Eight out of 10 Americans shop online and more than three-quarters of all Americans currently use social media in some way, according to business intelligence sources Pew Research and Statista.
These trends haven’t eluded contractors, who are increasingly embracing e-commerce and social media on the job for the convenience, accessibility and efficiency that these tools deliver. In the following article, marketing professionals at IMARK distributors nationwide share their insights into how business communications have changed over the last several years and some of the creative new tactics they’re using to reach and engage contractor customers in today’s digital era.
The Need to Communicate
Industry dynamics have proven that contractor customers rely on distributors to communicate a range of important information. Among the most critical, “they look to us to tell them about the best product options for their specific job,” said Thomas Tate, vice president of marketing at Massachusetts-based Granite City Electric Supply. “Through our outreach, we work to educate them on newer, more effective or efficient product alternatives to what they may think they need and also to share price.”
Given the industry’s focus on helping contractors drive improved efficiency, reduce downtime and improve safety, “the distributor’s ability to provide timely, accurate responses to inventory/pricing requests, order status updates and post-job reporting all play major factors in the customer’s ability to get the job done quicker and more profitably,” confirmed Ryan Hernbroth, director of marketing at California-based Alameda Electrical Distributors.
Scott Lepsky, marketing manager at F.D. Lawrence Electric Co. in Cincinnati, said that the content his firm communicates depends on the audience. “Project managers are usually interested in labor savings and delivery options, while estimators and purchasing agents are focused on material cost and availability and owners are looking for new product information and training to meet licensing and professional certification requirements,” he said.
To help customers find the right information, communications should have good descriptors and search criteria. “By communicating relevant information on time-saving products and services, serving as an informational resource regarding code changes, product obsolescence and upcoming manufacturer price increases and bringing helpful training opportunities of all types to the customer’s attention, distributors can help customers work more efficiently and profitably.”
The Digital Dynamic
In today’s evolving business landscape, digital tools have proven to be an effective means of achieving many objectives. “Social media offers electrical distributors numerous platforms to reach a large audience for the purpose of introducing, demonstrating, selling and training customers on multiple products and services, and customers can view this content anytime, anyplace,” said Mike Raygor, marketing director at Iowa-based Echo Electric Supply. “The 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. working mentality no longer exists, which creates a much larger window to sell our products and services.”
Hernbroth agreed, noting that “contractors no longer want (or have time) to sort through all of the noise—they want answers and they want them in an easily-accessible way. In the new app-based world we live in, people have become accustomed to easy-to-navigate user interfaces where information can be found and selections can be made via the simple click of a button. The younger, up-and-coming leaders of the mechanical-electrical-plumbing (MEP) trades demand simplicity and a free flow of information and the only way to achieve both is to turn to technology.”
“The nature of communication to contractors has changed in recent years and will continue to do so,” concurred Lepsky. “Paper communication like one-page sell sheets and counter fliers are being replaced with digital communications containing links to specification pages, data sheets and installation videos. More business is being conducted with mobile devices, and as that trend continues, electronic communication will become a larger part of the overall marketing and communications strategy.”
Tate noted that Granite City Electric customers’ use of social media has changed perceptibly over recent years. “Three to four years ago, contractors were mostly using social media to complain or comment negatively,” he said. “Now we’re starting to see more positive feedback and way more reviews.” According to Tate, social media has been especially effective in getting the word out about Granite City events and branding initiatives.
The same proves true at Echo Electric. “I’m surprised by how much of a following we have on social media and how interested our customers are in the things we’re doing,” Raygor said. “For example, we had a standard counter day at one of our branches a while back and received 2,800 hits on the post.”
