What works and what doesn’t work in a small business seems to evolve on a daily basis. This mantra rings especially true in the realm of HVAC marketing.

Although digital marketing is gaining steam and popularity with contractors, some aren’t convinced the so-called traditional means of advertising — TV, radio, newspapers, and Yellow Pages — are dead yet.

“Every marketing aspect that every company does or will do is likely to be very different for everybody. It all depends on their demographic, location, avatar, and what they’re trying to attract,” said Mike Agugliaro, owner, Gold Medal Services, East Brunswick, New Jersey. “People try to treat it like it’s one size fits all.”

Keeping Up with Technology

For years, Rob Minnick, president and CEO, Minnick’s Inc., Laurel, Maryland, participated in his manufacturer’s TV and radio ads, where his company was lumped in with other area contractors. That, he found, was not a very effective way to market his business. About four years ago, he shifted his focus from interruption marketing to permission marketing.

“We worked with some consultants who really helped us turn our company around,” Minnick said. “We examined every aspect of how we were spending money, considering if it’s being spent in the right places. Now, we’re tracking our marketing and we’re able to make sure our dollars are appropriately spent.”

Minnick has increasingly focused the company’s efforts on its club membership, where participants can earn Minnick’s Money. One dollar spent equals one point. Minnick’s Money can be used for later service. Members earn points in a variety of ways, from referrals (50 points), testimonials (10 points), or just for signing up (25 points).

Minnick said, prior to his switch, he was spending 1.5 percent of his budget on marketing, which only provided a 0.25 percent return on investment. Now, he’s upped it to 4 percent and is getting a 50 percent return on investment.

“They say you gotta spend money to make money, but you have to do it in a smart way,” said Minnick. “Spend the money in the correct areas and you will get a great return on investment. Just spending money doesn’t equal a bunch of calls. That’s definitely not true at all. Spend 5 percent in the right areas and you’ll be a lot better off.”

If It’s Not Broke …

Steve Dukes, owner, Baldwin Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Daphne, Alabama, has started to shift his marketing dollars digitally — he sends out a monthly newsletter, among other things — but has stayed in the TV advertising game because TV offers him a way to use his co-op dollars.

“We’re limited with our co-op funds because they’re old school in their thinking on where to advertise,” Dukes said. “They’re not giving us any co-op money for SEO [search engine optimization] or the type of email marketing we do, because they can’t regulate it, I guess. I’m not sure. They’re just slow to move toward that direction. I guess we all are.”

He’s been working on establishing his brand in the Mobile, Alabama, market. That’s why, when he bought three new trucks recently, he had them wrapped. That investment is already starting to pay off.

“I have gotten very positive feedback about our trucks,” Dukes said. “A lot of people have told me they’ve seen our trucks around, so it tells me they’re being noticed. That’s all about branding. And I’ve had people say the trucks look more professional, so that’s a bonus.”

The so-called traditional means have certainly gotten a bad rap in recent years, with the biggest goat of them all being the Yellow Pages. While many have been quick to bury the long-time asset, Agugliaro is definitely not one of them. In fact, his company is finding success with the big yellow book.

“Yellow Pages still works tremendously well,” he said. “So many people pulled out of it, and there’s still a pool of fish there that want to use it, and the amount of fishermen in the pool are less. When everybody ran for the hills, the city still had lots of buildings to live in, so we found that out. While many have written it off, advertising in the Yellow Pages is still very much alive for people who know how to strategically position it.”

After much testing, Agugliaro found that frequency was the winner. He placed three ads in the book recently, one in the front, one in the middle, and one in the back, mainly because you never know how an individual is going to flip through it, he said.

“As technology gets more and more reinforced, the Yellow Pages will be less, but it’s still our second largest lead generator,” he said. “The Yellow Pages is still very alive.”

Bright Lights, Big City

Dan Thomsen, president, Building Doctors, Los Angeles, has made it his goal to consistently find creative ways to market his business, as it’s extremely cost prohibitive to advertise through traditional means in the Los Angeles area.

That’s why he’s spent time marketing referrals for his home-performance services. His company tries to canvas a neighborhood where a crew is doing a job, and has even, with the right client, held house parties, where neighbors are invited over to hear from both the company and client about the services performed. That’s why he’s decided to pursue those methods rather than traditional techniques.

“It works well as you have instant clout because you’re with someone they trust,” Thomsen said. “We’re big on referrals and people that write testimonials. I can see if you were in a smaller area where it’s much more old school [to use traditional methods], but this is Los Angeles. It’s just not done that way anymore.”

Thomsen has worked over SEO to his advantage, getting in on the ground floor, but did note if he were in an area such as Fresno or Bakersfield, his strategy might very well be different. But being in the nation’s second largest city, he doesn’t want his message to get lost in the vast ocean.

Not only that, he is working from a disadvantageous spot due to the weather in the area.

“It’s a different sell here in L.A., because we have perfect weather the majority of the time,” Thomsen said. “I can’t sell on return on investment. You can live in your backyard under a tree here and you’ll never die of exposure. So you don’t have to have heating and air conditioning to survive. But I can guarantee comfort. I can guarantee not having more than a two degree temperature difference in any room, breathing better air, all that stuff. That’s what we sell, and it’s a different sell.”

The Future

There’s no question marketing is one of the most rapidly changing areas of the HVAC industry. That’s why contractors need to constantly evaluate their needs and who they want to serve, Minnick said, and, more importantly, be smart with what funds they do have.

“Sit down and brainstorm to figure out who the clientele is you want to market to, and hit that market area hard. You will see a return on investment,” Minnick said. “Some people just say they’re going to be on radio and then they don’t go into that area that the radio broadcasts to.”

As the ways consumers consume media changes, so do contractors. Agugliaro projects the Yellow Pages have 10 years left, while direct mail has a good two generations, or about 20 years, he added, because he doesn’t see mailboxes going anywhere. He also projects TV to be a growth area.

The big thing, though, is being ready for whatever might lie ahead. As Dukes put it, change is a part of doing business, and your marketing is no different.

“We have to be able to adapt to change. I don’t know where it’s going to be in five years, I really don’t have the answer. I wish I did,” Dukes said. “If you’re just doing the same thing, you’re going to get left behind. You have to be current, you have to work on your website and your mobile website. If you leave them stagnant, it’s all off the first page. You don’t stay relative.”

Publication date: 5/26/2014 

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