As more consumers cut the cord to cable TV and shift their eyes to the Web, budgets for online marketing continue to rise. The digital realm continues to attract advertisers, growing at a rate of 13 percent last year, according to Strategy Analytics. And, according to Ben Landers, president and CEO of Blue Corona, HVAC contractors stand to benefit from this trend.
“Most contractors we work with are allocating additional funds to things like content marketing, search engine optimization [SEO], pay-per-click advertising, social media, website design, and video,” said Landers. “However, there is a digital divide in the HVAC and plumbing industry. On one side, you have forward-thinking, digitally savvy contractors who have gone all-in with the Web. They’ve invested in cutting-edge websites, published customer reviews, and have a robust presence across all the major social media channels. They’re testing social media and email marketing and investing in content of all forms.
“On the other side, you have old-school contractors who are hesitant to invest in digital marketing,” he continued. “They think social media is a waste of time and don’t believe consumers spend as much time as they really do online. They don’t think it’s worthwhile to write blogs, because they don’t want to give away information for free. It’s the classic case of the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. By the time they realize the world has changed, it will be too late.”
ROLL THE TAPE
Blue Corona recently completed its 2015 HVAC & Plumbing Trends report in which it analyzed nearly 10,000 HVAC and plumbing contractor websites and compared the top 250 performing sites to the industry in general.
According to Landers, the design and layout of the top 25 performing sites are evenly split between those utilizing center box (36 percent), full stretch small (36 percent), and full stretch large (28 percent) designs.
“Full stretch large covers the whole screen, maximizing the size of the text and icons. This approach is currently trending. We see a lot of sites going from smaller to bigger imagery. When you look at the larger contractors, such as George Brazil and Morris Jenkins, a lot of them have adopted the full stretch large approach with big fonts, imagery, and calls to action.”
Jerry Kelly Heating & Air Conditioning in Saint Charles, Missouri, utilizes the full stretch large approach. In fact, the contracting website, which placed third on Blue Corona’s top 25 list, stays fresh and is updated weekly with new blogs, which is great for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes.
“If we had included all the traffic to our website through mid-January so far, we’ve eclipsed 5,000 visits,” said Bethany DeLaurencio, marketing director for Jerry Kelly. “When I exclude blog traffic, it’s only about 500. So, our blog brings in a lot of traffic, and I like that I can differentiate between the two because a lot of blog traffic comes from out of state and is often the do-it-yourself types, but any traffic is good traffic.”
DeLaurencio and her staff added a Live Chat feature to the website about a year ago.
“We were looking for another way to capture leads on the website and engage people who were visiting us from work, where they can’t necessarily pick up the phone,” DeLaurencio said. “We tend to use the gas pedal method. If it’s a slow day where we need some more calls and leads, we hit the chat heavy and we book them. If it’s a busy day, where the phone is ringing organically, we kind of back off. It’s a nice tool to be able to turn on and off when needed.”
Jerry Kelly also has a video gallery in its About Us section where it features a handful of videos. A link to the company’s YouTube channel offers dozens more videos.
Video is highly effective for things like customer testimonials, said Landers. Of the top 250 sites in Blue Corona’s survey, 83 percent have written testimonials, and, of those, only 8 percent have video testimonials.
“Video testimonials are set to really take off in 2016 and 2017,” he said. “Having a homeowner on your website saying, ‘I’m Suzy and I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I love the work this company has done,’ is priceless. There’s a growing perception that a lot of the written testimonials are fake. Even with review sites like ReviewBuzz, Angie’s List, and so on, when every review is five stars, it makes people suspicious. Everyone who has used a contractor knows it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The guys are going to make mistakes, they’re going to miss the time window, or they’re not going to have the part, at times. Having real people talk about the service, and share how the company responded when something went wrong, is becoming increasingly important.”
SUCCESSFULLY NAVIGATING SOCIAL MEDIA
While most contractors ranking in Blue Corona’s survey use social media, the vast majority are using it incorrectly, said Landers.
