Using Web and Social Media in Your Business

November 02, 2011
November/December 2011
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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According to a recent report from the consulting group BIA/Kelsey, 97% of consumers now look for local businesses online. While directories like the yellow pages used to be the go-to place to look for information about local businesses, people are now using search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing and consulting with their peers on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to find local businesses that offer the services they're looking for.

What this means for your home performance business is that the yellow pages no longer cut it (if they ever did). Even advertising in local newspapers, and on television and radio stations, is no longer as effective as it used to be. People are increasingly turning to online sources for news, music, and television, and are using services like TiVo to avoid advertising.

This is not a bad thing. Whether you're a technology evangelist or a Luddite, the fact remains that this change in the way people search for information can be a great thing for your business. You just need to learn the basics of the free tools that are now at your disposal to draw leads and increase your business — all while avoiding the costly fees that traditional marketing media require.

This article looks at each of the major online marketing tools that have been proven to be effective drivers of business for home performance contractors, energy auditors, and other home energy professionals.

What Defines a High-Performance Web Site?

Your web site is your home base on the web, but most web sites are like most houses: outdated, inefficient, and unhealthy (for business). As your company's home base, your web site must perform three critical functions.

It Must Establish Your Credibility

Your web site must convey a sense of what your company is all about. It must let visitors know who you are (after all, many of those visitors won't be word-of-mouth references, but strangers who found your site through a search engine). And it must project an image of professionalism, expertise, authority, and authenticity. In an emerging field like ours, with a constant stream of new entrants, you want the visitors to your web site to know that you're the real deal.

You can do this in a variety of ways. Ask yourself the following questions to determine if your web site is doing its job right now:

  • Do you have a good logo?
  • Is the content of your site informative, and therefore useful, for visitors?
  • Does your web site tell visitors who you are?
  • Does it tell visitors what, exactly, you do?
  • Is it easy to navigate, or is the best content buried?
  • Are the pages of your site formatted consistently?

Home Performance Matters is a great example of a well-designed, user-friendly web site. Notice that the About Us page is placed prominently next to the Home page in the navigation bar, and the rotating hero image highlights the four categories of services that the company offers.

 

Social_Media_homeperformancesite

 

It Must Capture Leads

One of the common mistakes small businesses make is not measuring the performance of their site against their key business goals. For most small businesses, one of the central purposes of their web site is to capture leads. This is best done by using a landing page. A landing page is a web page that features content specific to a particular campaign or offer, so that visitors are given, up front, exactly the information they were looking for. At the same time, they are given ways to provide you with contact information. Landing pages are the place where people will be directed when your site is linked from other sources such as directory listings and listings of your business on state or utility program web sites, or from specific advertising campaigns.

When creating a landing page, be sure to include a strong headline. Include logos relevant to the campaign in question. Examples might be local or state efficiency program logos, or logos of organizations that you are certified by. Include customer testimonials. Finally, be sure to include a prominent call to action, such as a contact form, a link to sign up for your company's newsletter, or your phone number or e-mail address. One or more of these should be prominently displayed, alongside action-oriented text.

It Must Enable Prospective Customers to Find Your Business

Use search engine optimization (SEO) to help customers find your business. SEO is the craft of tweaking a web page so that it ranks higher in search engines like Yahoo! and Google. Research has shown that around 90% of search engine users click on a result on the first page of search results. This demonstrates the importance of a high ranking if you want people to come to your web site.

There are firms that will charge thousands of dollars to perform SEO services. While in many instances these services can benefit a business, there are also a number of simple steps that you can take to make your site rank higher in a web search. This is especially true for web sites in the home performance category, where people are searching for local businesses (so you only have to worry about local, rather than global, competition); and where the industry is still so new that there is less competition for relevant keywords. (For example, a keyword search using Google's Adwords Keyword tool shows 1 million searches a month for electrician, compared to only 50,000 searches for energy auditor.)

Social_Media_googleexample

If there's one thing that will help your web site perform in search engines, it's good content. In fact, there's a saying in web marketing that content is king. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, good content means you are offering information that people are looking for. Second, the content you provide is useful for readers — meaning it is well researched and gives compelling insight into topics that your customers would not find anywhere else.

