Digital Dazzle

By Tom Ryan as featured in Landscape Magazine

Five e-marketing building blocks to attract prospects, turn them into loyal customers and keep them asking for more.

The world is online. Can you afford not to be there with your own unique online strategy? A strategy designed to attract attention? Showcase your company’s services? Reduce your marketing costs? Build customer loyalty?

The short answer: Absolutely not.

The good news is building a killer online strategy isn’t as difficult as you might think. In fact, if you follow five simple suggestions, you will build a strategy that will return many times the initial investment in time and money. But first, why the fuss over online?

The Commerce Department reports retail sales included $29.3 billion in e-commerce transactions in Q4 2006, an increase of 6.3% over Q3, even while retail sales in general dropped .2% in the same period. In fact, non-travel e-commerce spending for 2006 was $102 billion, up a whopping 24% since 2005 (according to According to an October 2006 Forrester Research report (U.S. eCommerce: Five-Year Forecast And Data Overview), non-travel online retail revenues will top the quarter trillion dollar mark by 2011.

The driver of this growth? There are roughly eight million Web shopping households. The number keeps growing.

Landscape and lawn care pros simply must pay attention to these numbers.

People not only buy online, they research products and services, analyze opportunities and form impressions online before they buy off line.

As the population’s comfort level with buying and researching online has grown, consumers have come to expect businesses to provide the needed functionality. Becoming part of the global $7 trillion e-commerce marketplace increases revenues and lowers costs without a major outlay of capital.

The big five

An online business strategy goes far beyond having a Web site. Most Web sites are no more than online brochures. An online business strategy focuses on capturing a greater share of the growing market of people who research and shop online. Accordingly, an effective online business strategy incorporates these five components:

1. Email marketing. The Internet has dramatically lowered the cost of maintaining contact with prospects and customers. Email, in particular, is an effective, low-cost way to increase sales and customer loyalty. It’s crucial to capture the email address of every customer and everyone who visits the Web site.

Update hardcopy forms completed by customers and prospects to include a request for email addresses. Ensure people their email addresses will not be shared outside the business. Then enter the addresses into customer and prospect databases.

Once addresses have been captured, send regular communication (monthly or quarterly) to build relationships with prospects and customers, encourage repeat business and engender loyalty. The cost of generating additional business from an existing customer is always less than finding a new customer. In particular, use email to:

  • Announce specials and seasonal campaigns.
  • Remind customers of needed follow-up work.
  • Send seasonal gardening tips or other helpful information. It costs next to nothing compared with printing and mailing hard copies.
  • Provide coupons and special discounts. Customer loyalty and rewards programs have become extremely popular outside the travel industry.

According to recent statistics 92% of businesses online actively use customer loyalty programs to increase their customer base. This usually involves giving away freebies or free promotional gifts as well as more personalized service. People love to feel special.

2. A dynamic, interactive Web site. Web sites must engage customers and be interactive. This includes functionality that enables visitors to contact the business via the Web site. Encourage customers to submit their landscaping needs, ideas and requests for bids online and give them a prompt response on what the job entails. The greater the ease with which people can communicate via the Web site, the greater the landscaper’s competitive advantage. Keep the Web site updated.

Include photos of recent work in the updates, but always obtain customers’ permission in writing before posting photos of their property online.

3. A commercial gateway. A Web site becomes a commercial gateway where people can transact any business they would otherwise transact in person or over the phone. Moving key functions such as customer service, database management and accounts status online lowers cost and increases satisfaction. Today, many people prefer to have their bills emailed to them or simply review them online, together with the ability to pay online.

“Giving clients the ability to pay through your Web site is an excellent way to build relationships and improve cash flow,” says Traver West, national sales manager with Web site Pros, an international company that has built over half a million Web sites since 1999. “Provide password-protected online access to accounts where people can pay their bills with credit cards, whether for regular maintenance service or new installations. Most e-commerce platforms have security and password protection built in,” he adds.

4. Visibility. Even the best designed Web site won’t make money for a business if prospective customers can’t find it. If the site does not show up on the first page in a keyword search, its chances of being seen are slim to none.

“If you focus only on general key words such as ‘landscaper,’ your site will be one of hundreds of thousands returned by search engines,” says West. “Using more specific key words, such as your area of specialization, is a good place to start. Particularly important are geographic locators that identify the areas where you do business.”

Search engine optimization programs are an excellent tool to identify areas of a Web site that need attention. The program may suggest key search words or ‘meta tags,’ which are not visible to the naked eye, but are in the code, which makes them searchable and indexable by search engines. “A search engine optimization program also weighs the relevancy of your title bar and how that relates to the content on the home page. If the two items correlate closely, the search engine deems that the Web site reflects accurate information in reference to the terms a searcher has entered,” West notes.

In addition, West recommends investing in a pay-per-click program, a sponsored link that will put the site in the top few of any online search. “Many companies claim they can get your company placed on the first page,” he says. “But that’s tricky business because search engine positioning is an ever- moving target. The only way to guarantee your position on a results list is through a pay-per-click program. You pay only when a customer clicks through your Web site. You can set a specific budget each month with the search engine. When it’s exhausted, your listing will be removed for the remainder of the month and then reinstated the following month. Or, you can leave the budget open and pay for all the clicks you received at the end of the month. Paying for replacement at the top of the list can be expensive, prices drop dramatically for placement in third, fourth or fifth position, which may be just as good for business.

5. Online Yellow Pages. As people become more comfortable using the Internet, more and more potential buyers are also using online Yellow Pages to look for businesses in their local area.

“Keep in mind that a Web site is not simply a virtual brochure or business card,” says West. “It is the face of your company vis-àvis all those people who are more comfortable exploring your services in a non-confrontational manner, that is without picking up the phone or visiting a brick-and-mortar office. Your information should be presented in a way that engages the reader and includes a call-to- action. There are many landscape professionals vying for the consumers’ money and the better you can position yourself online, the more likely it is that you will attract customers.”

Marketplace survival

West stresses that a good online presence that is marketed well should make money for the business, and is not just another bill to pay. “Make sure you choose an experienced company to create and support your online business strategy,” he says.

Survival of the fittest is as much about businesses as it is about the evolution of species. Businesses, which are reluctant to change their ways and adapt to the new marketplace, risk being eclipsed by more agile competition. In the fast-changing world of e-commerce, there is no such thing as business as usual. Only those willing to embrace the new technologies and take advantage of all the Internet has to offer will survive. Equally important, entering the profitable world of e-commerce begins with a conceptual change: Realize that it’s not about having a Web site. It’s about having an online business strategy.