The Evolution of Merchant "Presence"

Flickr picture by Andrew Atzert

Fifteen years ago, if a merchant wanted to make sure he’d be found when people were doing shopping research, it was very easy. You simply needed to have a free basic listing in your main business category in the print Yellow Pages of your city.  Advertisers could extend that presence in different cities or business categories by buying additional basic business listings and if you wanted to stand out when consumers were doing comparison shopping, you could make your listing standout by making it bold or buying an informational listing (lines of text) or a display ad (graphics + text).  Some people were trying to game the system by changing their name to AAAAA Joe Plumber and appear higher in the listings but buying a display ad would insure a ranking improvement in your category.  Life was simple and/but choice was limited. Directory publishers were making tons of money with huge profit margins.

Things certainly have changed since then.

Fast forward to the search engine era (2000-2010), search is the main method people use to do comparison shopping now. For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), having a presence in the search engine era means having a Web site but ranking in search engine results pages is very random. It’s probably the equivalent of a Yellow Pages basic listing.  The discipline of search engine optimization (SEO) was invented to try to improve Web site ranking in organic search results. This is probably the equivalent of print bold listings (white hat SEO) and AAA merchant names (black hat SEO). And if you want to make sure you appear above everyone else, you bid on specific business keywords in, for example, Google AdWords (search engine marketing or SEM). This is the equivalent of the Yellow Pages display in the Google era. The search engine from Mountain View is now making tons of money with huge profit margins.

The complexity of this search ecosystem means most small merchants need to rely on service providers for Web site building, SEO and SEM, three products of very high interest in the Yellow Pages space in the last 2-3 years.

But that’s not all. In the search engine era, local search sites have multiplied as well. Merchants need to make sure that their basic listing information is everywhere, that it’s correct and is the same everywhere. That’s quite a challenge given the dozens (hundreds?) of sites out there. Companies like Universal Business Listing, GetListed and Localeze have risen to the challenge to help SMBs. Search Engine Watch recently said “Your address is the new link”.

But lo and behold, Google’s search query volume seems to be plateauing. Compete says it has dropped 0.6% from December 2009 to December 2010.

Things are changing yet again…

Enter the social media era (2010-2020?), the conversation age. Consumers are now spending more time using Facebook and Twitter than anything else on the Web, even beating e-mail. As I write this, Facebook claims they have more than 500 million active users per month.  25 billion tweets (messages on Twitter) were sent in 2010.The rise of these powerful social networking and communications tools means that merchants need to be present there as well.

So, what does SMB presence means in the social media world? It mostly means building a Facebook page and creating a Twitter account. It’s actually fairly easy to do and many of them have done it already. I can also tell you every local media company and SEO/SEM firm is thinking of offering (or already does) the creation of a social media presence for small merchants who are not there already. We’ll probably see the arrival of technology companies enabling mass-creation of those pages/accounts. This is the “basic listing” of social media.

Next, how can merchants be found in social media? They’re able to buy Facebook ads or Twitter promoted ads (tweets, trends, accounts) and we’re already seeing the arrival of technology providers to enable campaign management (like we saw search engine marketing). This will be the equivalent of Google AdWords for the social media era.

What about organic “search results”? How do smart SMBs get found “organically” in social media? They join the conversation. They broadcast information about their store, they reply to consumer comments and questions, they identify potential customers and invite them to their store. Small merchants are all about relationship-building and the human touch. They just need to port this to social media but they need help. They need to understand the tone that’s required but mostly they don’t necessarily have the time to engage in and monitor social media. They need support and they need to filter the noise.

I think this space is going to be huge. As SMBs easily create their basic presence en-masse on Twitter and Facebook (BIA/Kelsey says close to 50% of SMBs have created a Facebook page and close to 20% on Twitter), they’ll be wondering what to do next. This is the space we’re trying to crack with Needium, helping SMBs figure what happens next organically after the basic social media listing. By identifying business opportunities in social media, by monitoring merchant name mentions and by offering white-label community management services, we’ve shown small merchants that there’s value in social media and exciting business life after the account creation. We hope you’ll be with us along for the ride!

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