Consumers have always had the power to choose what they wanted to buy, how much they wanted to spend, and which companies they wanted to do business with.
Consumers have also had the power to share their good and bad experiences with friends and family, either encouraging or detracting others to buy.
That's the way the sales and referral game is played. Customers have the ultimate power, and when they are happy, the chosen companies benefit from something that most landscape business owners hold near and dear: word-of-mouth. In fact, 90 percent of consumers responding to a recent Nielsen study say they trust recommendations from people they know. And Econsultancy says a highly-rated product or service will increase the likelihood of purchase for 55 percent of those consumers.
How far does word-of-mouth travel? A report in the Harvard Business Review says customers who participate in a referral program will typically refer four others.
But, word-of-mouth has evolved. First, it was amplified with word-of-mouse, a version of word-of-mouth that owes its spread to technological advancements and the instantaneous nature of electronic communications. Word-of-mouse happens on review sites, forums and social networks. According to BIGresearch, 92.5 percent of adults say they regularly research products online before buying them. And Google's "Zero Moment of Truth" study says that 70 percent of Americans take it one step further and read product reviews before making purchases.
Most recently, word-of-mouse became word-of-mobile, which made online research more portable, convenient and instantaneous through smartphones. A Pew Research Center 2012 report says 46 percent of Americans are smartphone owners, an 11 percent increase from last year. In fact, smartphone owners now outnumber the 41 percent of adults who own regular cell phones. Average smartphone usage tripled in 2011, according to the Cisco VNI Forecast. Cisco also reports the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world's population by the end of this year.
This means consumers are more connected today than they've ever been before. They don't phone friends or wait until they have family picnics or church group meetings to share brand experiences. Now they can seek online ratings, social media-based peer reviews, videos, photos and in-depth service or product details anytime or anywhere they want - immediately.
What does this change in terms of the way you market your business? Nothing and everything. As David Reibstein, a William Steward Woodside professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, points out, "Consumers aren't doing anything differently than they have been doing for years. They have been gathering information about the best products and where they should be buying them. What has changed is where they gather that information."
And, if a landscape company business owner isn't present in this virtual world, many industry experts say they are missing out on an entire segment of customers. "I'm convinced the client that is plugged in 24/7 is a different client," points out Jason Cupp, a former landscape business CEO turned Kolbe-certified growth consultant. "They don't respond to letters or door hangers or direct mail. But they do respond to email, online and via social media. If you're not there, you're missing out."
The concept of word-of-mouth is not new. People seek human connections, explains Roger Phelps, promotional communications manager with STIHL, Virginia Beach, Va. "As humans, we reach out to our friends who we see after church or at the gym," he says.
And our conversations involve not only family updates and goings-on, but also brands. In fact, 76 percent of Americans talk about brands in a typical day, according to a MediaVest Kelly Fay Group study. And those people may mention as many as 10 brands, with 70 percent of those brand mentions including recommendations.
"A buyer wants to feel good about a purchase before making a final decision, so they ask their friends, neighbors and family for recommendations," Phelps explains.
Today, as people seek out human connections, they find them in the traditional places, but "we now also have access to more people than we used to because we 'see' them online," Phelps explains. The most recent study from Nielsen reports 274 million Americans have Internet access, more than double the number from 2000.
What mobile growth has done is enabled these consumers to access information in real time without having to be at their desks or behind laptop computer screens. On smartphones alone, 117.6 million people visit the Internet, according to Brian Solis, author of "The End of Business as Usual."
What this ability to seek out information more quickly has done is made the customer savvier than ever before, Cupp explains. "Customers are discriminating," he says. "They are negotiators. They have done their research and they are not afraid to ask for 'concessions' or 'discounts.' They use the Internet to validate their decisions."
As a result of recent economic challenges, trust has also become a huge factor in customer communications, which is why transparency is a dominant trend today, adds Judy Guido, a landscape business consultant with Guido & Associates. "People want to find out everything and anything about a business before buying from them." She says. "This helps them do their due diligence, engage and build trust in them."
