Protect and Serve

Top sign companies manage, shield and cultivate their brands online.
Top sign companies manage, shield and cultivate their brands online

My interest in sign companies and their online brands began at the Intl. Sign Assn.’s 2017 Sign Expo, where I attended an educational session titled, “How Sign Companies Can Manage Their Online Reputation.” The session focused on online reviews, but the seed was planted: Just how much attention do sign companies pay to their online profiles? It’s 2018, so just about every sign company I’ve researched has a website and participates in at least one social media platform – but how engaged are they? Do they monitor their online reviews? Do they know about analytics and SEO keywords? Are they aware that online leads can become repeat customers? As it turns out, the online possibilities appear endless.

WEAVING YOUR WEB(SITE)

When Ben King started King Signs, Graphics & Imaging (Minneapolis) in late 2016, one item on his checklist was a website – a sleek, sophisticated website to be exact – but when he met with Mark My Words Media (St. Petersburg, FL), he settled for practicality. “I went into this thinking, I want a sexier website than, quite frankly, what they designed,” King said. “But after a while they said, ‘It’s generating leads. It’s working.’” King’s website, minneapolissigns.org, has undergone renovations; the images on King’s homepage used to scroll, for example, but Mark My Words’ data mining determined that users were departing. Static images prevailed, and now users are clicking deeper through King’s site. “I wasn’t going to have this really crazy sexy website that was going to look like I’m the most creative person in the world when I’m just making a panel sign for you,” King said. “My website is more utilitarian than I’d like it to be, but it works.”

King Signs, Graphics & Imaging (Minneapolis) has produced a variety of signage via online referrals.
King Signs, Graphics & Imaging (Minneapolis) has produced a variety of signage via online referrals.

King Signs was the second sign company that Mark My Words President Scott Baker and his team – which fashions itself as a lead generation company – have collaborated with. Now, Mark My Words works with 60-plus sign companies. Baker says his formula is unique to his field; Mark My Words builds the website, drives the traffic, collects reviews and converts prospects into what they term “verified leads.” “We also spend thousands, and in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars upfront with our clients to make sure they win fast,” Baker said. “And we have a great, long-term relationship to make sure we get a return on investment in the long run.” Through its first year in business, King Signs was reliant on generating sales leads from its website. In May, King estimated that half of his orders were repeat customers, though he noted he still wants to chase new clients and fresh business. “I want to grow top-line sales and I want to grow my number of clients,” King said. “If I grow the number of clients the way I want to, I’ll be less and less reliant on the internet because I’ll have a stronger referral base and a stronger repeat base.”

Streamline Designs (North Tonawanda, NY), a vehicle wrap and vinyl graphics installation company, has also dedicated resources to rebranding its website. When Christopher Lorich, Streamline’s president, established the company with his brother, the domain streamlinedesigns.com was taken, so they bought streamline designs.co. “During one of the Super Bowls, Overstock was promoting ‘O.co,’ so at the time we were launching, we were saying, ‘Maybe this .co thing might take off,’ because most of the dot coms were taken.” Unfortunately for Streamline, potential customers thought the .co was a spelling error on their fliers and business cards – and were still attempting to contact them at the .com. “We don’t really know the amount of sales, leads and everything that we lost because we couldn’t have the dot com,” Lorich said. Last year, Streamline was finally able to acquire streamlinedesigns.com, and as part of its rebrand, also bought the domain thevehiclewrapcompany.com – which redirects to streamlinedesigns.com – and is now seen on their company trucks. (King Signs also owns multiple domain names that drive traffic to its homepage based on location and keywords.) Lorich estimated that 40-50% of their new customers come from online referrals (website, Google searching, social media).

And since human beings can’t be separated from their cell phones in 2018, a mobile-responsive website is paramount, according to Aaron Hockel, who led the aforementioned educational session at the 2017 ISA Sign Expo. Hockel is a partner and the vice president of digital marketing for AltaVista Strategic Partners (Glen Burnie, MD), which specializes in digital, direct, SEO and social marketing, and has worked with commercial sign companies. “If you’re going to a tradeshow and you’re handing out your business card to everyone, and they’re Googling your company and it doesn’t work well on a phone, all the paid media and all the organic traffic doesn’t matter,” Hockel said. “Everyone will abandon it.”

