Marketing Lemons Business Owners Should Avoid
I work with Small Business owners. Many of them are blue collar, “salt of the earth” types who are exceptionally hard workers. So when marketing service companies rip them off it makes me mad. Sometimes it makes me furious.
Unfortunately I can’t undo the damage that has been done but I CAN maintain this page to warn OTHER small business owners to not fall for these companies’ potential pitfalls.
Note: I can’t legally say these companies are scamming people or that they are inherently unethical. So I won’t. But what I CAN say is they have a history of harming the little guy and you should think twice before giving them your money. Or as the ancient merchants would say, “caveat emptor” (buyer beware).
How could Yelp possibly be bad for a business? Easy. Because I’ve had several clients and business friends who’ve told me stories about Yelp that make them seem far more like a Mafia family than a beneficial technology company.
What did Yelp do? Quite frankly, it is a 21st century version of the shakedown. My clients and friends have shared that after they got several five-star ratings Yelp will call them and ask them to sign up for “premium” Yelp service. If they don’t accept? Yelp suddenly decides to REMOVE the five-star ratings.
If that isn’t Mafia-like behavior, I don’t know what is.
NOTE: Please read the “General considerations” section at the end of this post. Yelp is NOT going to be the only company that does this. You MUST think about who OWNS your leads.
Oh, Home Advisor. You have such potential. Yet, the cost of doing business is…well….painful. I know of many people who fair well with Home Advisor. They get plenty of leads and reviews. But there are two critical issues with being overly invested with Home Advisor: 1) there are in the position to do EXACTLY what Yelp does. They OWN your reviews and can decide the blackmail you to keep them up. 2) They can increase their costs at any moment. While they won’t do this in such a way that puts them out of business, they CAN raise the price in such a way that only the largest businesses can survive. In fact, larger businesses may pressure Home Advisor to do just that.
But even if they don’t jack up their prices, the prices have risen to the level where they are…expensive. If you spent money or Google/FB ads, you could probably get similar results. And if you had someone competent running those ads, you could easily get the same volume of leads at a significant lower cost-per-lead.
With the huge potential risk, I recommend my clients steer away from Home Advisor as a primary means of lead generation as soon as possible. You don’t need to jump ship, but don’t allot more than a tiny percentage of your marketing budget to Home Advisor.
Hibu (and eventually Thryv?)
Hibu and Thryv are both “Yellow Pages” turned software companies. While Hibu has its roots in the UK yellow pages, Thryv has its roots in the US yellow pages.
Both companies saw that their primary source of income (yellow page ads) was quickly going the way of the Dodo bird and, unsurprisingly, both pivoted. Thryv created a marketing software platform. Hibu created a marketing service (“solutions”) company.
Now, my warnings are about Hibu as I’ve only personally known people who’ve had issues with how Hibu operates. But given that Thryv has the same background as Hibu, there is a chance they could go south if they don’t stick to their guns. At the moment they seem legit as they have made the smart decision to focus on software and not services. And it is in the services department that Hibu makes their mistake. (Plus, Thryv hasn’t generated social media hate like Hibu…and man…the online hate against Hibu is overwhelming.)
What are the issues?
There are two but they all boil down to one key thing: THEY TRY TO CON YOU INTO BUYING <expletive removed> THAT YOU DON’T NEED.
1. Hibu THRIVES (pun intended) off the ignorance of their potential customers
The fact of the matter is many SMB owners are overwhelmed when sorting out the complexities of marketing in general, and then digital marketing specifically. Hibu salespeople leverage the ignorance by talking SMB owners into signing up for services that they aren’t necessarily ready to use (or will ever need to use).
Note: For many SMB businesses, they waste money on marketing because of the rush to run advertisements before honing their message and creating a plan. In fact, the best way to guard yourself from the bulk of Hibu-like problems is to ensure you have a rock-solid plan and messaging.
From what I gather, they use their cheap website creation offer as the “hook.” And in all fairness, it is a good offer. But it is a lead loss for them. They intentionally build your (frankly not that great website) at a loss because they intended to squeeze as much money as possible from you later through a metric ton of upsells. Listing Management, Social Media Marketing, SEO, and more will be pitched to you.
The result? That $99 website quickly became $500+ a month contract for them to build your website and THEN do all sorts of others things you may or may not actually need.
And the irony? For the things people could actually use, I find it highly unlikely they take the time to do a quality job. No marketing firm that services thousands and thousands of small businesses is producing quality for any business. They are using cookie cutter methods. Which means you get the same vanilla stuff that every business does.
Remember this: one key component of marketing is to STAND OUT from your competition. If you are just get the same marketing sauce that everyone else is….what makes you different?
