Tuesday 16 Dec 2008
Everyone is on a budget. No one understands better than I that small and local-oriented business owners have a limit to what they can invest in the promotion of their business, both on and off the web. Mike Blumenthal has just published an utterly fascinating interview with a California Central Valley sewing machine and vacuum dealer who is performing a careful juggling act of promotion efforts, measuring results and counting pennies. Most small business owners have to do this and the smart ones treat the whole experience as an ongoing learning process. Over time, the business owner learns which efforts make the biggest difference to smooth operations and the bottom line. I came away from Mike’s interview with admiration for the interviewee’s drive to thrive.
I wish I could say the same for all of the local-focused business owners I speak with. Not long ago, we were approached by a B&B owner who said he was ready to dedicate himself to getting more business from the web. He asked us to check him out online and tell him how we could help him meet his goals. That’s the kind of request I really go for.
Rubbing my hands together in eager anticipation of a potentially great project, I started my research by visiting his website. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The site had been designed a decade earlier by ‘a friend’ and it certainly looked that way. Still, it had some nice things going for it including a section on local events and tourist destinations. I saw some good raw materials to work with there and massive opportunity for improving the visual impression the outdated design and fuzzy photos must have been making on anyone visiting the site. So, step number one yielded many indications that I could put on my designer hat and work wonders for the business.
SEO was badly needed, sitewide. My SEO hat (which is a red sunbonnet) was at the ready there, too, for step number 2, and we’d get the site flowing more smoothly with a bit of usability work.
Step 3 involved taking a look at the local rankings the company was getting. Again, opportunity for improvement was jumping out at me all over the place. Get a review program going, get some new citations, get some new listings in the right places and we could have seen good results in the 10-pack, Maps and Organic, I believe.
But it was when I hit step 4 that my hat sort of fell askew. User reviews are an amazingly valuable tool for gauging public perception of a B&B. People love to review the places they stay and we found a pretty good number of reviews of this business, but what they were saying took me aback quite a bit. Apparently, there was a serious problem with the plumbing of the business in question. Rather than repairing the issue, the business owner requested that guests deposit their used lavatory paper in a basket next to the toilet. No, I am not kidding. Guests were forbidden to flush their paper.
Questions about health codes aside, I read through every review I could find with heightened interest. Nearly every review of the lodgings mentioned this oddity with the plumbing. You sort of have to picture me taking all of this in, asking myself, “hmm…what do I think about this?” and noting, with some astonishment, that despite this sanitary irregularity, the business had received more positive than negative reviews. Yet, nearly all of them mentioned the commode conundrum, even when saying, “I really didn’t mind having to put my soiled paper in a basket. I had a wonderful time!”
To say that this opened my eyes to a side of human nature previously unknown to me would be an understatement. I personally can’t envision my husband and I having a romantic weekend getaway with a basket of…well, unmentionables…at our side. But it takes all kinds to make a world, and the study of the user reviews showed me that a B&B can stay in business, even with irregular lodgings, because there are people who honestly don’t seem to mind the situation. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t read it in reviewers’ own words repeatedly. And, no, they didn’t strike me as phony.
But then there were the negative reviews…quite a few of them…where the unhappy guest had been utterly disgusted by their experience and would clearly not be returning for another stay.
I sat back and thought this over. Here were 2 groups of people: those who didn’t mind a broken toilet on their vacation and those who did. A picture began to form in my mind.
User reviews that refer to a B&B as filthy and horrific are pretty damaging. In this case, I’m not sure how an expert at reputation management would reconcile a sterling reputation with an unusable restroom. I couldn’t see any way for the business to be ‘protected’ from a continuing stream of further reviews couched in extremely negative language. If fixing the plumbing was not being seen as a viable option by the business owner, how could I help them?
Well, believe it or not, I figured it out. I thought long and hard about the location of this business. Though it is currently one of the pricier regions in its state, and populated with millionaires, not long ago, the area was considered a hippie haven, home to the artsy-granola-crunching crowd. This reputation for earthiness still lingers in the environs, and the region still draws many natural-minded folks because of its tremendous natural beauty. These had to be the happy customers who were still thrilled with their visit, despite plumbing hassles. The answer, then, was to stop billing the B&B as a cutesy Victorian vacation paradise, and start billing it as a REAL taste of the Authentic 70’s of the celebrated, still-remembered, but almost vanished past. Suddenly, I could see it. The B&B was already offering organic breakfasts and chemical-free housekeeping. They were just a step away from fulfilling their potential as a totally funky but earthy and affordable place to stay in a desirable and very pricey region of the state.
While I could never bring myself to see a broken bathroom as an asset, I was able to get creative enough to see how I could help this business to improve the accuracy and usefulness of their website as well as their online reputation by targeting the right customers with a very carefully worded, right message: Hey, it’s kind of funky here, but you’re going to love it! We’re the 70’s _____ town you remember! Peace, love and nature, man. Can you dig it?
I could have turned this request down, but I happen to have a soft spot for naturalness, and while it doesn’t extend to a lack of basic cleanliness, I decided I’d put my very best thoughts for the B&B into a proposal that, if accepted, I was sure would work wonders for this hospitality business. I shared my concerns, my suggestions and my visionary solution with the owner and…he turned me down.
Laugh with me, here.
“I had no idea it would cost so much.”
What did I expect? The guy won’t even fix the pipes in his inn. What hat was I wearing to go on this odyssey of bending over backwards to help someone who is so poorly funded that his guests can’t flush their toilets? It must have been my silly hat. I hung up the receiver after speaking with the owner and had to laugh at myself. After this many years in this business, shouldn’t I have seen that one coming?
So, we won’t be working our magic for the Little B&B that couldn’t afford a plumber and couldn’t afford to make a decent effort on the web. Perhaps I should have framed my comeback along the lines of, “well look, I know it’s an investment for you, but after the new site sends you X amount of new guests it will have paid for itself and all the money earned after that can go to hire a plumber! Just think of it!” I’m almost sorry I didn’t say that.
But, I didn’t say it, and I’m not even mentioning the name of this business because I feel kind of sorry for them in a way. The economy is in trouble, and everyone is on a budget. I have a feeling I could have talked sense to a business owner like the one Mike interviewed, and I suspect we wouldn’t have been starting the conversation with the disadvantage of a store full of broken appliances, but every so often, you run into these situations where it’s time to throw up your hands and give up. If you’re going to succeed, you’ve got to have some money to invest. There’s no way around it. Even the nicest designer or SEO can’t change that for a client, and it’s always uncomfortable for me to have to explain such a basic concept to a person who is looking for those #1 rankings.
But this time, I think it was really my fault that the idea progressed to the proposal stage. Where did I put my smart hat?