Dealers’ Dos and Don’ts of Digital Marketing

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Dealers’ Dos and Don’ts of Digital Marketing

E-commerce is nothing new for the IDC: most dealers have had sites for online purchasing for decades now. However, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, e-commerce has gone stratospheric; and Amazon’s vicelike grip on the digital marketplace has continued to tighten. As a result, independent dealers are finding it increasingly vital to find new customers online—or, more precisely, to ensure that new customers can find them.

Does this mean the days of shunning Google with gated content (see “The importance of being found” below) have come to an end? Not necessarily. However, most dealers acknowledge the need to up the ante by turning to social media and embracing search engine optimization (SEO) and other forms of digital marketing.


What matters most

Henry Duran, network administrator for United Imaging, suggests there are three primary attributes of an effective inbound marketing website: “Ease of use for both customers and your admin; quick identification of what you do and sell; and the ability to quickly and easily add/change what people see on the site.”

Kevin Huguet, president of Office Solutions & Services, Missoula, Montana, agrees that a website designed to attract new customers “should be easy to operate, easy to navigate and have a robust search engine.” He claims that having a site that isn’t just for ordering gives independent dealers a golden opportunity to emphasize their USP—and combat the might of tech titan Amazon. “For us, it’s a chance to tell the story of buying local,” he says. “We support the community; we add to the local tax base. When you click on Amazon, your money goes someplace else. The best way to fight back is to educate the customers: to tell people what it means when they buy local; how their money goes to the parks, the taxes, the community.”

Guernsey, Inc. has been doing business on the Web for about a quarter of a century. “We’ve had online ordering since the days where you had to go install the software on customers’ computers, and one out of every two installs didn’t work,” says Gordon Thrall, Guernsey’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer. “Today, I’d say 85 percent of our office products commodity business is done online—even higher if you count when we take orders and input them ourselves.” In this climate, suggests Thrall, digital marketing is essential.

“Online inbound marketing is hugely important,” he affirms. “We are celebrating 50 years; 40 years of those were successful by knocking on doors. The last 10 years, it’s been harder. There are more security issues and changes in the way people do business and what they expect. Companies aren’t as welcoming to sales reps knocking on doors. You need inbound marketing for your site to be found by those looking. We get two to three leads a day from prospects who found us online.”

He also suggests that today, content reigns supreme: “The presentation of content on the site has to be done well and shared with customers in a way that makes sense to them. If the content is lacking and customers have a bad experience, you are going to lose them, and you might never know it. They’ll get frustrated and will just go quietly on to the next guy.”

Like Huguet, Thrall believes customization is a good offense against Amazon and other mega e-tailers. “We customize by account, including a customized homepage and of course customized pricing,” he says. “Customization is a differentiator—a way to compete with these million-dollar websites. Amazon has a lot of resources, but it’s ‘one site fits all.’ Our ability to customize as needed for customers is a big advantage in the marketplace.”

Fania Carter, CEO of Sterile Services Co., Miami, Florida, reckons that only about 25 percent of her company’s current business is online, but would agree on the importance of digital marketing nonetheless. “An online presence is essential to the growth of our business,” she says. “It builds brand awareness and helps us find business opportunities and connections with potential customers and colleagues.” She advises that a successful marketing site should be “accessible to all users and have effective navigation and well-formatted content.”

Optimal SEO

Guernsey has three separate websites to ensure a great user experience for both current and potential customers: one for office supply commodities, one for furniture and one to market the company, especially to new prospects. Thrall is convinced SEO is vital for the marketing site. “When SEO is done right, it’s worth its weight in gold,” he insists. “For a period, we didn’t have it on our site and business went down. When we started it back up, business climbed again.”

Indeed, Guernsey believes SEO is sufficiently important to hire in expertise. “Kudos to Fortune Web Marketing,” says Thrall (see Q&A With Fortune Web Marketing’s Jennifer Stine below). “We have been with them for about 10 years. We have a great IT and strong marketing in-house staff, but we wanted an expert consultant to fill in the gaps. I met Jennifer Stine at an industry event and invited her to a meeting; she knows her stuff and speaks in a language you can understand. We create content we think is relevant and we send it to Fortune, and they add the SEO that makes it visible and able to be found online.”

