working with a client and helping them level up, even if that means when they go to the next level they choose someone else.
I am happy to work to the next level with them if I can. If I can’t, I am quick to point out what I am able to do and what I am not able to do.

Where to start…

What are the Things to look for on Local Websites?

Who do we target? Who needs the most help? Who needs the critical help in a specific area?

This is a list of my initial brainstorm on this subject

  • Businesses running ad spots in local papers or magazines – In terms of business, I cannot help a small business that has zero budget. They can benefit from my DIY videos, blog articles and training. But I am looking for businesses that have a budget for marketing and building their site. If a company is running local advertisements, this is an initial sign that they might have budget. (If they didn’t spend it all!)
  • It has been my personal experience that any businesses that are running advertising specifically in the Yellow Pages, can usually get more of a return on their ad spend by improving their own websites instead of paying YP.com to improve they YP.com website. In fact, I have saved clients serious small business money (4-5 figures) by dropping their ads and spending a fraction of their former budget to boost their site, and more. My clients have been able to increase business, save money, eliminate a yearly expense and begin specifically tracking just how much more money they were making and spending to the dollar.
  • Some small businesses have to have a very strong mobile presence. On average most small business websites get at least 30-40% of their traffic from smart phones these days. Some small businesses see double that. These businesses need to have very functional and fast mobile website. Many do not have this and they lose business if they do not lose their business all together!
  • Mobile or not, the site has to be fast. If a business has a slow website, their fix can be easy. I can help them with this, or I can point them in the direction of DIY solutions
  • The site needs to convey a message easily and quickly for people that only scan the site visually. It has to be beyond easy to read.
  • It needs to be easy to navigate too!
  • I need to be able to connect with them. I can’t help someone that I can’t talk to somehow. I need a mailing address, phone number, something
  • Certain specialty businesses such as small medical practices, dentists, veterinarian offices and more. For me this is a niche that I have experience with.

What do I look for on their local business sites?

  • Are they running WordPress? Y/N either answer can point to an opportunity or it can point to a dead end. I am a WordPress specialist. If they are already setup with a great system, I may not be able to help more. Not all haircuts in the wild are bad. Similarly, if it is something else, it may not be bad. Or it may or may not be something that can be migrated or replicated easily or well in WordPress. It is probably possible, but that does not mean that it can be done better.
  • Are they using something that is too difficult? I could win a forumula 1 race car tomorrow. That does not mean that it would be practical for me to drive it around town. It might not even be safe for me to drive it around town! Similarly, sometimes small businesses get a website that they simply can not drive well. From my experience, if a small business has a website that they do not understand, if they cannot manage it, if they have to hire an outside specialist to drive them around, there is a good possibility that it is the wrong vehicle for them. If a small business opened a store and bought a cash register that they could not open, the technology could be the greatest thing in the world, but it would be useless. Same goes for the website more often than not.
  • Is it too slow? I mentioned it before. Speed matters. If it is slow for visitors that is simply bad for business. Very bad for business. If the website is too slow for the people that have to manage the website, that can be very bad for business too. Time is money and if a small business is paying an employee to click a button and that button takes 1 minute per click, and they have to click 15 buttons, that is a quarter hour to perform one thing. They might have saved thousands on the website to build it, but if they end up paying someone $10 per hour or $100 per hour to waste time pushing slow buttons, they might run out of money very quickly. Or worse, they might lose business because they are too slow for their customers.
  • Is Google Analytics running on the site? If it is not, that might be an indicator that they have no idea how effective their website is. They may not be tracking any useful details about how their website is helping or hurting their business. They might have a formula 1 car and have no idea if they are driving 30 mph or 200 mph.
  • If they are running ads in local print, do they use a www link or a non-www link? Having a longer and frankly more old fashioned www link is another time waster. From an ad copy perspective, it is a space waster. They could shrink their own link in print by 4 characters and up the font size or weight, increasing the chance that someone might actually remember their link or take the time to text it to a friend. It is a small thing, but an indicator that other things might be out of date or stuck in the past awaiting a modernization.
  • Look for items in print ads that can translate to functional upgrades
    Do they offer coupons in print? If yes, do they have a way to track coupons on their site? Do they have an affiliate program or coupon codes at checkout or redirects to track incoming visitors using the coupon. If they are not tracking the effectiveness of their print ads and the potential to turn print ads into web business, they might be missing other opportunities on their site too. There may be other things too. If they sell stuff, do they have an ecommerce site. If they mention an event, do they sell tickets or have a calendar. If they are seeking members, do they have a membership option. If they teach, do they offer a course and many many more scenarios.
  • Do they offer any type of ecommerce on their website? – They are in business. Do they have anyway to convert people into customers on their own website? Do they have any means of taking money around the clock online? Is there someway they could?

How do we reach these people and their small local businesses?

