The traditional power relationship between mass media and markets is eroding. Connected and conversational consumers are less inclined to respond to generic advertising, template websites, poorly designed mobile sites, and flat social signals. As consumer data has become increasingly available and transparent, the idea that demographic data is sufficient has also faltered. In other words, simply targeting the “right” consumer based on zip codes, ages of homes, median income, and other freely available data fails to answer the most important question: Is the customer ready or at least looking for a contractor to install a new heating and cooling system?
Pretending that these shifts aren’t happening is a mistake — one that can significantly harm a distributor’s value proposition among contractors. However, distributors can create a market advantage for themselves and their customers by responding to shifts in consumer behaviors as well as providing marketing and advertising options that are aligned with current trends.
Mobile optimization will continue to become the primary means by which a consumer locates an HVAC contractor. Today’s consumers expect fast and seamless mobile experiences. A mobile site that loads slowly and is cumbersome drives customers into the arms of the competition. Google estimates that a “1-second delay in mobile loading results in a 67 percent bounce rate.” Google also recommends that a mobile site successfully load in under 5 seconds. This doesn’t sound like much time until you count it out, “one, two, three…” Ideally, a contractor’s mobile site will load in under 3 seconds.
While companies like Google offer resources that track mobile load speed, distributors can improve their level of contractor marketing support by partnering with firms that deliver flawless mobile designs that are well optimized and load within specific parameters. Furthermore, distributors that offer such services have the opportunity to tackle additional consumer shifts regarding web-based experiences.
Distributors should seek out web partners that function more like creative agencies than media agencies. It’s time to move away from template websites. At one point, these sites were an acceptable alternative to having no web presence, but that has changed. The availability of free to low-cost site building tools (Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix, etc.) allows contractors to design websites that truly illustrate their cultures, values, and expertise. Consumers expect a rich, engaging, and interactive web experience. Templates have limited capabilities in these regards. Something as simple as stock photos creates unnecessary distance between consumers and the content and fails to cross the valley of distrust. Commonly used content categories (10 Ways to Save Money on Your Cooling Bills) further commoditize a contractor’s website. Behind the scenes, template sites are frequently hamstrung by slowly responding to algorithm updates. Consequently, a contractor may invest in a website expecting traffic and results that are unrealistic given external and internal structural limitations. A fresh emphasis on creative customization combined with improved optimization updates will improve results, providing distributors and contractors with a much needed advantage.
Despite recent controversies, social media continues to play a significant role in brand building and network development. Connected consumers have become conversational consumers. Used effectively, social media can accomplish both — connecting consumers to a business and providing a multitude of channels for recommendations, responses, and engagement. Recognizing that brand building is now a co-created process via shared experiences, distributors can better serve their contractors by providing social media resources that accomplish these ends. Specifically, offering resources that include content strategies, recommendations regarding engagement, problem-solving options, and a practical understanding as to how current analytics are used help shape engagement. These should not be limited to Facebook. Instagram, and YouTube, as fairly new social signals, such as Snapchat, have become immensely influential across demographics. A well-designed and managed social campaign appeals to consumers who appreciate a conversational relationship with a company or brand. Distributors who understand that one-to-many marketing has been replaced by many-to-many communication can help their customers create an advantageous position.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to significantly impede marketing and advertising efforts in the near future. Consumers are already becoming brand agnostic (68 percent of surveyed HVAC consumers stated they have no brand preference). Moreover, they are also learning to trust their in-home AI devices. Forecasted adoption rates indicate that the number of Alexa devices in homes will double in the next two years. This adoption and trust poses a unique challenge for brands, as AI devices will rely on algorithms rather than mass media in order to make product, service, or contractor recommendations.
Brands as well as contractors will most likely need to “pay to play” in order to be recommended without taking significant actions. In lieu of that, distributors need to consider a serious conversation: Should we help or recommend that our customers consider participating in AI-driven home service groups? Distribution marketing partners also need to evaluate their current and future involvement in these programs. Will they begin offering AI options as facets of their contractor marketing packages? Is AI the new face of ad words? Contractors who are currently participating in AI home service listings may already have an advantage as devices, such as Alexa, evaluate which contractors have participated for the greatest amount of time and give preferential recommendations to those contractors. Again, distributors should evaluate the AI expertise among marketing partners. Artificial intelligence represents a new channel for marketing and advertising.
Traditional marketing and advertising efforts are being challenged by consumers and contractors with new expectations. As Moises Naim wrote, “The decay of power is changing the world.” Distributors who capitalize on this decay recognize it is not simply decay, it’s the emergence of a new set of opportunities. These opportunities will result in marketing and advertising programs that happen faster, more authentically, and creatively. Distributors also need to pay attention to quickly emerging technologies that will reshape the very nature of brand building and lead generation. Those who do will differentiate themselves — and this may simply be a matter of recognizing that the programs that made HVAC contractors successful have become the things that are now holding them back.