More helping hands

Thrall is equally fulsome in his praise for the industry wholesalers that supply the Guernsey website with relevant copy.

“The wholesalers are instrumental in the office products space in terms of content,” he says. “Essendant is our main wholesaler, but S.P. Richards supplies excellent content, too. When we entered the jan/san and food service industries, we really came to appreciate the wholesalers in the office products segment. Our industry takes their content for granted, but good online content for these other segments is slim pickings.”

Jay Tittman, president of Rocky Mountain Business Products in Denver, Colorado, is equally appreciative of the wholesalers efforts’ in this space. “Everything we do on social media is generated by S.P. Richard’s Campaign Advantage One,” he says. “They dug in and went really deep to make it work for smaller dealers. The program is turnkey. It includes weekly specials that are highlighted in social media posts. Most independent dealers have no idea of how to engage people on social media. S.P. Richards provides professional posts. The program integrates with our social media, email and online ordering platform, and allows me to see the highlighted products. Everything interfaces with Adobe Analytics. I can see the engagement. I can see the number of people who purchase each week. I can see what is working for us. The program is a great tool. I love it.”

And it’s not just the wholesalers that are providing valuable support. For Office Solutions & Services in Missoula, Montana, ISG’s IntelliWeb program is integral to its marketing efforts. “We were using ECI, but we just switched platforms to Prima for our ordering site and moved away from Campaign Advantage One,” says COO Darla Nokelby. “We now do our Facebook campaigns through ISG, using the group’s blogs and posts and matching its monthly specials.”


Speaking of social…

According to Duran, United Imaging is very active on social media, which keeps in-house staff busy and engaged. “We have a blog, and we are on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” he says. “We post on those three to seven times a week. United Imaging also has social profiles on Instagram, Pinterest, Yelp, Houz and Google Business.”

Guernsey is likewise on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram, and blogs are another primary content focus. “We marketed heavily on Facebook for years when the quest was to get followers,” says Thrall. “We’ve cut back some, but I think we are well represented across the platforms. We post once a week in some fashion and often multiple times. We have 50 salespeople who are active on social media to varying degrees and they push out what marketing posts.”

Thrall believes a presence on social media is vital, but acknowledges it can be tricky to work out exactly how that should look. “Online ordering we know works—we can see it,” he explains. “Social media is interesting. You know you need it; you know it works. But it’s just not as clear what you need. You have to believe—to have faith something is happening even if you can’t see it. We monitor our key performance indicators closely. I am not sure exactly what our social media content brings us in sales, but a lot of eyeballs see it.”

Tittman is less enthusiastic about social media, particularly when it comes to using Facebook to promote office products. “We post some to Facebook, but we choose not to do it a lot and not to pay for ads,” he reports. “There aren’t enough customers watching Facebook. I look at Staples, Office Depot and some of the big ones, and can’t help but think, ‘What is wrong with your life if you are looking at office products on Facebook?’ And nearly everyone who engages with these companies and comments on a post is an employee.”


Grasping the challenge

Nokelby would agree that, even with the support of ISG, social media can be a tough nut to crack. “Keeping up on social media and keeping it fresh is challenging,” she says. “We had a younger person on staff who would post on Instagram and our YouTube channel, but they are not with us anymore. We’re small and so do not have a lot of dollars to spend on buying ads, so everything we do is organic.”

“I’d say our biggest challenge is communication,” she continues. “We are changing platforms to Prima, which is based in England, so language can be difficult and the way they categorize is different. Also, communicating to customers that we are changing our ordering site has been a challenge. We’ve used emails, flyers and our salespeople to tell them they have a new login, but we still get calls from customers asking how to log in. Once they are in, they are happy ordering; but getting the word out is difficult.”

For United Imaging, one of the trickiest issues to resolve has been “getting existing customers to use the website,” says Duran. “They are used to our excellent sales reps. Other challenges are getting found on the web by potential customers and our in-house staff creating timely content and videos.”

While some dealers have embraced digital marketing with brio, others consider it a necessary evil. But whichever side one falls on, perhaps Thrall explains it best: “Inbound marketing and social media are integral to being found by customers. Dealers willing to invest the time, money and other resources will reap the rewards.”


