Add marketing to the list of normal business decisions that grow far more complicated as the number of coronavirus cases increases and the reactions become more intense. Contractors need to decide how much to spend on ads while watching cash flows dry up. They need to decide how much they can promise consumers without bringing accusations of misleading them.
Regulators like the New York Attorney-General have sent cease-and-desist letters to those making especially outlandish claims. This include Molekule, an air purifier manufacturer that stopped saying its units prevent coronavirus after criticism from the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau.
With the industry already facing criticism for how some are presenting HVAC options, contractors are focusing their message on the role HVAC plays in overall health. Lance Bachmann, president of 1SEO, said educational marketing is legitimate at this time, as long as it stays with claims contractors can prove.
Jason Stenseth, president of Rox Heating and Air in Littleton, Colorado, did place increased emphasis on marketing indoor air quality in the past month, but never suggested that IAQ measures protect from COVID-19. He focused instead on an increased awareness of general health issues.
Sean Bucher, head of strategy at Rocket Media, said health and comfort are becoming more important to consumers as they stay indoors more. Promoting products based on this need, rather than as preventative measures, is both safe and effective, Bucher said. Ben Kalkman, Rocket’s CEO, agrees.
“In any moment of crisis, there are always those that will take advantage of the situation in any industry,” Kalkman said. “But there are always a lot of reputable companies that are looking to support consumers in a way that makes sense. Air quality is certainly something that makes you feel better.”
Stenseth resumed some of his previous ads after a week, especially the ones running on sports radio. He said sports radio continues to show value even without any games being played because listeners want to keep up with player movement in the NFL.
Still, this demonstrates the choices contractors need to make in how they should spend their ad dollars and how much they should spend given the large-scale suspension of a lot of economic activity. Kalkman said marketing now needs to focus on future sales. He said many people spending extra time in their homes will start looking at repairs and upgrades they otherwise ignored.
“Look at ways to get your message across and be there when the need is there,” he said.
Kalkman said some Rocket clients are tightening their advertising budgets. Other contractors are spending aggressively.
Travis Smith, owner of Sky Heating and Cooling in Portland, Oregon, upped his ad spending in recent weeks. It paid off with one his best sales days of the year on March 13.
“Demand won’t go away permanently,” Smith said. “It’s just shifted.”
Smith is changing where he spends his dollars. He had planned on launching a new billboard campaign March 16, but canceled that because fewer people are out driving. Instead, he increased his spending on pay-per-click ads. Bachmann said now is a good time to increase internet advertising, as consumers have little to do but sit at home and surf the web. Bucher said the benefit of online marketing is that contractors will see it immediately.
Some marketing dollars this team of year get earmarked for live events, such as home shows. Marketing firm Hudson Ink suggests its clients look at creating online events on social media to share the information they would have presented in person.
Kalkman said other types of advertising might also prove effective, some even more than usual. Bored consumers could be more willing to read through their mail, he said, making direct mail an effective way to reach them.
Whatever marketing channel contractors use, they need the right message. Heather Ripley, CEO of Ripley Public Relations, said her firm is actively working with media throughout the U.S., letting them know HVAC businesses are open and ready to continue serving homeowners.
“COVID-19 is a global crisis, and many of our clients need help creating messaging for their employees, and reassuring customers that they’re open and will take care of them,” Ripley said. “Smart businesses know that the current crisis will pass, and that laying the groundwork now to communicate effectively to customers and employees will pay big dividends at some point down the road.”
Contractors also need to promote the efforts they are taking to protect customers. Aaron Salow, CEO of XOi Technologies, said one way is using video platforms, such as the one his company provides. Using this technology, a technician starts a live call upon arrival, and the homeowner then isolates in another part of the house. Video monitoring of the repair assures the customers that the work actually gets done. Kalkman said concepts like this, which he hears of from various companies, are important to communicate to customers.
“We’re creating that layer of separation and coming up with creative ways to promote that,” Kalkman said.
A simpler step might be handing out small bottles of hand sanitizer that carry the contractor’s logo. Whatever they do, contractors need to maintain a presence in the consumer’s mind. No one knows how long the current situation will last or if these kind of lifestyle suspensions will become the norm. But Kalkman said one thing for sure is that summer will soon be upon us, especially in places like Arizona, where he lives. People will need air conditioning, especially if they continue spending a lot of time indoors.
“Consumers really count on these trades to support their homes,” Kalkman said.