There was a time when a professional-looking website was the only digital asset a business needed to worry about. With that in place, a multi-location retail brand or restaurant could rest assured that when people found their business online, they would see a polished, controlled digital presence.
Then came review sites and geo-specific content hubs like Yelp and TripAdvisor. As this gained traction, they started to rise to the top of search results for local businesses. Suddenly, every guest or customer was also a potential critic, eager to share their hot takes on the latest trends with their legions of followers. Businesses found that they had to respond to bad (and good) reviews in order to keep their traffic numbers up, and multi-location brands had to curate an unwieldy digital presence across an ever-multiplying spectrum of discovery platforms. The task of managing all this gave rise to specialized SEO and local Marketing agencies.
As this was happening, tech behemoths like Google and Facebook consolidated their place in the consumer discovery value chain. Google combined its near-monopoly on search with Google Maps and Google My Business (GMB), which added a seamless geographical functionality for consumers who were rapidly ditching their desktops for smartphones. Facebook knew the personal behavior and interests of almost every American adult and sold access to those audiences to advertisers.
Facebook and Google came to represent what we now know as “walled gardens” – digital platforms that by virtue of their ubiquity and access to personal information gave them disproportionate influence in Marketing and Business-discovery cycles. The top platforms among these walled gardens were able to marginalize or acquire smaller properties (remember Foursquare?) and cement their position as the dominant channels for Local Marketing.
This is the reality brick-and-mortar businesses now face: Technology has squeezed local businesses from all sides, first by enabling the growth of e-commerce, which makes it increasingly difficult for retailers to compete on price and convenience, and second by lowering the barrier to entry for an army of amateur critics and reviewers.
But just as technology has democratized every other aspect of business operations, it has likewise given large brands and local businesses the tools to push back and thrive in this new digital landscape. Whereas a marketer once needed to manually update and curate their digital presence, tools now exist that automate that process. The restaurant owner or national brand marketer who once had to actively monitor reviews can now focus on other things because a software platform will notify them when their reputation needs attention.
What’s a marketer or business owner to do with all that free bandwidth? It’s time to develop a content strategy and start enjoying life inside those walled gardens. The time you once spent monitoring reviews can instead be spent developing your visual brand on Instagram. Instead of updating your holiday hours across GMB and Yelp (now that technology can do that for you), you can focus on giving customers outstanding personal service while they’re physically in your store. If you’re lucky, they’ll post a picture and some kind words about your business on social media, and your customers will realize that enjoying an experience face-to-face beats anything they might find on Amazon.