By John Eberhard
This may end up being one of the most important articles I have ever written on marketing.
There has been a major shift in marketing over the past 10-15 years. This applies completely with small businesses and to a lesser degree with larger businesses.
We have entered the era of platform marketing.
First let me define the terms. A “platform” in this case is defined as a system, method, company, or website that a business will use to market its products or services.
Some examples of platforms are: Google Ads, Google My Business, Google organic search, Bings Ads, Facebook, Yelp, email marketing, direct mail, display advertising, YellowPages.com, HomeAdvisor.com, Thumbtack.com, Upwork.com, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc.
The reason I believe we have entered a new era in small business marketing is:
In today’s small business marketing, the marketing platform that you use has become more important than what your message is, in terms of your success or failure.
It is possible today, to have a mediocre message, but to be advertising on the right marketing platform, and be extremely successful.
On the other hand, it is also possible to have a well crafted message, but to be marketing on the wrong marketing platform, and be a total failure.
This does not mean that the message or the positioning are not important, but it means that the platforms one uses today have more impact than the positioning.
This is true in part because of the way Internet platforms in particular have evolved, and in the way they have a life cycle that can sometimes run incredibly fast. In some cases, marketing platforms that would have gone through their life cycle over decades, are now doing so in a few years or less.
Evolution of Marketing Platforms
First of all, marketing platforms have evolved on the Internet in such a way that they value certain advertisers and devalue others. In other words, certain advertisers are given great value or prominence, and others are given no value or prominence.
What this means is that certain advertisers get great value from a given platform while others get none. And in many cases the number of advertisers that can have any benefit from a given platform are much less than the total advertisers or potential advertisers that there are.
An example is Google My Business, the listings that appear on Google near the top of the page when one searches, that are associated with a map, and are nearly always local oriented businesses.
If you search for “dentist Palmdale CA,” where I live, you will see 4 Google My Business listings for dentists. Yet in Palmdale, and in any other city or suburb, there are probably 50 or more dentists. So the other 46 dentists can get zero benefit from Google My Business, because practically no one will click on the “more places” link. And whether or not it is clear what you need to do to be in one of those top 4 positions, which often it isn’t, you still will be competing with 50 other guys for 4 positions. Kind of like trying to make it big in the music business.
Another example is Google organic search. The vast majority of people searching for something will not go past page one. So they will see a maximum of 10 organic listings. And competition is fierce for those top 10 positions, especially in crowded markets.
There are other examples, but basically you get the idea. Many of the top marketing platforms on the web have evolved in such a way that only a limited number of advertisers can benefit from them. Even when there is plenty of business to go around, it mainly goes to a small number of guys who got there early or meet some other, often secret, criteria.
I think this has something to do with what Al Reis and Laura Reis called the “Law of Singularity” in their book Immutable Laws of Internet Branding. They talked about how the Internet tends to operate to eliminate all but one competitor in a given niche. Whereas before the advent of the Internet, there were always at least 3-4 competitors in a national niche. Now with the Internet, Reis and Reis say, it tends to evolve towards just one giant company getting all the business, like Google, Amazon, eBay, etc.
Whether the “Law of Singularity” is related here or not, most advertising platforms on the Internet have evolved in such a way that only a limited number of advertisers can benefit from them, and the rest are basically out of luck.
While I do understand Google’s desire to “present the most relevant search results” to searchers (and each platform has their own system or mandate), it doesn’t necessarily work well for all the advertisers. And the platforms don’t seem to care about that.
And I am not just trying to whine about “competing is hard” or anything like that. With most of these platforms, one can figure out what criteria you have to meet to be more competitive, and work towards that. But what I am saying is that these systems tend to severely limit how many advertisers can be successful, in terms of actually being seen and getting leads.
