The internet is still a relatively new thing, and part of its allure is that it is constantly changing. Nobody can ever be quite sure what the “next big thing” will be, and a lot of money has been gained and lost on these types of bets.
That said, we do think that a trend has been emerging in recent years that’s worth paying attention to. It’s not limited to any particular platform, but rather underscores the success and the appeal of many of the most successful internet companies that have emerged in the past ten years. It’s the concept of trust, and you can see its impact from Facebook to Twitter, from Google to Pinterest, from iPhone apps to modern web design. Across the internet, there’s an increasing emphasis on “third party verification” that drives whether people trust a certain entity (be it a business, a viral video, a smartphone app, etc.) and, in turn, invest themselves in that entity (whether by buying a service or product, taking the time to consume a certain piece of media, etc.).
For Energy Circle PRO’s SEO specialist, Alex Eaton, this concept struck home over the weekend when he was booking a hotel room. The first hotel he looked at had a great website, the pictures looked good, and it seemed like a good option -- until he read the reviews: shared bathrooms (not mentioned on the website), construction, and dirty rooms. He read the reviews of a competitor’s hotel, ended up staying there (although it cost more), and had a great weekend. Moral of the story: reviews are very, very important, and can mean the difference between getting a new customer and not.
But reviews are just one component of the bigger picture: third party verification, and the sense of trust that accompanies it, is the next big thing when it comes to having a successful web presence and, consequently, running a successful business in this day and age.
For home performance businesses, this is especially critical. As Energy Circle’s CEO Peter Troast frequently points out in presentations across the country, few other professions are afforded the opportunity to dig through your wife’s closet with an infrared camera. An energy audit, in particular, is an inherently invasive job, and for a homeowner to welcome a home energy auditor into their home, they need to know that they can trust him or her.
So what are the components of a web presence that emanates trust? Let’s take a look.
Start With Your Website
Your website is your home base on the internet. It’s the final destination for all of your web marketing efforts, and it’s primary purpose (gathering leads) is the primary purpose of each of those other efforts. Your website needs to give your business an appearance of trustworthiness, because if it doesn’t, you’re likely to lose business to a competitor who appears more trustworthy.
We won’t dive too deep into the details here, but the basic principles of a trustworthy website include:
- Good design. If your site looks hacked together by a teenager, your business appears about as professional as a teenager. That’s not good.
- Trust symbols. Data has shown that across ecommerce sites, those sites with trust symbols (Verisign, etc) outperform websites without them. This remains true even if consumers don’t know the meaning of the trust symbols. Translate this to home performance: even if your visitors don’t know what BPI certification means, having a BPI logo on your website is likely to make your business appear more trustworthy than a business without it.
- A strong "About Us" page. Let visitors know that you're a real person, with a real face, with real interests and a connection to the community. The About Us page is the most visited page after the home page on websites across the Energy Circle PRO network, which demonstrates that people care about this sort of thing.
We’ve written pretty extensively lately about the importance of reviews for your home energy business. They may be as important as links these days from a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) standpoint; but that aside, they provide third party verification of your business. If a home performance business has good reviews from real people, other potential customers will be far more inclined to hire that company.
The “real people” qualifier is key here, as well, and is what we believe accounts for Google’s recent efforts to overhaul their review system to ensure legitimacy. It’s too easy for bogus companies to post fake positive reviews of their own business, or fake negative reviews of the competition, and Google is stepping up its efforts to stop that. Whether it’s working or not is another question, but that’s the philosophy behind it. Also, if it’s something that Google is taking seriously, it’s something that we should also be taking seriously if we want to play ball in their court.
In terms of a takeaway, Google+ Local is the leading location for reviews at this point, and it's critical that you go claim your listing and put a little effort into it. Make sure everything's accurate, add a couple pictures, and reach out to your best customers and encourage them to leave a review there. Once this is done, move on to Yelp, Yahoo, Bing, Angie's List. The comprehensive list of places people can leave reviews is very, very long, but if you focus your initial efforts on a few, you'll be in good shape.
In a way, social media is one big embodiment of the new, trust-centered internet. Although there are “sponsored posts” on Twitter and ads on Facebook, the vast majority of the content created on these sites is user-generated and unsolicited. In short, it’s honest. This makes it an ideal place for people to go when they want honest evaluations of a product, a company, a brand, a news article or even a Youtube video.
For your business to have legitimacy (to appear trustworthy) in this sphere, the first step is to be there. If someone looks up your business on Facebook and it’s not there, there’s a good chance their next step will be to look up one of your competitors. If your competitor has a page will a wall filled with happy customer testimonials, you’re probably going to lose business to them. If you do have a page with a couple recommendations and some happy wall posts, a fair number of “likes” (you don’t need thousands; just enough to show people that you are connected with real people in the community and that they trust your business enough to like it), you have a better chance of scooping up that business.
This is all related to a concept called "social proof" which is gaining ground among marketers. Basically, picture an exclusive nightclub with a velvet rope and a long line of people waiting to get in. This long line is seen as "social proof" that the club is worth going to. Apply that concept to Facebook and you get the idea.
If you’re skeptical about Facebook, or don’t think that you necessarily need to have your business right there, we’ll just suggest that we think this is the direction that the internet is headed. As important as social media is now, its importance is on the rise. There may come a time in the near future when ignoring Facebook and other social media is business suicide.
In this new, trust-based, third-party-verification business landscape, it’s possible to thrive without a ton of effort. If you have happy customers and encourage them to take a few small steps (like you on Facebook, write a review on Google), you can be in pretty good shape in no time.
That said, it presents challenges as well. If you’re ignoring the places that people are going to vet companies that they’re thinking of hiring, you’re going to be left out in the cold. While reviews haven’t gained total traction at this point (if you search for an energy auditor in your neighborhood, there are likely to be quite a few businesses that still don’t have reviews, for example), their importance is increasing. There will come a time when all of your competitors have a fair number of positive reviews on Google, a Facebook page with some likes, etc. If you’re the only home energy business in your area without a social media presence and some reviews on Google+ Local and other directories, you’re likely to fall to the bottom of the heap for potential customers.
What You Can Do
The trust-based internet probably won’t revolutionize the way that you do business. If you keep focusing on good work and excellent customer service, all it will take to step ahead of the competition will be some gentle nudges to your customers to help beef up your online reputation.
So how should you get started? For now, here are a few things you can do:
- Figure out what's out there. Do a search for "business name + reviews" and see what comes up -- there may be hidden reviews that you didn't know about that could be affecting your business (check out our post on how to deal with negative reviews if you find any). This will also give you an idea of where customers are leaving reviews, and where they could be leaving reviews.
- Establish a standard business practice of asking your best customers to leave reviews.
- Claim and own your Google+ Local page. This is the most important place for reviews at this point, and the place that you should focus your energy if you only have enough energy to focus on one.
- Set up your Facebook page. Encourage customers to like your page.
All thoughts welcome. Any questions, comments, or anecdotes, feel free to chime in in the comments section; and as always, if you’re interested in a free web strategy consultation with one of our internet marketing specialists, shoot us an email or give us a call.