By Chuck Gordon
In an era when more than eight of every 10 Americans own a computer, independent self-storage operators must embrace online-marketing tactics to compete effectively. That’s especially true in the face of aggressive digital-marketing strategies carried out by large operators. This is where third-party directories come in. These companies aggregate listings of facility locations, rental rates, amenities and other information, essentially giving consumers a one-stop shop for self-storage.
Third-party directories combine the buying power of thousands of small to mid-size operators, making it possible for a facility to rank on the first page of Google search results by proxy. Although Google ultimately decides which site ranks where, the days when companies could trick the search engine into artificially ranking them higher are behind us. Today and in the future, it’s all about which search results get clicked on the most, and which websites deliver the best user experience. Over time, the results that most closely deliver what customers are seeking will rank the highest. Third-party directories put independent operators in a prime position to do just that.
If your facility’s website has trouble ranking on the first page of Google search results because of competitive or budgetary barriers, a third-party directory offers a different way to achieve that goal. If your business already ranks on the first page, working with a directory helps you cover more bases, such as reaching the multitude of customers who prefer a comparison-shopping experience.
Customers who turn to third-party directories are Internet-savvy, time-conscious people. They’re 50 percent more likely to choose self-storage facilities with at least one online review, and directories are the leading source of reviews for our industry. There’s absolutely no evidence that customers who use these directories are more price-driven than those who prefer to shop around in other ways. In fact, the cheapest unit in a given area is booked just 20 percent of time.
You don’t need to lower prices to compete on a third-party directory website because these customers have various motivations and priorities when seeking storage. They care about location, amenities, security and reviews—the same key factors that determine how directories rank facilities on their networks.
Also worth noting is fewer than 2 percent of customers search for specific storage facilities by name. Rather, they typically search by geographic area. A third-party directory lets them quickly compare all their options in one place in minutes.
Choosing a Partner
So, how do you go about determining which directory to use? As with physical shelf space in a grocery store, it’s helpful to show up in more than one place online. The same way a cookie brand would like its products to be in the store’s main aisle, on an end cap or in a prominent display by the store’s entry, it’s helpful for storage facilities to show up in several places in listings of search results.
What does that mean for you? The bottom line is you shouldn’t necessarily work with just one third-party directory. However, with numerous options, how do you choose the right ones? It’s all about measuring the return on investment and figuring out which websites will bring you the most customers at the best price. Keep in mind these companies offer different cost structures; some charge flat subscription fees while others provide custom pricing.
When selecting a third-party directory, look for proven experience and a track record of operator success. Specialized search engine optimization technology, talent and budgets are must-haves. A good directory will also provide access to powerful partners who boost Web traffic.
Ultimately, the highest-ranking storage operators receive more online business and generate more revenue. They then have more money to invest in future search-marketing efforts, perpetuating the cycle of success.
Tracking Your Results
Whichever directories you choose to use, it’s important to track which leads come from each source as well as the outcome of every lead you get. You should know your cost per lead, cost per rental and the lifetime value of customers generated by each channel.
If one marketing source generates multiple leads, but the leads don’t convert into actual tenants, you might be overpaying. Likewise, if a source generates a few high-quality leads that stay with your business longer, the vendor might be a better place to invest your money.
“I think online directories are great. They’re just like any marketing program: Make sure you track your results against your other programs,” says Holly Ritchie-Fiorello, director of business development for Find Local Storage, a consortium of more than 20 self-storage owners who operate an online facility directory. “If the cost-benefit ratio is performing, then keep doing it. Try everything once, and track and measure your results.”
If you doubt the importance of third-party directories and other Internet-marketing tools for your business, consider this comment by Spencer Kirk, CEO of self-storage real estate investment trust Extra Space Storage Inc.: “The larger, more sophisticated operators seem to have a significant, pronounced advantage when it comes to the Internet. The Internet is not the great equalizer. The Internet is the great divider.”
Chuck Gordon is co-founder and CEO of SpareFoot, an online marketplace for self-storage consumers. The company helps consumers find and reserve self-storage units, with comparison shopping tools that show real-time availability and exclusive deals. For more information, www.sparefoot.com.