MAKING THE MINUTIAE COUNT

Operating a well-run website also means monitoring who is coming and going. A tedious endeavor to be sure, but as King Signs (with Mark My Words) and Streamline (in-house) can testify, thoughtful self-examination also leads to jobs. Streamline reviews its Google Analytics and Google AdWords data regularly to evaluate site usage, rationalize its budget and strategies and examine its competition. “We track our contact form to see where our web leads are coming from, and consistently ask phone leads how they’ve heard of us or where they found us,” said Candice Lorich, who built Streamline’s website and handles its online presence.

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a crucial companion to online sales. When a potential customer types in “sign company” or “monument sign” into Google – which is what they do if they haven’t heard of a sign company or seen a brick-and-mortar sign company in their area – your company needs to be at the top of that search engine results page. “If your business isn’t showing up on [the first page of a search result] and/or doesn’t have great reviews, how are people ever going to find out?” Hockel said.

Streamline Designs’ (North Tonawanda, NY) online rebrand continues to yield projects like this colorful wrap.
Streamline Designs’ (North Tonawanda, NY) online rebrand continues to yield projects like this colorful wrap.

Online reviews are a finicky area; most people seem reticent to fill out those post-purchase “how was your experience”-type emails. And yet, when was the last time you took a company seriously that had poor online reviews? AltaVista’s process for sign companies is to use software that first courts feedback on job quality. If the customer rates the job highly, then they are prompted to write an online review. If the customer rates the company poorly, they are asked to provide “internal” feedback. King prefers to let his fun personality shine through when asking for reviews. “Once I’ve gotten to know [clients], I send them a thank you and a final invoice when I wrap up an order. I’ll put a funny thing in there of, ‘My New Year’s resolution is I want to be better with reviews. Here’s the link, help me out,’” he said. “Well, most of the people do it because they know me. Anybody can write a review, but I know if we’ve knocked it out of the park, then I’m going to ask them.”

SOCIAL DIVIDE

There is split opinion on whether social media is worth serious investment for sign companies – though there seems to be agreement that some social presence is necessary. Christopher Lorich said understanding the medium as a whole and the difference between the separate platforms is essential. “We feel that sharing that information will absolutely lead to sales,” he said. “Even if it’s your friends liking or sharing your page, who knows who that is going to reach? It could be a business owner or someone in charge of marketing for a Fortune 500 company.”

King uses social media to maintain his brand and craft his message; he says he’s only received two leads combined via their Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. Baker said that for sign companies, social media for lead generation does not provide a return on investment. “Those who think it does are probably not tracking all the time, energy and effort,” he said. “It is not a B2B platform.”

However, Montreal Neon Signs (Laval, QC, Canada), which hired an outside company to implement its new website in 2016 and hired a full-time social media marketing coordinator in 2017, thinks its sales have benefitted from its boosted online profile – with Facebook even proving to be a suitable stage to post job vacancies. “We firmly believe that investing in an online presence, both through an easy-to-navigate website and through social media, is essential for all companies,” said Joanne Hush, marketing and social media coordinator for Montreal Neon.

THE WAY FORWARD

Naturally, the optimal routes to safeguarding and/or expanding your sign company’s online brand mean many things to different people. And most sign companies appear to be aware of the possibilities out there. “They aren’t ignorant to it,” Hockel said, though adding, “That doesn’t mean they’ve taken the time to develop a strategy, build a great website.… They’re just busy.” And those hard-working companies, whether they’re on the rise or already established, may argue that their network of repeat customers is reason enough to stick with the status quo. And yes, total reliance on online profiles for lead generation is a near-impossible business model.

Even so, a website, social media, SEO, reviews, et al., comprise consistent avenues to locate new clients and maintain contact with old and/or current customers; reach new markets; and create and uphold brand consistency. If sign companies do nothing else, they should sign up for Google Alerts; awareness goes a long way in sustaining your company and its brand while keeping an eye on new entries to the marketplace, whether they be new technologies or new competitors.

Signs of the Times November 2018

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