This additional knowledge built from researching businesses online increases customer expectations. "Customers want to know what you're doing in the community, what your people are like, how you go above and beyond in business, what's been written about you, what your views on sustainability are and what your suppliers think about you," Guido explains. "Customers don't just want you to be good today. They want you to be best in class."
In addition to browser searches and website visits, consumers have boosted their human connections via social media.
Time on social networks and blogs has increased from 6.6 billion minutes in 2005 to 81 billion minutes in October of 2011, Nielsen research says. Facebook has more than 800 million users, according to the popular social networking site, and 40 percent of those people are actively engaged with their favorite brands via the site. Twitter has 300 million users; LinkedIn has 116 million users; Google+ has 60 million users. And YouTube exceeds 2 billion views per day. Cisco says video made up 52 percent of all Internet traffic in 2011 and is expected to grow to nearly 90 percent in the next few years. Social networking also continues to expand with new popular sites like Pinterest.
These tools enable consumers to become energized brand advocates. "An engaged customer tends to be a loyal customer," Phelps explains. "Every touch is an opportunity to keep a customer. We all know it's cheaper to keep a customer than to win a new customer. These same business axioms are still valid today. Now we just have new opportunities to activate them."
The ultimate reason landscape business owners should take advantage of these content and communications tools is because they make doing business with a brand easier. As Guido says, "It's all about convenience."
All industry experts agree that online presence, mobile marketing and social media marketing should not replace traditional marketing. Instead, they should be complements to a contractor's overall program. "It's not either-or, it's and," explains Kyle Lacy, principal of marketing research and education for ExactTarget, a global provider of interactive marketing solutions. "This doesn't mean you stop cold-calling or placing ads in the newspaper. You just have more options today. Basically, people now have the ability to engage whenever they want. The question is: 'Do you cater to that need or don't you?'"
And if you don't, don't think not being there means you can avoid any customer complaints or negative comments online, explains Chris Heiler, a green industry social media consultant. "You have to understand, just because you're not there doesn't mean people aren't saying things about your business," he says. "You're better off being there and listening to what people are saying so you're able to respond."
After all, "wouldn't you rather know if someone was complaining about you?" Lacy asks. "If you answer right away, you could make that person feel like you're listening and you could turn that customer relationship around. Others will see this and know that you care."
Guido agrees. "If someone is saying something negative or erroneous about you, you now have the power of social media and the Internet to change that," she says.
When choosing what to do to enhance your online and social media presence, experts unanimously agree that landscape business owners need to know and understand who their customers are before jumping in, because this will determine where they focus their efforts. "You need to know which tools your current customers are using and how they use them," Guido says. "Then you will know how much time and money to allocate to those communications."
The typical landscape customer today is a woman in the 35 to 56-year-old age range, Guido shares. Fifty-nine percent of corporate purchasing managers are women on the commercial side, and 90 percent of consumer decision-makers are women on the residential side, she clarifies. Both commercial and consumer landscape customers have adopted social media five times more than any other tool, with apps and smartphones experiencing the second greatest increase, Guido adds.
While typical commercial customers tend to hang out on LinkedIn, residential customers are most likely on Facebook, Cupp adds. "Everything depends on your service mix and your target customer," he says. "Once you know who you want to attract, you can identify which medium you should use and put some strategy behind it."
Another perk to these new marketing tools: they've driven down the cost of marketing, Guido says. "Contractors who use social media and the Internet and have good communications strategies have, on average, 48 to 53 percent smaller marketing budgets because their ROI is so much greater."
As the research clearly shows, customers who use mobile, social and online tools to help them make their purchasing decisions will only continue to increase. As these customers prove more and more elusive or immune to traditional marketing, contractors need to find ways to reach them. As Solis says, "The connected customer is a stranger you must get to know."
Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is currently a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.'s marketing/corporate communications department. Visit her blog at www.mybiggreenpen.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.