It can be challenging for many office technology dealers to be effective marketers while also focusing on growing their dealerships. From email campaigns and events to branding and strategy, there doesn’t feel like enough time or resources in the day to do everything right. According to the Salesforce “Small & Medium Business Trends Report,” a whopping two-thirds of small to medium business (SMB) owners and entrepreneurs (66 percent) are personally responsible for three or more functional areas of their business, including marketing. Even if your dealership has a full-time marketing resource, it’s hard to keep up with the ever-changing digital and technology landscape so critical to today’s marketing mix.

Do, or do not; there is no try

Dealers today really have to make a commitment to marketing in order to see a return. Those who don’t make it a priority will only be disappointed by lackluster results. On the other hand, there is a growing contingent of dealers who have begun to view marketing as a strategic advantage and those who go all in are reaping the benefits.

One such company is AIS out of Las Vegas. Keven Ellison, vice president of marketing for AIS, says that his company president Gary Harouff didn’t take long to shift the focus of the company from a more traditional sales-focused approach to a sales and marketing one, once he read the book, “They Ask. You Answer,” by Marcus Sheridan.  Sheridan’s philosophy says that since the majority of the sales process is complete by the time our prospective customers reach out to our sales reps, we had better answer the questions they are asking online to help them along in their research and build trust in our brand. AIS has invested in marketing personnel, strategy, tools and resources, and just over a year in, is seeing positive indicators.

“Applying this content strategy, we have gone from 17 words on the first page of Google search results to over 400 in the last 15 months. This has resulted in boosting monthly traffic to our website over 360 percent,” according to Ellison.

Yesterday’s tactics won’t grow your business for tomorrow

One could argue that marketing a dealership used to be easier. You just named your dealership something that started with an “A” and then you wound up at the front of the list in the Yellow Pages. Oh, and you were sure to run some good TV and radio commercials. OK, well that may be an oversimplification, but the point is that historically, office equipment dealers, like many SMBs, have been sales-driven organizations that have taken the shotgun approach to marketing.

While this sales-focused approach has worked for many years, the advent of the internet and a shifting consumer mindset, has rendered this strategy ineffective. In fact, research from Forrester shows that 60 percent of buyers would rather not interact with sales reps as their primary information source, while in his book, Sheridan states that 70 percent or more of the buying decision is complete before a prospective buyer even makes contact with a company. Given this shift in the buyer mindset, our companies must meet our customers and prospective customers where THEY are. And they are on the internet searching for answers to their questions. Shouldn’t your dealership be the one that meets them there first and develops the trust they are seeking? More on this in a bit, but first things first. Since I’m making the case that marketing used to be easier, I’ll also make the case that marketing strategy has never been more important.

Marketing strategy eats tactics for breakfast

With so much data and information available not only to your customers, but to you and your team, it can seem overwhelming. So before you rewrite your entire marketing plan, let’s start with three small words: Keep what works.

There’s a lot of buzz around inbound marketing and social media, but don’t forget about the things you are doing well. Your plan should not merely consist of the marketing trend du jour. It’s still important to have a well-rounded marketing plan which maintains any traditional marketing tactics that continue to work for your dealership. Maybe billboards have been an effective way for you to get your new brand some awareness in your local market, or “lunch and learns” have continued to be an effective prospecting tool for your managed IT services offering. Implementing a strategic planning session can help you reflect on what has worked, leverage that success, and also identify new opportunities where you need to focus efforts to evolve your strategy and achieve your goals in the coming year. Be sure to measure what you can, both traditional and otherwise, so that you can monitor success, pivot and re-evaluate.

If you are not already conducting strategic planning for your dealership, that is the best place to start. I recommend enlisting the help of an external organization who will guide you and provide professional facilitation and structure for your dealership. There are many consulting firms you can work with to implement the practice of strategic planning.

No matter who you choose to work with, it’s important to understand the value of a good strategic planning process and professional facilitation of the strategic planning session. Regardless of the resources you use for these efforts, be sure your marketing strategy is customer focused and based off your overall business goals.

“But a small dealership like mine won’t need strategic planning …”

If you’re a smaller dealership and aren’t quite sure if you can pull off a full-fledged strategic planning session, I’d first rebut you can’t afford not to — if you focus on everything, you achieve nothing, and at most very little of a lot of things!  At minimum, work with your management team to conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), and review what data you have at your disposal (revenue and margins by offering and customer type, past sales and marketing campaign results, and any competitive or market data you can get your hands on). Decide upon the greatest opportunities that will make an impact on your growth goals and craft them into marketing strategic initiatives. If you don’t have a marketing director, you may need to engage other sales and support personnel, but make sure someone holds individuals accountable for executing your plan. Working with an outside resource either in your local market, or in our industry can really be an effective way to accomplish your marketing initiatives.

AIS’s Ellison says having a clear understanding of your customer is a critical component for your marketing planning, regardless of whether or not you conduct strategic planning. “Even if you don’t have the resources to do a strategic marketing plan, begin by understanding your customers,” he says. “How did they find you? Don’t settle for a simple answer like ‘the internet.’ Dig deeper into their entire process to begin understanding their ‘buyer’s journey’ so you can make sure you are in front of them (with your business’ content) each step of the way.”

