As everyone is aware, there’s a pretty massive upheaval going on in distribution and supply chain. The source of this upheaval links to a name with the world’s longest, highest-volume river: Amazon. While it’s virtually impossible for any of us to disrupt or totally stem its flow, we can all learn how to compete with, or even learn from, the aptly named company’s online presence and strategies.

Once we’ve identified a challenge that Amazon presents to the industry, the next step is to come up with some solutions. That’s where Site-Seeker comes in: to create an online marketing program tailored to helping distributors move more products to and through their contractor customers and into the hands of the end-user. This is the goal of HARDI ROCs. At this point, having a well-articulated strategy for online is table stakes for competing against the Amazons of the world.

A bit of background: The ROC principle is the overarching framework Site-Seeker has developed during its 14 years of experience. Briefly, it stands for Road map, Ongoing efforts and Customers (ROC). The three-point plan emphasizes deep competitive research, effective online marketing techniques and close alignment with your target audience via the media and spaces they inhabit.

The opportunity for Site-Seeker to tailor a specific ROC plan for HARDI came about organically. In recent years, we’ve become more and more involved with HARDI, including speaking at conferences, auditing distributors' and manufacturers’ web presence, and working directly with the association. Throughout our efforts, it became clear that there are a lot of complexities involved in the movement of product from the manufacturer through the wholesaler and dealer and into the hands of the end user. The distributors are incredible with the amount of support they bring to the table. They do so much to help their dealers with their business, yet there is a critical gap in the processes preventing distributors from achieving their best results.

That gap is the result of a change in the buying and selling process. The steps in the buying process haven’t really changed. How people move through the purchase funnel has been revolutionized by the online world, though. HVACR is an industry that has not kept pace with the world of digital marketing. End-user consumers research their problems, needs and solutions online all the time. That’s not a surprise to anyone. So while the world is online looking for local contractors that can solve their HVACR needs, the contractors are not found online; when they are, the information they provide is generally inadequate, doesn’t provide a good user experience, brands the contractor poorly and leaves the consumer unsatisfied.

We approached HARDI Vice President Emily Saving in September 2016 with the idea of a case study to define a solution. Saving embraced the idea right away. Saving and HARDI Marketing Chair Lauren Roberts have been very supportive in providing us access to the membership, prior research about the marketplace, and overall encouragement.

We’ve done a lot of reading and research. We’ve spent months interviewing distributors about their business, the nature of the relationship with their customers, talking about how they support their dealers’ business, how they grow their distribution business, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked and getting to know what problems they face. The second wave of interviews with manufacturers garnered their unique perspective on the industry. This is a significant undertaking; we’ve had five people working on this case study. We meet weekly and plan to write a book about it.

Based on the research we’ve conducted so far, there are a few predominant messages.

The supply chain has and continues to see disruption from Amazon, distributor consolidation and aging ownership. Distributors are aware of the need to protect and nurture the grassroots relationships that their dealer network has sustained for generations. That is their inherent advantage. The only problem with that is Amazon is eating into their business. This creates a situation where distributors have one foot in the Old World and one foot in the new; HARDI members need to protect what they’ve been building for generations and position themselves in a changing world.

Everybody wants to take a bite out of the distributor’s wallet. By developing the HARDI ROC’s plan, Site-Seeker will offer the recommendations and solutions that will help protect the distributor’s wallet in two ways.

The first is a road map and process for creating a strong and engaging digital presence. Missing out on this is a virtual death sentence. Site-Seeker can put the distributors out where consumers are looking for information and shopping to help them get a piece of that online business, which is growing year over year.

The second thing we’re looking at relates specifically to Amazon. If you look at what the online retailing giant does, you’ll see that it continues to optimize for greater efficiency. It does this by constantly tweaking its webpages and buying process incrementally so that more people will check out (buy something) instead of just looking and then abandoning their shopping cart. This optimization process also helps give it a better ranking on Google.

We want to help distributors optimize their experience both to the end user online and how the distributors move their products to the end users through the contractors. This study looks at the channels to the end user and how they are functioning today. We’ve studied the solutions that are available and will lay out the ideal marketing program. So like Amazon is optimizing their channel to the end user, we are optimizing the distributor’s channel to the end user through the contractor. We think this is going to be very effective.

Technology and the availability of information have spoiled us and set a new standard for expectations. Roughly 80 percent of dealers are small, one-to-three-truck owner-operators. Typically, these guys are hardworking and mechanically talented, but they lack the marketing experience, digital marketing savvy or staff that will create a strong digital presence. Which is fine. Their expertise lies within their industry. Despite everything that distributors do to support the dealers, creating a strong and engaging digital presence is not one of them. At the same time, marketing has become complex with a seemingly endless supply of tactical options and an ever-increasing number of platforms that companies need to know how to best deploy - social media, website content management systems, search and social advertising, email marketing and lead nurturing, Google Analytics and so on.

And this isn’t just about being visible on search engines. There are many great engagement strategies and applications that dealers need to know about and embrace. Technology, and we as users of technology, are changing all the time. As we’ve gotten deep into this research, we've found that the majority of the dealers are not adapting, and this gap between buyer needs and expectations and seller (the dealers) presence and engagement continues to widen.

The goal is to identify a well-researched, comprehensive marketing solution that distributors can put into practice to sell more products to end users while supporting and promoting their dealer customers. Site-Seeker’s initiative with HARDI offloads the burden of learning about and mastering the digital online marketplace from distributors so they can focus on what they do best.

At the HARDI Marketing and Sales Focus Conference September 18 we will:

Deliver and discuss the ideal distributor marketing program;

Identify the resources required to implement the plan, including skills and budget;

Introduce templates and processes that you can use to execute various aspects of the plan;

Investigate the types of solutions that should be part of the ideal marketing plan; and

Report on what we’ve learned and examined from the various solutions providers, including proof that they work (or do not) as promised. 

We’re excited to share the results of this year-long research. My brother and I will be presenting “What Every HVACR Marketer Needs to Know” on Monday, Sept. 18, 1 to 4:15 p.m. at the Marketing and Sales Focus Conference in Philadelphia.  We’ll look forward to spending time after the session to talk one-on-one.