“Most contractors have someone — either an employee or a marketing contractor — publishing way too many promotional items,” he explained. “Contractors would be wise to remember that Facebook is not unlike a TV channel. Your ratio of entertaining or emotionally engaging content to promotional posts ratio should be something like 10-to-1. Publish 10 entertaining or emotionally engaging posts for every one promotional post.”
Additionally, too many contractors try to squeeze leads out of social media instead of working to build and engage their audience, Landers noted. “Another mistake is failing to recognize the real-time nature of the social Web. You need to make sure you have someone on your team — or someone working on your team’s behalf — constantly monitoring your company’s social media pages. I’ve seen pages upon pages of Facebook sites filled with negative comments without company responses. If you’re going to have a Facebook page, you have to monitor it.”
Steve Schmidt, owner of Frederick Air Inc. in Frederick, Maryland, and a frequent guest columnist for The NEWS, recently wrote: “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and retargeting are terms you should be familiar with. If you’re not, you’d better take your head out of the sand and look around. The way I see it, you have two choices: You can spend an enormous amount of time and effort becoming an expert in social media and Internet marketing, produce endless blogs and Twitter posts, and become Facebook addicts; or you can hire someone to do it for you. If you think I’m making too much of this, you really need a reality check. If you still have two full-page display ads in the Yellow Pages, one under heat pumps and one under air conditioning, you might want to drive to the emergency room and put yourself on life support immediately.”
Frederick Air contracts out its social media and online reputation management to a local marketing company.
“If we didn’t use the marketing company, chances are we would have needed to bring somebody in to manage it,” said Dave Schmidt, Steve Schmidt’s son and sales manager for Frederick Air. “You need somebody whose full-time responsibility is online reputation and presence. We include that with our social media, because we do tie-ins with our website — if we’re running a promotion on our site, we’re talking about it on social media. We need somebody to put their mind on all that, because if you just put it on the shoulders of the sales manager, it’s not going to happen day in and day out or get the attention it needs.”
Frederick Air uses social media to make sure customers can find them. “We have Google Plus, Twitter, and Facebook pages, and we’re constantly updating content so that if someone is on one of those platforms, they’re going to find us easily,” Dave Schmidt said. “We encourage customers to interact with us through social media.”
“Our goal is not to get ‘x’ amount of likes,” Steve Schmidt added. “We just want to be there. If they want to reach out to us in that way, we want to make it easy for them.”
GAC Services in Gaithersburg, Maryland, handles its social media management internally. The responsibility falls to the company’s marketing manager.
“We try to put content out that is of interest to the people who have liked us online,” said Rich Biava, vice president of GAC Services. “We’re kind of like a billboard. They see GAC Services, and the content is there. And, every so often, we’ll sprinkle in, ‘Hey, maybe you should call us for some humidifiers,’ or ‘Have you thought about getting a tuneup this year?’ It’s kind of like when you watch an hour-long TV program — it’s entertainment, entertainment, and then five minutes of sales.
“Social media is not something you’re going to work on and get immediate results,” he continued. “It’s like branding. You’re showing the personality of your company. You’re trying to educate consumers and inform them about what’s happening. It’s really not something you’re going to turn around and say, ‘If I do this, I’m going to get 10 leads out of this tomorrow.’ It doesn’t happen that way.”
However, GAC does see referrals through social media.
“I put myself out there, and I’m getting people asking me questions about heating and air conditioning. Occasionally, somebody will refer me and say you should talk to Rich at GAC and tag me in the post. Then, I will comment and say, ‘We’re happy to help. Please call our office.’ That happens at least once a month. We’re starting to see what we’ve built. It’s something that just grows over time.”
In addition to Facebook, GAC is also concentrating on increasing the content it shares on YouTube.
“We have a video that features myself and my business partners talking about who we are and what we do. The link to that video is included in the signature of every email we send out. It grants the company a personality. It shows that we’re not operating out of some dirty, old warehouse.