The importance of being found

“Many dealers’ websites are gated and therefore can’t be indexed by Google,” says Gordon Christiansen, COO and partner at Highlands, an international sales, marketing and e-commerce agency. Christiansen defines “gated” as a site or content that requires a login and password to access. As Google can’t scroll a gated site and index its information, that site won’t appear in Google’s search results.

“Many dealers’ sites are based on the model of sales reps knocking on doors to win new customers,” continues Christiansen. “To order, these customers call an inside sales team or order through ECI. These sites are great for existing clients who can access their accounts, including customized pricing and item selection. However, they are not designed for signing up new customers. Prospects can’t access the content without setting up an account. Some sites offer the option of opening a guest account, but most still don’t accept credit cards. Further, if your site is not indexed, Google can’t find you—and neither will your customers, unless they know your exact URL.”

According to Christiansen, “It’s easy for dealers to see if their sites are indexed. Just put in ‘office supply stores in Boise, Idaho’ or wherever you are. If your site doesn’t come up, no one can find you. This is a problem in today’s world. If someone is looking for furniture or disinfectant in the local area to purchase, this is the common way they search.”

And when it comes to websites, being found is not enough. “Often dealers don’t have the time or interest to tell their unique stories,” explains Christiansen. “If potential customers search and find you, but you are not telling a good story, you are not going to keep the account.”

Christiansen suggests that a program created by Highlands in partnership with ISG can help with this: “IntelliWeb is an indexed, public website that allows dealers to tell their own unique story, including their values, their products, information about the company and more. It is a marketing website, not a buying website. But it also provides a link to the dealer’s own ECI site. The program also offers SEO-optimized blogs that dealers can post on their pages and content they can post on social media. It’s a great program ISG offers for dealers that don’t have a strong online presence”—something Christiansen believes will only become more important.

“Reliance on traditional field sales is increasingly onerous and expensive,” he explains. “Margins are under pressure and some core office product categories are in decline. A better digital presence is a good investment. It is not a case of one or the other in sales. I recommend dealers effectively use both a physical presence and digital platforms.”


Q&A with Fortune Web Marketing’s Jennifer Stine

Jennifer Stine is president of Fortune Web Marketing, a full-service marketing and video company, with more than 15 years’ experience of serving the IDC. She offers the following insights for dealers looking to enhance their digital presence.


What are your top tips for dealers looking to get started in social media?


  1. Just start. One common misconception is the old-school idea that buyers are not on social media. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether for business or personal use, they are on social media, and I don’t see this decreasing anytime soon—only increasing.
  2. Include paid ads in your campaign. You can start with a small budget, then build on it as you see what works.
  3. Incorporate videos in your posts and embed them on your site. Videos on YouTube don’t perform as well. If you embed them, the videos can autoplay and users will stay on your site.
  4. Make sure your imagery is clear, crisp and sensitive to the times. Be aware of what is going on in the world. For example, when everyone was wearing masks during the pandemic shutdown, you wouldn’t have wanted to post pictures of crowds or large networking events.
  5. No politics.


What social media platforms do you suggest dealers use?

Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook


How can dealers tell if their social media campaigns are successful?

Several free online marketing tools are easy to use to measure engagement, such as Google Analytics. Some of the social media platforms also have their own free tools. It can be hard to track offline success, such as when people phone in [after seeing your posts]. Ask them how they heard of you. And keep a pulse on your business: track when you start a campaign and watch for an increase in business.


How long does it usually take to see results?

Some dealers think when they start marketing, they will see instant sales, but it’s just the first part of the battle. You need to win relationships to win sales. For this, you need to establish yourself as a subject-matter expert; you need clients to put faith in you as an authority in your field so that you can build trust with them. Google coined an acronym for what its search engine looks for: EAT—expertise, authority, trust. We apply that to everything we do.


What advice do you have for dealers’ websites

Follow three basic principles: be sure it’s mobile friendly, easy to use and can be found by search engines. Also, Google’s algorithms currently focus on the overall website. Google awards or penalizes sites based on technical aspects such as page load times, broken links and imagery, and mobile friendliness. Google also penalizes for pop-ups that block the majority of the page behind them on any size screen—phone, laptop or computer. Another important one is to have a “https” URL. The “s” means the site has an SSL [secure sockets layer] certificate, which means the site is secure. This is huge for ranking with Google and a big trust factor for users.