Hyper-local marketing is massively important for many businesses nowadays in our smartphone-centric world – but it has remained a tough nut to crack for many companies. Our Principal, Chris Strom, recently had a chance to chat with Ryan Glass, a former marketing leader at U-Haul. Ryan provided insights on the topic from his time spent implementing hyper-local marketing and user experience upgrades for the 20,000-location company.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
Thanks for joining me, Ryan. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background in marketing?
Absolutely. I've been in web and digital marketing since the fall of 2011. Prior to that I came from a customer service background, spending a lot of years at U-Haul in customer service, heading up what we were doing as far as carrying through customer service initiatives from the central headquarters out to all of the regional offices and individual stores, doing a lot of training and innovating in how we were handling customer objections or things that arose from there. I think it was actually through that integration and development of systems that got me interested in digital marketing and helped me make some contacts within our internal IT Department that made me realize a lot of my skill set overlapped with what we were looking for. It was a great time working in-house at U-Haul up until about ten months ago when I left U-Haul and moved out to the East Coast to work at Resolution Media, which is the SEO and content arm of Omnicom.
Could you tell us more about what you did in marketing at U-Haul?
Sure thing. When I transitioned over my title was Web Analyst and it was a very small team that I joined. We were co-housed in with developers and designers and were a really integrated team – when you’re that small, you end up integrating just by proximity. In that period there was only a few of us to start with, and we really grew the department through recruiting interns. We were really blessed to have Arizona State University nearby. They had a great business school that was a very good recruiting pool for people who were interested in digital marketing.
Obviously, a lot of people's first experience with U-Haul is that you saw a truck of theirs, or your family rented a truck or trailer to move their home. That was my first experience with them was back in 1992 as a child when my parents were moving into the first home that they actually owned. When we were growing the team, it was kind of a look of surprise on people's face when they met us. They didn't anticipate interviewing at U-Haul. They think digital marketing or web analytics, they're thinking about going to an agency or working at Facebook or Google or something.
There's a lot of applications for this web marketing technology because the consumer, that's how we want to communicate with them. You need to follow the eyeballs and that's where the consumer is looking to engage with the company or interact or gain information. We started out as web analytics and we started growing our team of analysts, then we came to realize that we needed to build additional competencies around our core marketing areas. That's really where I started to specialize and helped grow another team, because we had a lot of things to market on the brand and product side, as well as dealing with everything that was going on for local SEO.
A lot of times the job in-house is, "How can I help our company get out of the way and stop distracting the customer? How can I work with the copy, the content, and the creative we have in place to get the consumer to where they're going?" I mean nobody's browsing U-Haul.com for fun. You're coming to U-Haul for a utilitarian reason. You have a logistics question on your mind. "How do I get myself or my family from one place to another?" "How do I do this for my business?"
A lot of SMBs are using U-Haul as a logistics solution and U-Haul is just one of the many things that come up in your awareness set for solutions. At that point it becomes, "My consumer has a goal in mind, how can I help them achieve that?" I felt that was really the melding of the writing and analytics side of marketing. A lot of us have them in a different mixture, and that's one of the great things about building out a team to handle that – you start to see where people's natural strengths lie.
You'd mentioned a big thing you worked on was getting the company out of the way of the customer. I think that's an interesting perspective. Can you elaborate?
Sure, absolutely. It's not just you. I think that the same can be true for 80% to 90% of companies out there. I think what happens is when we're dealing with traditional marketing mindsets – we have things that have worked successfully offline or in-person or in print or things like that, and they don't translate as well to digital. There's sometimes a mindset of, "If this works in one place, let's try it in a lot of different places." A lot of brands take their TV commercial, cause they spent a lot of money on it, and republish it on YouTube, and embed it on their site. In a lot of ways, that's better than nothing. But that may not be what the consumer actually needs in that moment on that particular platform.
Embedding your TV commercial on an, "About Our Products," page may not play as well as something that would be simpler or speak more to what the consumer is trying to do. When I say help the brand get out of the way, it's kind of, "Let's get back to the core focus." We know we have a consumer who is coming here for a set of specific reasons and we have a valuable and variable set of solutions to help them out with that. Let's help them find that.
Let's also offer the customer enough that we're not forcing them to know exactly how they want to use our product. It's almost like a bicameral action: of does somebody immediately know what they want and they're just going straight into the booking process? Or are they curious, they have a little bit of awareness of the brand or the product, and they want somewhat of a concierge approach where you guide them along? I think that second one is really where we have to say, “let's be willing to test things, let's do some A/B testing, let's work on our conversion rate optimization, and find out what actually speaks more to the consumer who is coming in via these methods.” The overall practice is what you're understanding: what your consumer is looking for once they're on your site, and how do you fulfill what they're trying to do. Everything else that we do in SEO or web analytics is secondary.
It's one thing to find a consumer in the wilds of Google search results and bring them to your brand. We can pour more into the top of the funnel, but if we're not optimizing that entire consumer journey, then we know the only thing we can do is keep spending. We need to get more people into the beginning of the funnel, but we also need to help people who are already in the process achieve their goals and accomplish what they're looking for. We all know that's the only way we get that recursive benefit – the ever-expanding growth through word-of-mouth.
We don’t necessarily need more marketing content because that's how we're going to keep getting more people into the funnel – we need more of the right kind of content that answers the questions we know our customers are asking. I think everybody can do a content gap analysis and find they still have opportunities to fill.