Your marketing strategy is the key underlying component to your marketing success. The tactics you employ to achieve those marketing goals are increasingly important as well. As I mentioned earlier, with up to 70 percent or more of the buying decision being made online before your prospect ever contacts you, meeting your customers where they are (online) and with the information they are seeking is important. Inbound marketing helps you attract, engage and delight customers online by providing them with the content they need in order to overcome their business challenges and make a purchase decision. By creating resources of value to your customers, you create trust.

With inbound, content is king

Don’t get me wrong; more traditional tactics are still relevant, but if you haven’t made efforts to build a strong digital presence, there should be a sense of urgency in your dealership to do so. Start by performing keyword research, then create content that helps your buyers find answers to what they are searching for.

In Hubspot’s State of Inbound 2018, 55 percent of marketers said content creation is their top inbound marketing priority. Before anyone buys from you, they need to find out about you and then get to know and trust you. Quality content helps you do that. I’m not just talking written blogs either. Content comes in many forms, including case studies, infographics, eBooks, video, etc. More and more, people prefer to consume content in the form of video. According to Google, 70 percent of B2B customers watch videos as they research their purchase. This simply indicates we need to provide content in the format our buyers prefer to consume.

All of this content creation can seem like a daunting task. Be sure to consider leaning on outside experts, either in your local marketplace, or in our industry, like Clover Amplify, Evolved Office or Convergo Marketing, or in2communications, to name a few. With so many changes in marketing from Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to marketing automation tools and video, you’ll want a good partner who can help you keep up and deliver.

Understand your customer

Office technology dealers have always been very good at understanding their customers — though today we’re required to take this to the next level. If we can truly understand the people we hope to influence, we can HELP them with our marketing – rather than sell to them with it. As Ellison mentioned, understand your buyer’s journey. Understand how your customers communicate and seek information.

In the process of better understanding your customers, you’ll want to create buyer personas. According to Hubspot, a buyer persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers. By researching and documenting your persona’s buyer behaviors, motivations and goals, your team will be able to create content that is focused on helping your buyers with what is most important to them in the purchase process. If you want to learn more about buyer personas, Hubspot has quite a few free resources, just Google it!

Metrics and ROI

The good thing about where all this is headed is that while the more traditional marketing tactics are typically hard to measure (hard to know how many people saw your billboard – and what impact that had on sales), digital and inbound marketing efforts can be tracked. We could focus an entire article on marketing metrics and KPIs. As mentioned earlier, AIS has been applying a content strategy to their sales and marketing efforts and have seen their monthly site traffic soar by nearly 400 percent in the past 15 months. Traffic isn’t all they are tracking. They track a variety of metrics in all their marketing programs including:

• Inbound Sales (response times, conversions and losses)

• Inbound Marketing (contacts, leads and referral)

• Site and Traffic Analytics (behavior and performance)

• Online Chat

• Blog (consumption and behavior)

• Videos and Channel (time and performance)

• Social Media

• Online and Traditional Ad Programs

• Email (nurturing, performance, conversion)

• SEO (site and content performance)

Ellison says in today’s world, they have to look further than just site traffic or conversions. “Due to the shift in our focus in marketing programs, specific to content, we are now diving deeper into analytics to identify how much of our content (emails, site pages, blog posts, videos, etc.) is being consumed so that we can have a better understanding of our decision makers and where they are in the buying process so we can provide more relevant content.”

Figuring out what metrics or KPIs you should track should reflect what your goals are as an organization. Tracking data helps you understand which efforts are working. After all, nobody wants to invest more in something that isn’t ultimately generating revenue – if even a long-term play. From cost per lead (for inbound and outbound marketing) and landing page conversion rates to organic traffic vs social media traffic, you should be able to monitor your marketing efforts, see what is working, and what needs adjustment and attention.

Marketing might just be your next differentiator

If your dealership wants to differentiate, having a solid marketing plan to support your business goals and making the commitment to meeting your customers and prospects where they are (and again, they are online!), is a great way to do so. With so many sales driven solution providers out there, you’re sure to stand out. Thinking differently than you have in the past about your marketing strategy may have its perks in more ways than one. Demand Metric asserts that content marketing costs 62 percent less than outbound (more traditional push marketing) and generates three times as many leads. If that’s true, then why wouldn’t we be willing to invest in it? You know your customers best—ask them how they buy. Ask them how they prefer to research information about products and services. You might learn something, and that’s a good thing.

Office technology dealers have great opportunities to evolve their businesses with things like managed IT and workflow solutions, yet lead generation is consistently a top dealer challenge. Your marketing strategy and the tactics you employ could make the difference in how well you reach your goals in the next one to three years. Take the time to understand the digital landscape, get to know your customers and prospects, and set a plan to get after your goals.

is director, strategic marketing for the Office Equipment Group at GreatAmerica Financial Services. Using over 20 years of marketing experience, she helps guide the strategic marketing direction of the Office Equipment Group, and is responsible for the marketing and public relations planning and execution for the business unit.