Joe Pulizzi, CEO of SocialTract, a blogging and social media resource for service businesses, talked to The SmartVan about why service organizations need to create original, relevant content to attract customers online — and why it’s difficult to get some to buy-in.

What is content marketing?

It’s about the idea that all companies need to be media companies, need to be publishers. In order to retain and attract customers, you need to create valuable, compelling, relevant content on a consistent basis. … I’ve been working more and more with HVAC companies, what you find is these guys are working all the time. They’re in a van, in a truck, and they’re doing their thing. And they don’t’ have a clue about how to leverage social media, and they don’t spend any time on their web sites at all. They don’t invest any money in it at all, and they need some help.

It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s just that they’re busy working their business.  So we came up with the idea with SocialTract to say these guys have great expertise and they need to position themselves as the leading experts in their region. Really, the majority of their traffic ends up coming from search engines.

You say that the majority of their business is coming from search. How does content marketing play into that?

Let’s just look at content marketing as a whole.  Buyers are in control of the decision making process. They’re going online. They’re finding out all this information ahead of time. They’re checking up on the contractors. A lot of these contractors have cookie-cutter sites. They have old content up on the sites. They’re not professional at all. The design’s horrible. The content’s horrible. And the point is they could be doing all the right things with traditional. They could be doing all the right direct mail. They could have beautiful trucks. They could be doing all the right stuff, but customers end up going to their websites and they’re going to lose them because the content is terrible and the brand is not portrayed well.

Content marketing is part of that because if you’re not telling your story, if you’re not positioning yourself as an expert online, somebody else is. And it’s probably your competition. But they can’t just connect with customers on Facebook and talk about themselves. They need to talk about something that their customers care about. And that’s what content marketing comes down to. You create information that’s not about me, per se. I’m not talking about, “You should use us because we have a great coupon,” or “We’re going to be there in 10 minutes.”

And how do customers find you? They find you by checking on search. The ones that you can connect with on Facebook, you can have a relationship with them that way.  Twitter’s better from a search engine standpoint than anything else because Google’s starting to pick up the searches from Twitter, so you have to make sure you have a presence on Twitter – if nothing else, at least form a search engine standpoint.

Instead of just sending out a direct mail with coupons, give customers something of value. Do a newsletter of value. There’s a million different channels that you could use. Start focusing on the pain points of your customers, and that will lead to business.

How difficult is it to convince some of these smaller operations that they need to create content?

To be honest, it’s hard. We’re used to renting media. That’s what we’ve done for 50 years.  Let’s rent. Let’s find somebody, like Google, somebody who has a message, and we will tag along to that message. Billboards are a good example, as well. We’ll tag along to somebody else who has space, and we’re going to put a message on that space. Or, we can own the media. We can create our own channels, our own newsletter, our own blog post, our own web content, our own social media feeds that become valuable. And that’s why I’m saying we’ve become media companies because we’ve created an audience.

The reason why it’s hard, especially for owners who have been doing the same thing for 30 years, you’re basically saying, “OK, all that stuff you learned about marketing during the past 50 years, it’s OK, but we’re all publishing companies now.”

Do you have any examples of service organizations that are doing content marketing well and who have seen great results from their efforts?

Theo Etzel [CEO of Naples, Fl.-based Conditioned Air and a SocialTract customer]. He’s gone from zero, and within the first six months he had more than 500 people going to his blog site. What he has found out more than anything else is that he’s able to engage his customers more through social media now because he’s putting that content out on Twitter, and then his customers are actually responding to him.

[Theo]’s sending out really compelling content at least two times per week. The challenge is he’s also has to monitor that. So he’s monitoring, now he’s responding, now he’s talking to his customer’s on social media, which most contractors aren’t doing.

Any other organizations that stand out?

HubSpot does a fantastic job, and I actually use them in talking to our customers all the time. The difference is, with a company like HubSpot, when they launched that company, they didn’t’ hire a marketing person; they hired journalists. That was something that just was not done. If you look at the amount of people in their marketing department, 99 percent of those people are journalists. They’re kicking out content all day long, and they’re focusing on customers’ needs, what’s going on with them, and they’re creating blog posts, e-books, whitepapers, webcasts, videos. They are a full-fledged media company.

I think for the most part there are some service companies going into that, but I don’t have good enough examples like I do a HubSpot. It’s just the cost of doing business now for service companies. What if you take your phone away from a salesperson or your truck away from your technician – it’s the same type of thing. You have to have this because as soon as people find out about your services, however they find out about them, in all the marketing and the impressions that you’re doing and the goodwill that you’re doing in the community, if they go online and you’re not saying the right things and you don’t have that information, then you’ve lost.

If you’re trying to make a decision between three service companies, the one that has valuable, relevant, compelling content – customers are 60 percent more likely to select that company. That’s Custom Content Council research. If you don’t have this content on your website, and your customers start kicking around, the one that has that type of content is going to position themselves as a leader, and they’re more likely to get the business. I think this year we’re getting more and more service companies who are buying into it. I don’t think you have to sell them anymore.

Are there any social media sites that are important besides Twitter and Facebook?

Twitter and Facebook are the biggest ones from a professional standpoint. LinkedIn is still very important. In other markets, Quora, which is a Q&A site, is becoming important. For a service company, you’ve got to make sure you’re working Yelp, Google maps, etc. Aside from that, Facebook is a platform all unto itself that you have to pay attention to because all of your customers are using it.

If I’m a contractor in northeast Ohio, I’m looking at some of the news sites that I can comment on occasion, especially when there are weather alerts. You can be helpful on those. Are there any local forums, any local associations? That’s actually where a lot of the action happens. It’s not always where everyone’s at, it’s where your customers are most willing to be receptive to your message. In a lot of those cases, it’s in a small forum, focus group, Q&A section or on a Google group. You need to make sure you look at things like Google alerts. Are you listening on Twitter? Frankly, most service companies don’t do anything like this. But they will. They have to. Service companies don’t do it yet because they aren’t making the time or investment. But I think they will very quickly.

They’re asking for help. They know they need help and guidance, and they’re trying to figure it out. The great news is that they understand that a change is taking place, but how they’re supposed to deal with that change is a whole other issue.

You can use a blog to create a  platform. Companies need to think like a media company and have relationships like you would with readers. They say, “Why should they listen to me? I’m a contractor.” That’s the problem! They’re not going to listen to you because you’re talking about stuff they don’t’ care about. Give them something that they care about. Talk about your customers. Talk about their issues.  You guys are going into homes every day. What are their problems? What are their pain points? Are you asking them?

One of our customers (Tampa, Fl.,-based Simpson Air) goes into the houses, and they take pictures of problem areas, and then they put them on Facebook. And that’s been extremely successful for them. Start thinking like a media company. Start thinking about what’s newsworthy.

More on The Smartvan about customer retention.