Search engines use keywords to identify what your various web pages are all about. If a search engine sees the word insulation in the title of a page, for example, and sees insulation several times in the text of that page, it gathers that that particular page is about insulation. Insulation, in this example, would be a keyword.

Keywording in the home performance category is a unique challenge. This is true for two reasons. First, homeowners are not generally aware of the terminology that our industry uses, or of the steps that they should take to make their homes more energy efficient. That is why the phrase energy-efficient windows receives 18,100 monthly searches in the United States, compared to 8,100 searches for air sealing. And second, we, as an industry, are not unified as to what phrases we use to define our work.

While these are problems that we need to resolve, researching keyword frequency for industry terms does give us some insight into the language that homeowners, as well as anyone looking for home performance work, are using. As of this writing, for example, energy audit blows energy assessment out of the water (60,500 versus 8,100 monthly searches in the United States). So while you may personally prefer the term energy assessment, bear in mind that your customers may have better luck finding you if you use energy audit on your site.

Good content also serves to establish you as an expert in your field, educate visitors to your site, and clear up some of the misinformation that plagues our industry.

So what makes good content? Anything that's interesting, useful, accurate, reader-friendly, and fun. Just a bit of new content from time to time will signify to Google that your site isn't sitting stale, and will give people a good reason to check back to your site on a regular basis. Here are a few ways to create good content:

Blogging. A blog is a frequent, chronological online space where a person or people record information, opinions, thoughts, and so on. Your blog could even be used as an outlet for opinions or updates on news stories. Or, consider including a separate News section on your site that describes new rebates and incentives in your area, helpful energy tips for homeowners, and company updates.

Photos. Photos from jobsites are easy to obtain, and can be truly compelling for visitors. Photos can include completed work, progress of a job, or anything else you come across. Maybe there is a photo of something you found that was unusual, and then an "after" photo of how your company fixed it. Of course, whether scary or funny, pictures of building science disasters undeniably arouse curiosity.

Borrowed content. The Internet is full of great information about energy efficiency, and much of it is available for you to use. The key here is to respect copyrights and the general ethics of the Internet. Usually, if you excerpt only a portion of someone's content, give them full credit, and provide a link to their site, it's legit.

Finally, an oft-overlooked but crucial element of good content is something called metadata. Metadata (a set of data that describes other data) for a web page are not visible on the page itself, but they are one of the most important pieces of content that search engines use to identify and classify the page. A metatitle should be a no-nonsense, succinct description of the page's content; and a metadescription should expand succinctly upon the topics that the page covers. In addition to helping search engines classify your site's content, these metadata are the components of the site that will generally appear in search results.

A clear, well-written, and concise description of the page's content will encourage search engine users to click on the link to your page rather than the next one. Since Google cuts off metatitles at about 70 characters, keep your title no longer than that, and include as many high-volume keywords as you can. Google cuts off metadescriptions at around 156 characters, so keep your descriptions no longer than that. One good sentence with a good selection of keywords is ideal.

How Participation in the Online Community Draws Visitors

While your web site itself is crucial to an effective web presence, off-site factors can also contribute to web marketing success. Three of them can contribute in a big way. Those three are link building, business directory listings, and social media.

Link building. Links are often called the currency of the web; they have been compared to votes for a particular web page. The more links, the better; and the more authoritative the web site that they come from, the better. Therefore, you want as many web sites as possible to include links to your web site. Consider the following ideas for building links to your web site:

  • Get links to your site posted on the sites for local and state energy efficiency offices. Particularly if you're a participating contractor in an office's home energy incentive program, this strategy should attract customers to your business.
  • Get links to your site posted on the sites for community colleges and other local educational institutions. Any institution that provides training in the building trades, weatherization, or renewable energy may be willing to link to your site.
  • Get links to your site posted on the sites for colleagues in the industry. If you regularly work with tradesmen or other contractors in your area, ask them if they'd be willing to trade links. Consider, too, trading links with other home energy pros in or outside your geographic region.

