One of the many reasons I’ve been missing in action from blogging is that I recently purchased and moved into a new home. It’s an exciting milestone in my life, as I’ve never owned a home before. It also proved to be a hidden gem for finding new, loyal customers for my business.
It’s important to always be looking for new opportunities to spread the word about your business. After receiving a notice from my new homeowners association that they had a community message board, I fired up the computer to check it out and sign up. It didn’t take long before I realized this would be a perfect opportunity to plug my services.
This is what’s known as hyper-local marketing: a very ambiguous buzz-word that I take to mean targeting advertising to the area immediately surrounding your business. In this case, my target is my new neighborhood. Methods used for hyper-local marketing can be anything from fliers in the doorway to web-ads targeting local community websites. An HOA forum is a less-intrusive way to find a couple extra customers, but considerations must be taken to ensure you maximize your potential.
Play By The Rules
The first thing I did before jumping on and posting was to read the forum rules. It’s easy to overlook this step, especially if you’re used to posting on forums in other places, as most forums have the same rules. But private forums like this one tend to be more strict about rules, and some may flat out prohibit soliciting.
After skimming the short list of rules I found this:
Please limit commercial and fund raising announcements (e.g., advertising of products or services) and political endorsements.
Pretty standard stuff, and nothing that says I CAN’T advertise my services, just that I must “limit” myself. Vague, but pretty standard and understandably necessary to avoid spam-like activity.
Know Your Audience
After checking out the rules, I ventured into the forums themselves to see what people were talking about. The board was filled with typical HOA stuff: community gossip, updates on shared services like bulk trash removal and snow plowing, and advice on renovations and do-it-yourself projects. There were also some requests for recommendations on service providers…mostly dentists, roofers, carper cleaners, stuff like that.
Noticeably lacking were any obvious solicitations of service offerings by any of the residents. This was my signal to keep my advertising subtle and unobtrusive, or risk sticking out like a sore thumb.
Make Connections before You Make Your Sales Pitch
If I would have simply posted an ad or link, most people would have ignored it or possibly reported me as a spammer. Instead, I made my first post just a quick note to introduce myself and say hi to the neighborhood. That’s it. I didn’t even mention my business. Doing this established my presence in the community as a fellow neighbor, not a desperate business owner.
Over the next week or two I posted some helpful replies to other bulletin posts and even posted a question asking about a recommendation for a local dentist. Doing this provided a sense of familiarity with the other forum participants, they were beginning to get to know me.
Finally, I posted a quick note to tell people that I owned a part-time computer business and would be willing to offer the residents of the community a 25% discount on my services since I wouldn’t have to drive far to service them. And I left it at that.
After a few days of nothing, one resident contacted me because she was having a computer problem and asked if I could help. Just like that, I had a new customer from free advertising and maybe about 15 minutes of total time investment. I also had someone contact me to let me know they appreciated my discount offer and would give me a call if the need for my services arise.
I didn’t let it stop there, though. I continue to stay active in the forums in order to keep my presence known. Maybe once or twice a year, I’ll mention my offer. In between that, however, I’ll continue to post, keeping my ad to conversation ratio low so I wont annoy the residents or come off as disingenuous.
It may take some time, but after a while I want to be known as the community’s computer guy. That’s right, I want to be the guy people call on when they have a computer problem. I think this is possible if I continue to be a helpful and contributory member to the message board and the community as a whole. I also need to make sure I provide excellent service and encourage word-of-mouth advertising among my customers.
This is an ideal situation because I’ll have an entire community of customers that are a short walk away. I’ll have established myself as a professional, meaning that my customers understand from the start that I charge for my services and I am not offering a free community service. Finally, and maybe most importantly, I’ll build a network of people I can turn to if I need anything myself. They’ll get to know me as a trust worthy, reliable computer guy and trade for services may come as a result.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
I’m not kidding myself. I know there are inherent risks in taking this approach. Sometimes it’s better that your customers don’t know where you live and do not have convenient access to you. It may also be wise not to mix customers and neighbors. The guy whose virus I failed to remove may also be the president of the HOA and could make my life a living hell if he wanted to.
I understand these risks and, as always, weigh them into my decision. But I try not to let the possibility of a wost case scenario hinder my progress…if I did I wouldn’t have started a business in the first place. The best way to avoid these situations is to stick to principals of offering friendly, affordable, and reliable service.
It’s All About Relationships
The techniques used in this personal story of mine can translate well to other hyper-local situations. Always keep your eyes and mind open for new ways to connect with potential customers without looking like a salesman.
With computer consultants, as with other service businesses, it’s all about building relationships with customers. That’s how you ensure that you not only get repeat customers, but also get closer to reaching the mecca of self-sustained word of mouth advertising.
I’d like to hear form other business owners…how have you targeted your local community successfully (or unsuccessfully)?