2. There is bait and switch with their offerings
This ties in with the previous issue. But this has more to do with the contract than the upsells. A few clients/friends had the same issue where the salesperson SWORE the contract could be cancelled after 6 month. And after 6 months rolls by, every attempt to cancel is met with threats of legal action because the contract says 12 months.
Now, one could argue that people need to be careful about what they sign. But given each of my clients/friends were given the exact same numbers (a promise of cancellation after 6 months), leads me to believe that there is some shady salesmanship going on.
When it comes to Hibu: buyer beware!
I need to thread the needle on this particular “lemon.” Homes.com has several different services. The biggest one is “premium” listings for…wait for it….HOMES! Specifically, they allow real estate agents to bid to get a more prominent spot on their website. Fair enough. Though, as stated elsewhere in this post, be cautious when letting someone else own your leads.
Where Homes.com falls into “lemon” territory is with their “SEO” services. Look, let’s get straight about one thing with SEO. If you are a real estate agent, your odds of getting an organic listing on the first page of Google is ASTRONOMICALLY low. Zillow, Homes.com (irony), and many other HUGE real estate website will ALWAYS take the top spots for “homes in XYZ.” DON’T BOTHER.
That said, Homes.com does some REALLY shady stuff when it comes to SEO. They do something similar to Hibu where they use a cheaply built website as the hook. But then they set you up on a “retainer” to do “SEO.” The cost starts around $400/month (as of 2019).
At first, it is legitimate. They make sure you are in all the appropriate listings. Cool beans.
But they want to keep making that money. And if they don’t say they are doing something, then even the most distracted real estate agent will begin to question the expense.
So what does Homes.com decide to do?
Crappy backlinks. That’s what they do.
Not savvy on backlinks? Long story short: backlinks are when another site has a link “back” to your site. Google takes it as a good sign and it boosts your ranking.
Here’s the catch. Google wants to see QUALITY backlinks. Google wants to see links from news agencies, edu sites, popular blogs, etc.
Does Homes.com do that? Nope. They create a readerless “blog” with generic posts. And then (GET THIS), they post your websites link in the COMMENTS section of their blog with a fake user comment.
TADA! You’ve got a backlink!
One problem: Google HATES that nonsense. In fact, Google is constantly upgrading their algorithms to identify and PUNISH people who do that sort of thing.
So in short, the problem is two-fold. Homes.com is doing meaningless work that Google will eventually penalize. And Homes.com is charging for SEO work that is ultimately useless, even if Google didn’t care.
If you are in real estate, that $400+ a month would be FAR better spent on Google or Facebook ads. Actually, as a general principle, the fastest path to the first page of Google is Google ads. (Hey, Google employees have to feed their families, just like the rest of us!)
ANY Company That Sells Leads
Look, there are companies popping up all over the internet who sell leads, and it’s nigh impossible to keep track of it. But just keep in mind: whomever sells leads to you, is the one in control of your business. And on that note, check out my general considerations so you can be prepared for WHATEVER new tech company comes down the pike.
If you are a small to medium size business owner, there are two overarching principles you can gain from this post:
- NEVER allow another company to serve as the gatekeeper between you and your customers in so much as you can help it. “Lead generation” companies will come and go. New ones will pop up. But the principle stays the same. Be EXTREMELY cautious about paying someone to give you leads. The person who owns the leads owns the business. You will always be better off spending that money in direct advertising than getting trapped with a company that can monopolize your business.
Of course, you could get hammered with direct advertising if the channel (i.e. Facebook, Google, etc) changes things up and you get a dip in leads. But at least with direct advertising you can “pick up your toys” and “play somewhere else.” You can take your messaging, deals, etc. and just tweak it to fit a new channel. But with someone else feeding you leads…you can’t just start over someone else. You’ve become reliant. And that’s a bad place to be.
- Please, “OWN” your marketing. A good agency will be upfront about this. Given that marketing is directly tied to the heart of your business you should never trust another company to take it over in a critical way. Advise? Sure. Help you craft a plan and message? Absolutely…as long as it is HELP. Execute a marketing campaign? Of course. Take over the entire marketing load? No. You have to always dedicate at least 10% of your week keeping tabs on marketing. Hire an agency or consultant to advise and offload a bulk of the grunt work. But NEVER stay disconnected. Remember: the day you don’t have a solid understanding of your marketing is the day you cede control of your business growth.
Our hope is that this page can help save other SMB owners headaches and lost dollars. So the goal is to keep this a post as up-to-date as possible. As we hear new stories or spot new “lemons,” we will post them here. In the meantime, if you have any marketing “lemon” horror stories, please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.