Although a recommendation from a family member or friend remains the primary way many people find a contractor, internet searches are rapidly gaining ground. Even with a referral from a trusted source, many people however still research contractors online before signing on the bottom line. And these investigations are no longer limited to looking at your company's website.
This trend does not signal the end of the personal recommendation. It is simply the natural maturing of the practice in the digital age.
Obviously the greatest benefit of receiving referred business is your existing customer has first-hand knowledge of your work, expertise and professionalism, and can endorse or "vouch" for you. This often eliminates sales objections and the dreaded, "I always get three quotes" stall tactic. Of course recommendations also limit a person's options to only those contractors used by people they know personally, until now.
Compliments of what is called Web 2.0, consumers have more verifiable options than ever before. And contractors that want their businesses to grow while operating under this digital microscope need to adjust and learn to exploit these changes in the way consumers are using the internet.
In the past the internet was not much more than a catalogue of one dimensional, static websites that resembled digital billboards. Most sites only provided basic company information, topical product and service overviews and obviously promotional messages, not unlike traditional advertisements.
But today, more than 73% of consumers say they go online first when seeking a service company. And what they are looking for may surprise you.
Unlike Web 1.0, where the only information available on a company was on a commercial website (.com is short for commercial) or in a newsgroup, Web 2.0 signifies a shift to interactive searches where information is shared among consumers, often in near real time. Instead of going online to read what you have to say about your services via your site, your prospects are now logging on to find out what others are saying about you, including your current customers. Some of the more popular ways this is happening includes Social Network sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Digg, and dozens more.
These interactive sites are huge virtual communities that are enormously popular and very influential. These sites allow open discussions between large numbers of people on an almost limitless number of topics. Most host groups with specific focuses and many allow these groups to form to discuss issues of interest in a specific geographic region.
Although still somewhat popular, service recommendation sites Angie's list, which allow consumers to rate and recommend contractors, are having less and less influence as consumer are discovering a wealth of first-hand information is readily available in these online communities .
In addition to the growing number of social networking sites, people can post requests for information, seek recommendations and make comments, both good and bad on a massive number of smaller public issue specific forums and discussion boards.
Why these intense searches for information?
Consumers no longer want a contractor that can merely get the job done. They want the best they can afford. And companies that generate the most positive "buzz" usually get the business.
So how do you foster a positive online reputation and influence people to choose you?
First, understand content is king! The information available on your website is just the tip of the content iceberg. Content is defined as the total body of information that is available online about your firm.
It's no longer enough to have a one dimensional website that only allows people learn about your products and services. Now sites must offer fresh information and interact with, instead of merely educate your visitors. Update the information on your website frequently. Search engines rank sites based upon updates to their content. The more often you add new information the more frequently your site will be "viewed" and ranked. Stagnant websites will fall in page rankings. The easiest way to add fresh content is to make frequent contributions to a blog.
Blog posts do not have to be lengthy to be effective. You can offer brief remodeling tips or tell your prospects of new products or services. To maximize the impact of your blog, make certain it is hosted at the same place as your website. Blogs that are independent from your mains site, such as Blogger, will not impact the ranking of your main site.
Post comments to other blogs your customers are reading. These posts will usually allow you to submit the URL of your site and are great ways to establish yourself as an expert. The more inbound links your site has, especially from high traffic sites, the higher your page rank will be.
Join Twitter, it's free and allows you to "micro blog" or post daily updates. One Twitter member, a publisher of cookbooks, publishes a recipe of the day. It takes only seconds and thousands of people visit his page everyday for the recipe.
Establish a presence on sites such as Facebook, Digg, MySpace and Linkedin. Most of them have groups you can join to increase your exposure and expertise. These groups allow you to post comments, start discussions and most importantly answer questions from members. Answering questions posted by members not only increases your visibility and perceived expertise, but also provides links back to your site and/or blog.
Sites such as Linkedin even allow people to post recommendations on your work. (It's wise to seek recommendations from your existing customers). Many Linkedin accounts grow to thousands of contacts. Each of your contacts can also have thousands of their own potentially putting your name in front of millions of people, for free.
You might even want to podcast. There are several no-cost podcast platforms that will allow you to produce your own mini radio program allowing you to "speak" directly to your prospects. A podcast can be a simple 15 minute "how to" vignette on any subject.
Contribute articles to online publications. There are several that actively seek new submissions such as ezinearticles.com and howtoadvice.com
Place instructional videos on YouTube and Google Video. These videos can be posted on your website and blogs generating even more effective and influential website content.
The internet is no longer just a giant one-sided billboard. It's now a place for active, loud and very influential conversation and your prospects and competition are talking.
What do you have to say to them?
Michael Hart is a speaker, author, talk radio host and shameless publicity hound. His marketing, publicity and advertising strategies have been featured in: Selling Magazine, Sales and Marketing Executive Report, Creative Selling, The American Salesman, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Closing, and Presentations Magazines, - as well as hundreds of business journals, newspapers, trade magazines and private business publications. Michael is also regularly interviewed for radio, television and podcasts around the globe. He can be reached at Michael@MichaelHartSpeaks.com or through www.MichaelHartSpeaks.com