Google Places and other business directories. If you don't have a Google Places page, you should go sign up for one now, before you even finish reading this article. Google Places allows users to find local businesses near them by pinpointing business locations on Google Maps. People searching or looking through the Google Places will see the company location, contact information, and reviews from others who have used its services. While all directory listings are valuable, Google Places is the king (for now).

Social_Media_googleplacesexample

Why is Google Places so important? Because Google is responsible for about 65% of search traffic in the United States. Its closest competitor, Yahoo!, captures only 16%. And since Google integrates Places results with organic results for local businesses (meaning they are not advertiser driven), there is a great chance that when people find your search result, they will also be linked to Google Places. This means that they will also see the reviews of your business before they go to your site.

To get your Places listing to appear high in rankings take these four simple steps:

  1. Set it up.
  2. Select your categories and write a good company description.
  3. Add content (photos, videos, anything that shows that you're a real business).
  4. Ask some of your happy customers for testimonials.

Right now, that's all it takes. Your number of reviews will grow over time, and you can gradually add content down the line. Be sure to respond to customer reviews, as well. Whether they're good or bad, it always looks good to readers if you appear to be a thoughtful, caring business that's willing to engage with its customers.

Another benefit of directory listings is the fact that each of them contains a citation for your business. A citation is any place where your business's name, address, and phone number are listed. Any business that you find on a local directory will have this information listed, and the more directories it's listed in, the more credibility the business has in the eyes of search engines.

Social Media

If we had told you a couple of years ago that social media would provide one of the best ways to market your home performance contracting business, you probably would have scoffed. But the times, they are a-changin'.

In a recent survey of 3,300 marketers, an overwhelming majority (90%) said that social media were important to their business. And 62% "strongly" agreed with that statement.

In addition to providing a channel for conversation between you and your potential customers, social media outlets also provide an electronic word of mouth for your happy customers to spread the word about their efficient, comfortable, retrofitted house. Social media make it possible for you to network with other home energy professionals across the country and around the world; to protect your brand reputation through real-time interaction; and to increase your company's visibility among like-minded individuals in your geographic area. Google and other search engines are increasingly looking at a business's presence on social media platforms to verify the credibility of that business.

While there are countless such platforms that you could use to promote your business, you should concentrate your efforts on the platforms that are producing the best results for home performance professionals today — Twitter and Facebook. (Google+, which is relatively new as this goes to print, is looking like one to watch as well.)

social_media_twitter_search
Twitter

Twitter is one of the best online tools that your business can use to connect with customers. The target audience for Twitter is well-heeled and mature. And of Twitter's 200+ million users, 52% are female, 53% are over 35, and 50% make over $50,000 per year (26% make over $76,000). Also, 94% of Fortune 100 companies use Twitter, so you're in good company from a business standpoint. Here are some best practices for home energy pros:

Connect with the influential voices in your community. Do a location-based search at TwitterGrader.com, which ranks the influence of Twitter users on a 100-point scale. Use your discretion here, but start connecting with the thought leaders, innovators, and community leaders in your area.

Connect with energy-curious homeowners in your community. Try doing an advanced search at search.twitter.com/advanced for people near you talking about things like insulation and high heating bills. Send them a shout-out; direct them to your web site.

Make friends with journalists in your area. Listorious.com is a great place to connect with the press. Just be aware that many journalists tweet one-way. Keep an eye out for those who are willing to engage in conversation, and engage them.

Engage. Don't just send out random tweets and expect a thousand followers instantly. Talk to people — there are a lot of good conversations going on out in the Twitterverse, and your voice is more than welcome. Join in. Ask questions. Give answers. Make jokes. You'll get the hang of it.

There is, of course, the question of how to begin and what to talk about. The good thing is, in the home energy field there's a lot of interesting stuff. So just dive in. Tell them what you came across in a building today. Big air leaks, missing insulation, dead animals — whatever.

Links to relevant news stories. If you find an online article that you like, share it. A quick note is fine, and many web sites are set up to automatically write a tweet for you when you hit the Twitter icon. Give it a try.