It is great that we have identified all of these ways of identifying someone that we can help. It is even better that we have all these potential things identified that we might be able to help them with on their websites. But how do we actually reach out to them?
This is an area where I have less experience. The majority of my experience and success has come from running local meetups and DIY training events. This is an excellent means of reaching people and helping them in substantial ways. It is a great way of filtering out people that have no budget and letting those that do and who decide on their own that you might be a good fit for them, to then reach out.
Sometimes it is also a good way to have some very nice people completely waste your time and theirs! 🙂
My point here is that even if you get to know someone in a meetup, and they reach out to you for help, and paid help at that. Please make sure that you vet them to see if they are a good fit for you and that you are a good fit for them.
There is an old school concept called ‘gotta guy’ (yes it is a little masochistic too. You can maybe picture someone from Goodfellas using this terminology)… It goes like this, ‘Hey Frankie, this website thing is busting my [insert Joe Pesci curse words here]’ Frankie responds, ‘Well I gotta guy that can help! He’s my sisters’s mother’s uncle’s grandson’s wife’s husband. He’s great with websites.’
Then out of the blue this guy gets a call from a gangster who knows his family connection and is pressured into helping someone he doesn’t want to help, or else!
It is good to have strong boundaries in place that protect web developers from people that are not good fits for them.
Similarly, business owners sometimes rely to heavily on trusting anyone that they actually ‘know’ to help them make a decision on who to hire. Just because their high school teen built a website once or has a tumblr account or has 10k followers or something, they may not be the best person to find the right person to do a web job, or do it themselves!
Same goes for meetups. yes, you can meet some great people. You can even see that they are really smart. But they may or may not be the right person for the job. It helps to interview each other and figure this out with more precision.
With all that in mind, let’s focus on How to actually simply reach small businesses that might need help when they do not know you!
Mobile screenshots or videos
I mentioned above that some small businesses will live and die based on the strength of their mobile website. If you visit their mobile site and it is less than fast or less than functional, a screenshot or a video of the poorly performing thing might speak a thousand words.
They may not know that there is a problem in Houston!
Show them and simply offer to help fix it.
Better yet, show them and show them how you have fixed other similar problems if you can. (Sometimes we have portfolio examples and sometimes we do not)
How to do this?
You could email them, although a cold email to too many small businesses might get you into spam trouble.
You could reach out to them in social media. Although publicly showing the emperor that the invisible clothes do not exist, might embarrass them and help anyone but you get the business.
You could reach out to them privately via social media. Although many small businesses barely maintain their accounts let alone the inbox.
We could call them on the phone and describe the problem, invite them to coffee and show them, or setup an appointment to show them. If they have an actual place of business that is public, this might work better than if they are an entrepreneur working out of their home, loath to meet actual people in person!
Setup a meetup and invite them.
Interview them for a blog, a podcast or webcast. One or more of the questions might relate to the items you have spotted. (My non-direct personality likes this concept the best. It may or may not be the best approach for everyone.)
We could take that screenshot and print it off as a post card and send it to them. Maybe add a link to a private youtube video protected by a password provided on the postcard. (I like this idea a lot too! That video could be used in a before and after option in the future. Maybe get the owner’s permission to use it and show off the amazing work that is done later. After all, even their customers will like the American Idol makeover that they get! America loves the American Idol effect, even if we are long over American Idol itself.)

Big projects vs little fast projects

I’d point out that there are some projects that are big migrations and makeovers. There are others that simply add some new quick functionality or service at the right place and time.
Sometimes we can help a business with a small thing, without becoming their main web developer. Sometimes building a little good will and pointing someone in the right direction might be the thing that helps them remember us years down the road when they do need a new developer.
No matter what, I’d remind you that I’m operating under that a higher tide raises all boats philosophy.
With that in mind, I am open to the concept of doing small quick projects or pointing people in the right direction even in order to grow a network and improve the local ecosystem too.
Location, Location, Location … Is there a Map on their site? 
Let’s say that I find an advertisement in a local events paper. If the ad includes a map to a location of that business in the ad itself, one of my first questions would be, do they have a website? Does that website also have a map to their location on the website? Is it easy to find and get to? Is it easy to find and read on a mobile device?
If it was so important to put a map on a print ad, it is likely that it is ten times more important to have it on the website and done well.
Another Example
Many businesses operate on scheduling. If their ad includes an option to call for an appointment or something, that is going to make me want to know if they offer online reservations or scheduling or booking for the thing they do. Something like this might be a small, medium or even large project depending on the scenario.
It is also one that can automate an important part of their business and save them time and money and give them an online ecommerce capability to perform 24hour per day business while the business owner sleeps!
New customer Example
Some businesses live and die by their new customers. Once they have done the thing once for a person, they can no longer do the thing for them a second time. Orthodontists sort of fall into this bucket. Once an orthodontist puts braces on a kid, straightens their teeth and removes them, odds are high that kid will not need braces again.
yes, I know. There are exceptions. I am one of those exceptions and as I enter my mid 40’s, I need braces again!
Still the majority of business for an Orthodontist is going to be targeted at acquiring brand new patients.
The orthodontist for my children gives out a special award and scholarship at the local middle school. He is a genius and is involved very closely with middle schoolers and their parents in the community. This is his market!!!

Why is this important?
Well, lots of other businesses need new customers for one time things as well. If they are not running Google Analytics (above) then they may have not clue if a visitor coming to their site is a new visitor or a repeat visitor. A repeat visitor may not be likely to bring in revenue, but a new visitor might be 10 times more likely to bring in revenue. You can bet that they want to slice off that new visitor and handhold them through something special to make a great first impression.

Who to avoid?

Targeting is as much about picking the right target and ignoring the wrong targets.

Everyone needs to identify potential groups or niches that are not a good fit for their work. I have a client, who works exclusively with car dealerships. This is not my area. It is his. I help with his site and blog. He helps dealerships with theirs.
My point is that a car dealership as of today, is not one of my own niches. I have seen some great themes and plugins for car dealerships, but haven’t done anything with them yet. (I pitched one about 4 years ago, but did not get the business.)
I have had success with local contractors, non-profits by the thousands, professionals and entertainers, artists and personalities. Tech startup companies and even some large tech companies too are all sweet spots.
Personally, I would not know where to begin with an antiques website, or a clothing retailer or a furniture or insurance or travel company.

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