A lot of people think about content analysis purely in terms of SEO and trying to find more keywords they can cover with their content. But I really like what you’re saying about analyzing your content focused on the user experience instead: finding out how people are engaged with your site and your content and what they're looking for to solve their problems.
Yeah, I think one analogy is the shows on HGTV where they're doing home makeovers. If you have a house and you decide that you want to improve that house, sure you can just keep adding rooms to the outside, like "I'm going to tack on a home gym and then I'm going to add a basketball court and then we're going to do an indoor swimming pool and all that." But if you're ignoring the rooms that are at the core of the house, like the kitchen, bathrooms, and bedrooms, it would be a disaster. There's an entire industry built around trying to re-engineer or remodel the parts of your home that you already have. So why would you treat your website any differently?
Let’s change topics here. You said you were doing a lot of work on what you called “hyperlocal marketing.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sure, absolutely. During my time at U-Haul, they had close to 20,000 brick and mortar locations across the US and Canada. When you think about typical Google results, you're going to get ten blue links on page one traditionally. Or when you're looking at a Local Pack, you're looking at between three and seven results. Even if you're doing a Google Map Search, you're still only getting up to ten results or so on the maps results there. So it becomes really important to make sure your location listing appears for people who are getting these local results.
It's great if somebody's willing to look at the regular web page search results. But then I have to choose one location out of the entire city or I have to drop the visitor on a city level page that may not be local enough for them. A lot of times if you look at these lists result pages that are just long lists of Walmart locations or Walgreens locations, those pages probably aren't the best customer experience. You'll probably get frustrated and bounce back and just use the Local Pack or your Google Maps app on your phone to find the closest location. So when you're dealing with an enterprise that has a lot of locations, you see it becomes not only competing against other brands but also competing amongst yourself.
We got lucky when we invested in this hyperlocal approach – we had a page built for every brick and mortar location. This is something I had inherited. I don’t know whose idea it was originally, but it was a great strategy. It allowed us to customize that content to speak to, "This isn't just another location doing the same stuff and it happens to be in your neighborhood." This was the brand footprint in your neighborhood, but it also had a specialized list of services and products that were available there versus available at other locations. It also allowed somebody who is doing the marketing side to kind of emphasize those further. Do you have one that's better at one service than another? Is this the one for a larger truck? This is for smaller trucks. Or this is the one for certain specialty offerings and make that stand out versus the others.
When you get into local SEO there's a ton of things you can optimize the same as you could on a typical organic page. But you have additional things, such as your images and your NAP. Then it gets into what you're doing offsite as well. I think a lot of people are familiar with things like Moz Local, or Yext, and other listing services. I know that this becomes an entire ecosystem and knowledge set unto itself.
The core of it was if somebody's searching for your brand or for your company on their mobile phone, you have to go back to the user journey and think, "Well is this because they want general information about us and this just happened to be the easiest or most handy device for them to access the internet on right now?" Or, "Are they looking for us because they have a high intent to do something with an immediate sense? Are they in their truck or they're ready to leave their home right now and they're looking for U-Haul?"
It would be very easy to have a generic page that's just, "U-Haul, We Got Trucks. Come look at a page about trucks." That doesn't help the consumer who's in Bozeman, Montana, versus the consumer who is in Portland, Oregon. We need to have additional localized understanding of what they're doing in various specific locations.
That actually brings up a whole additional set of analysis and study that goes into, “what are the terms the people are using in that area?” Or, “how do you minimize the times it sounds like this was written by somebody in a marketing office away from the community you're serving?” Everybody thinks about the neighborhoods that you live in or the city where you work and there's colloquial terms or nicknames for certain areas. Like now I live in New York, so I'm probably not going to look up New York City unless I want something broad. I'm going to at least look up Manhattan or more specifically Chelsea, the neighborhood where I live. If I'm looking for new restaurants, I don't want the list of all new restaurants in New York City. I want new restaurants that are near me, or I want, say, Indian restaurants in Chelsea, and a lot of people are going to expect the phone to just triangulate results based on where they're at. So it’s important to make your content specific, use terms like Chelsea, for instance, reference things in the neighborhood, phrase things the way that people in that area like to phrase things. Make it relatable and as authentic as possible, really show if you have 20,000 brick and mortars, you’re taking the time to identify with the consumer and help you relate to them, versus copy and pasting text across 20,000 location listings.
I think we're lucky to have some great results from there. We're also lucky that Google's biggest update for local, their Pigeon update – the biggest update in recent years, really also skewed towards hyperlocal. I think everything they're doing is going in that direction.
Well thanks for telling us a little bit about what you guys were doing during your time at U-Haul. You want to tell us a little bit about what you're up to nowadays?
Sure. Yeah. So, I actually had a little bit of a reverse story compared to most people. I started at U-Haul in 1999 when I was originally going to college. I was originally going as a Fine Arts major. And after a few years going to school and apprenticing with some photographers, I decided that wasn't the path for me and spent a lot of years kind of figuring out what I wanted to do and kept working at U-Haul. I had a good job and it was when I got into web analytics and digital marketing it was very clear this is what I want my career to be in. So I had the job in digital marketing before I went back to school and got my degree just to help finish things off. Then this past summer my significant other and I moved to Manhattan and I was able to land here at Resolution Media. Like I said, we're part of Omnicom Group. So it's been a real interesting transition going from leading a department at an enterprise company as the in-house marketing team, to being one part of a large machine in supporting our clients at Resolution Media. It’s a big change in some ways, but it’s still about helping a brand communicate with a consumer.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share what you've learned over the years with us, Ryan.
Absolutely. Thank you so much for inviting me.