Links to content on your web site. This one is particularly important. After all, your ultimate goal on Twitter (or any other social media platform) is to get people to your web site.

Retweets. Retweeting is simply copying someone else's tweet in your Twitter feed. Retweeting will shout out to whoever initially tweeted, and you'll see that Twitter provides a retweet icon that makes the action easy. Find a trusted source of folks in your field and see what they're all tweeting about. Retweets are a great way to get into the habit of using Twitter and finding your groove, and are great for making friends.

Opinion. Voice your opinions in a way that's comfortable for you, but remember that efficiency is motherhood and apple pie. Best to avoid airing any opinions you wouldn't air over the kitchen table in a prospective client's house.

Facebook

Facebook is by far the biggest, most popular, and most important social media platform on the planet. Americans spend more time on Facebook than on any other web site; nearly half of the U.S. population uses it; it gets more traffic than Google; and with over 750 million users, if it were a country it would be the third-largest country in the world. Also, the majority of users are over the age of 25, and 30% are over 35 — the homeowner market.

So how do you get set up? Facebook Pages is where you want to list your business. A Facebook Page is different from a personal profile in that you cannot have friends, but other Facebook users can be fans of your page. Populate your Facebook Page with some simple content — information about your business, photos, and so forth. Be sure to use a few keywords relevant to your business — like energy audit, energy efficiency, and home energy. Use your company logo as your profile picture for branding purposes, and ask your friends and family to "like" it, which means they are fans of the page.

Once you're set up and have a few likes, remember that keeping your Facebook Page up to speed is an ongoing task. Regularly post status updates (much like the tweets you broadcast on Twitter). These updates will show up in your fans' News Feed, so the more frequently you update your status, the more your business stays on people's radar.

Engaging your Facebook fans is also key. Content on Facebook is evaluated by a form of SEO known as edge rank. Here's how it works. In the News Feed on the Facebook home page, you can choose to view either Top News or Most Recent News. If you choose Most Recent News, each status update posted by a Facebook friend of yours (or by a page that you like and are a fan of) will appear in real time. But the default option is Top News, in which Facebook uses the edge rank algorithm to determine which content you're most likely to be interested in. This is determined by a number of factors — if you frequently engage with a particular friend, that friend's status updates are more likely to appear in your Top News, for example. But the biggest factor in determining edge rank is how much engagement a particular piece of content has garnered. So if you post a status update, ten of your fans "like" it, and five of them write comments on it, it's more likely to show up in your other fans' News Feeds. You can drive engagement with your posts, then, in two ways. One way is to post interesting content (photos, videos, fun facts, and so forth). The other way is to frame your posts in a way that drives engagement, such as asking a question that you know will require several responses or that is universally popular amongst your fans.

Here are a few ways to create interesting content on your Facebook Page:

Photo galleries. Work that you've recently completed; telltale signs of poor energy performance (snow melting off roofs, for example); and wacky things that you've come across on the jobsite are all easy for you to post, and entertaining and informative for your fans.

Educational blurbs. Learn something neat in a recent RESNET continuing-ed class? Put it on Facebook. Find a cool news article? Put a link on Facebook. Add a little commentary to give it context, and to add your personal voice.

Deals and promotions. As we've said, Facebook is where the people are. Advertising special promotions and offers on Facebook can be as effective as, if not more effective than, traditional advertising.

Integrate Twitter and Facebook content. A number of tools allow you to publish simultaneously on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms.

Consider posting a link to your Facebook Page on your web site. Each new person who clicks on that link and "likes" your Facebook Page is not only a potential new customer but a potential ambassador for your company.

learn more

Read more about the BIA/Kelsey survey.

For a great web site example, visit Home Performance Matters.

Where the Puck Is Going to Be

Wayne Gretzky famously said, "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be." Whether we like it or not, the truth is that people are increasingly looking online to find what they need. If we want our businesses to keep up and succeed — and if we want our industry to penetrate the mainstream — it's essential that we start using these online channels to educate consumers about the basics of building science; the truth about indoor health, comfort, and energy efficiency; and the value proposition that our industry offers.

Peter Troast is the founder and CEO of Energy Circle.

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