“We also have a couple of other videos that feature our technicians and installation manager talking about what to expect on an installation. So, when a customer schedules an installation, we email that video to give them an idea of what to expect. We also have videos on how to operate a thermostat, which we use when someone has a thermostat question. This has saved us a lot of time.”
GAC’s latest video followed Biava and other GAC employees as they handed out 10 holiday cards stuffed with $100 bills to strangers throughout the community. The video, which was published in mid-December, has exceeded 750 views, 120 likes, and 18 shares on Facebook.
“One of our employees came up with the idea, and we wanted to do something different,” Biava said. “It generated a great deal of local interest.
“We think we have a special culture in what we do. It’s not about constantly driving the bottom line; it’s about trying to improve the quality of life for people,” continued Biava. “And with that, yes, we should have great profitability, but it’s also about being the best we can be and sharing that story.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF MOBILE
Globally, mobile devices generate more website traffic than desktop computers. As such, more contractors are moving to mobile friendly and mobile responsive website designs. Of the top 30 sites surveyed, 60 percent are mobile friendly, but only 26 percent are responsive, meaning the design automatically adjusts depending on the device being used by the visitor.
“We see people moving away from the centered box website design with its cluttered, small text, because it doesn’t adapt well to mobile,” Landers said. “To be mobile friendly, the centered box design has to be radically altered. Over the next year or two, companies will increasingly be working to adapt their sites to the mobile audience.”
Jerry Kelly’s website is mobile responsive. According to DeLaurencio, 30 percent of Jerry Kelly’s Web traffic comes from a mobile device. “If it wasn’t compatible or easy to use on your phone, we’d be losing a third of our online traffic. And, that number is only going to grow. Our geographical area tends to run a little behind when it comes to new technologies and trends. So, if we’re at 30 percent, I imagine that much of the country has already surpassed that number.”
Frederick Air has a unique feature on its mobile friendly site — a text-messaging option for mobile visitors. Text-A-Tech™, which was added late last year, allows people to directly text Frederick Air’s office.
“We’re not saying we want people to necessarily use that avenue, we just want it to be available so that if someone wants to interact with us that way. We have the ability for them to easily, quickly, and efficiently connect with our guy,” Dave Schmidt said. “We haven’t talked about it or advertised it at all yet and customers are already using it.”
People will call in, forget to mention something, and, rather than call back, will text the information, Dave Schmidt noted. People will also text questions or requests for service.
“We will do some diagnostics purely through text,” he said. “They don’t want to call, which is strange to a lot of us, but, especially with the younger generation, they don’t want to talk on the phone. The volume [of texts] is increasing. We just thought this was a great idea.”
VALUE OF THE MOBILE APP
In addition to being mobile friendly and mobile responsive, some contractors are going a step further and creating their own mobile apps.
Landers noted mobile apps are great, but contractors need to make sure they, not the app development company, own the data. He further acknowledged that mobile apps provide a direct path to success.
“Most contractors I know — especially the small ones — significantly undervalue a new customer. Offering a consumer $10 off his or her next job if he or she downloads an app is a joke. Offers like this fail to appreciate how valuable the real estate on someone’s phone is. Think about it this way — if you get someone to download your app and book appointments through it, you’ve taken them away from Angie’s List, Facebook, and Google forever. The value of this direct access is worth far more than most contractors understand.”
GAC has a mobile app; however, Biava said he hasn’t started promoting it yet.
“This year, we’re going to be launching and promoting our app,” he said. “The app has our email, phone number, a link to our newsletter, and a question-and-answer forum. Users can fill in contact forms, request service, and schedule a reservation. There’s also a camera built in, so, if the furnace is making a noise, they can record it and then send it to us. It’s the beginning of something, though it’s up to us to update it with programs and offers that will keep people engaged.”
Regardless of the approach, marketing your HVAC contracting business online is a full-time job.
“It’s a daily thing,” DeLaurencio said. “Between social media and blogs, we have fresh content online hourly. There’s not a plug-and-play solution; it takes constant maintenance and attention.”
Publication date: 2/1/2016