The Life Cycle of a Platform
I have observed that each marketing platform goes through a life cycle, which goes like this.
a. A new advertising medium or platform starts up
b. A decent number of public start using it to find products or services
c. At first a small number of advertisers use the medium
d. Later on, as word gets around that the medium works for advertisers, the number of advertisers grows massively
e. The massive number or advertisers causes either: a) the number of leads to diminish for individual advertisers, or b) the cost per lead increases, or both
If a business starts to use the advertising medium at “c” above, their results will likely be huge. I remember using Google AdWords back in 2005, when leads were coming in hand over fist. But if an advertiser starts using the medium at “e” above, it’s possible they will never get good results and will probably discontinue using that medium.
- Google AdWords is definitely at point “e” above. This has driven bid prices up to the point where only businesses selling a high ticket item can afford to advertise on AdWords. For those businesses the medium still can work great. But more competition pushes bid prices up more and more, and makes getting consistent results more difficult.
- Yelp is at point “e” above. A few years ago you could have a free listing on Yelp and you would get a decent number of leads from that. Now you pretty much have to have one of their paid ad accounts. If so, you can still get a decent number of leads from Yelp.
- Right now, Facebook advertising is somewhere between “c” and “d” above, depending on the type of company advertising and the public being promoted to. So you can still in some cases get lower costs per lead. But Facebook isn’t appropriate for all types of companies. It’s better for B2C (business to consumer) than B2B (business to business) companies.
- Email promo went through a slightly different lifecycle. Basically back in 2000-2001, email promo was working like gangbusters. I worked for a software company and we were making millions with it. Then a few years later, guys selling Viagra and toner cartridges abused the medium by overusing it, which for all intents and purposes killed it, except for emailing to your in-house list of clients and prospects.
This doesn’t mean that you should stop using Google AdWords, Yelp, email marketing or any other advertising medium, if it is working for you. It doesn’t mean those media don’t work anymore. But it does mean that there are cracks in the armor, that those media don’t always work for everyone today.
One other factor, which contributes to the lack of effectiveness for some marketing platforms, is that many of the platforms today tend to commoditize the advertisers.
In this case the word “commodity” means something that one buys, where all the providers of that product or service are basically perceived as the same.
So to commoditize a product or service means to reduce its features or values to the point where all the providers of that product or service are perceived as the same, so that the buyer is left with just judging it on price alone. And when that happens, none of the advertisers win because this phenomenon will deflate prices.
You could say that buyers benefit, but if prices in an industry are significantly reduced, particularly in a service industry, can quality be far behind?
For example there are a number of sites like Houzz.com, HomeAdvisor.com, Thumbtack.com, Bark.com, or Gigmasters.com, where a consumer can come and fill out a form seeking a service provider for something they need. Then that information is forwarded to a number of service providers. But the service provider has to provide a bid, usually without all the information they would normally need to price something. Then the consumer gets all these bids, usually without being able to truly differentiate between the providers. So it often just comes down to price.
Basically I’m saying that I don’t think that the commoditization of a whole industry is good for either the advertisers or the buyers.
The Platform is the Thing
So one of the most important actions in marketing today, is to find a marketing platform that will work for your business. And you have to be prepared to study them, and be prepared to test using several before you find one or several that work for you.
The keys to having a successful marketing platform today are:
- The platform has to have adequate numbers of your potential clients or customers using it to find companies to do business with. You have to have enough eyeballs.
- Where your listing can actually be seen, rather than lost in the shuffle on page 27.
- What this usually means is, advertising on a medium where there are not a ton of competitors for your type of business. In other words, you could be on a platform where there are tons of advertisers, but as long as there aren’t tons in your particular type of business, you’ll be OK. If there are tons of competitors in your type of business, it’s probably best to find another platform.
I have often thought that platforms should have a system for rotating the advertisers being shown, rather than having a select few that they judge to be “better” according to whatever criteria they have selected. But unfortunately I don’t see any currently that operate that way.
Is that a challenge, to find the a platform that will work for your business? Sure! Some businesses never find one, and fail. For some, they have used a platform for many years and all of a sudden, or gradually find it doesn’t work anymore.
But hopefully these guidelines will help you in finding the platform or platforms that will work for you.