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The Power of Web Marketing: What "Stop Whining and Start Acting" Got Wrong

Aug 03, 2011

Traditional mass media advertising is not the best or singular answer for self-storage.

by Christina Qiu, The Storage Facilitator

You may have come across an article last week proposing that traditional mass media advertising is the solution to your self-storage marketing problems. “Stop Whining and Start Acting (Literally): An Open Letter to Self-Storage Professionals,” by Randy A. Smith, was distributed widely in an email blast to industry professionals and published by Inside Self Storage in the On The OpSide blog.

We won’t completely disagree – TV and radio advertising may be effective in some instances. Saying mass media ads never work would only be myopic. However, the majority of evidence points to their decline. Look at the TV industry as a whole– stations are suffering because major companies continually slash their TV ad budget. Growth rates in TV advertising are less than 1% across the board, and in many cases, even hit negative percentages.

At the Storage Facilitator, we encourage self-storage operators to take advantage of marketing tools that work for modern audiences. So we want to explain why mass media might not be the singular answer. Using the power of the Internet to brand your company is a much more potent, flexible and affordable strategy.

It’s no secret that self-storage falls behind other industries in adopting technologies and adapting to changes in consumer trends. Smith’s broadly sweeping, all-or-nothing claim falls into the same traditionalist mindset that causes our industry to lag. The “Mass media always works” mentality is a slippery slope to backward sentiments like “Web marketing will never work for me” or “I don’t need to list my prices online, because customers always call.”

With even faster changes on the horizon, your self-storage company can only survive if you tout a philosophy of open-mindedness. Something we preach frequently on this blog deserves more emphasis now– your best bet is to experiment with different techniques and choose what works for you. If TV and radio ads fill all your units, then you’ve found your answer. If they don’t (or if you can’t afford those pricey ad spots), look to web marketing channels and reach potential tenants on their turf, on their terms.

Smith’s article argues that social media, facility events, SEO and search marketing have no branding power. But handled correctly, each of these is a powerful marketing tool. Dell makes millions using their Twitter account. California start-up Sevenly rose to success almost exclusively by blowing up social media channels. REITs like Public Storage succeed partly because they rank first for self-storage keywords in search results on engines like Google, where most consumers begin searches for local businesses. Our partner site SpareFoot hosted a party at an Austin storage facility during the South by Southwest festival, landing both the facility and SpareFoot a barrage of local media coverage.

Company executives recognize that mass media ad exposure is decreasing. People can easily skip advertisements while watching their favorite shows. They fast-forward through them using TiVo, and increasingly stream shows online through Netflix and Hulu. People also tune in to the radio less often now— they download music or stream it through free services like Pandora and Spotify. Most radio programming is also available for download through apps like iTunes.

Compare that to Internet exposure: A 2010 Forrester Research study showed that Americans spend just as much time on the Internet as they do watching TV. With a growth rate of 121%, time spent on the Internet has since surpassed time spent watching TV. The gap only continues to widen.

Perhaps most crucially, online branding techniques are cheaper. Logistically speaking, low costs make it easier to optimize your advertising strategy through trial and error. Conversely, you really shouldn’t advertise on TV or radio unless you’re sure you’ll receive a good return on investment. Since buying TV and radio ads is incredibly expensive, you’re dealing with huge sunk costs.

While popular storage auction show Storage Wars powerfully and easily shaped public perception of our industry, a huge margin exists between TV shows and TV advertising. For starters, shows like Storage Wars can fit within the pattern of increased Internet usage— many viewers stream episodes on the A&E website and Hulu.

In addition, consumers are simply getting smarter. They’re becoming harder to persuade with direct sales messages. Storage Wars’ primary purpose is to entertain, not to sell a product or service. What we can learn from the show is not that we desperately need to advertise on TV, but that we need to get smarter about marketing. Consumers more easily digest ads when they’re packaged with other messages of value. For example, you could start a unique storage blog or shoot campy YouTube videos starring your staff— if they’re fun to watch, they could go viral. Look at how Manhattan Ministorage has captivated a broad audience with its witty, topical, local-centric ads.

What about Smith’s personal success using mass media broadcast? After all, TV and radio ads work for his facility, even though it operates “in one of the poorest areas” of the state. But the fact that McAllen, TX is an impoverished small town is precisely what makes his facility an exception.

Geographically, McAllen’s broadcast area overlaps perfectly with Another Closet’s target audience. In a municipality as small as McAllen, viewers might see a local ad for a facility across town, and not mind the drive over to store their belongings. In any larger city, this becomes less of a possibility. Imagine living in Queens, and seeing an ad for a Manhattan facility on an NYC local news station. No matter how catchy the jingle might be, the customer will not make the hour-long trip. In larger metropolitan areas, broadcast audience and your target consumer group overlap less, diluting the effectiveness of TV and radio ads.

Furthermore, consumer behavior evolves less rapidly in smaller towns, so traditional mass media can work well here for the time being. But even in these places, consumers will eventually adopt behaviors that render traditional broadcasting near-obsolete. A simple, functional, search-optimized website, and claimed listings on Google Places and other directories are the “right now” of marketing.

We agree with Smith’s point that capturing “tomorrow’s customer” should be every owner’s long-term vision. But a single-minded strategy isn’t prudent— consumers have changed enough over the past ten years, so who knows how they will in ten more? The best way to modernize your branding approach is to be open-minded, forward-thinking and creative. Then, take action and show the world how essential and compelling self-storage can be.