Tips for the Trade
Shorter attention spans and the demographics of the up-and-coming generation—one that expects and is comfortable with information flowing freely (often through their portable devices)—are changing how distributors communicate. “These customers demand marketing messages that are more clear, concise and straight to the point than ever. Ultimately, you only have a few seconds (or words) to land the overall message,” Hernbroth explained. “First, you need to highlight the customer’s problem or challenge and then, using supporting data and illustrations, lay out your insights into how your solution fixes that problem in a clean, simple and logical sequence.” Lastly, he said, “a simple but direct call to action should anchor any great marketing piece. By doing this, you’re creating a story which guides the contractor down a path—one which, if executed correctly, should lead them to the conclusion that you’re the best partner to help champion their toughest challenges.”
Tate concurred, adding that Granite City has been embracing the use of short videos.
According to Lepsky, part of the issue is that there are more mediums and messages competing for customers’ attention than ever. “Business communication used to be a desk phone, a fax machine and the U.S. mail, but today people also conduct business on cell phones and mobile devices— anywhere at any time,” he said. “Add to this 24/7 ‘mobile office’ a constant barrage of text messages and social media alerts within the context of the new speed at which we do business today, and it’s no wonder why it seems that attention spans are shorter,” he said. “The key is to know your communication habits and those of your audience.”
To help cut through the clutter, Lepsky recommends opting for concise and meaningful subject lines, tabs and page headers. “Links to technical data that can be referenced at a later time or forwarded to other team members can make your communication more valuable,” he said. “Overall, approach your messaging as if you’re presenting an executive brief. Everyone thinks that their time is valuable—and they’re right.”
Raygor recommends that distributors provide straight-tothe- point information in short formats using digital tools such as YouTube, text messages, short message services (SMS), e-blasts and Twitter. “At Echo Electric, we now have a YouTube page, send customers e-blasts and have a cloud library of catalogs, specials, specification sheets and new products,” he said. “We also have digital e-fliers that interact with our e-commerce system. Just click the price and availability buttons on the digital flier and it will take you directly to our web order entry system, show the product/ price/availability and present a quantity box so that users can add items to their shopping cart. We haven’t licked a stamp in years,” Raygor said.
Ultimately, Raygor said, distributors will need to accept this “new normal” approach to customer communications or risk the consequences. “I feel that this is how the next generation wants to do business and if you’re not willing to address their needs they’ll just go to the distributor that will, without saying a word,” he contended. “The next generation is used to getting what they want and that’s not going to change anytime soon.”
When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of today’s new communication mediums, Tate said that Google Analytics and other social media management analytics platforms are effective when customers place their orders via the web. “We don’t currently have the measuring systems in place to know if someone saw something in an email or social media post and called their salesperson with questions. Building this type of tracking process/methodology within our industry is a huge opportunity,” Tate said.
At Echo Electric, “we subscribe to a monthly service that measures our effectiveness on social media compared to our direct competitors,” Raygor said. The service tracks his firm’s listings in search engines and directories and provides statistical results on the audience, shares and mentions. “I’m not sure if this is the best way to measure our effectiveness,” he said, “but it compares us to our competition with all criteria being equal.”
“Measuring the success of communication via social media can be challenging,” F.D. Lawrence’s Lepsky said. “Without an integrated way to track click-through rates, likes, shares or a specific call to action across all of the platforms being deployed, we’re left with a best-guess situation. In some cases, an action item (such as an online coupon code) can give an indication of the end result,” he said, “but it rarely gives the full picture of the customer journey to get there.”
A Balancing Act
In the end, distributors need to be creative with their communications in today’s new business environment without abandoning the conventional and proven mediums that still appeal to many customers. “We have to balance the future of doing business with the next generation, but not forget how to keep engaging with the generation that doesn’t see social media as a viable tool for their business,” Raygor said.
“Social media is useful for creating awareness or for making general announcements, but meaningful dialogue is much more effective in a face-to-face environment,” agreed Lepsky, who emphasized the effectiveness of personal interaction when feasible. “More than 90 percent of communication is non-verbal, which puts limitations on the type of dialogue that social media can support. Words on a screen rarely convey the same emotion, intensity or sense of urgency that are revealed during a conversation,” he said.