Tom Cox is the Vice President of Strat Property Management Inc. (SPMI). SPMI manages 44 storage facilities in California and Texas. Previously, Tom worked for Red Nova Labs, a software and digital marketing firm specializing in SEO and web development for the self-storage industry.
In the self storage industry, the real estate phrase “location, location, location” could not be truer. It’s all about where you build your facility. You want great highway visibility, easy access and a good surrounding market. Investors will pay top dollar for those features in a land plot.
So why is the self storage industry hesitant to spend a little money for online real estate? Because it is not seen as real estate yet, but that is exactly what it is.
The only difference between online real estate and physical real estate is that online real estate can be taken from you if you don’t stay ahead of the game.
To stay ahead of the online marketing game is fairly simple. You need to start thinking about your website like you think about your facility. And you need to think about your website’s search results like you think of the plot of land your facility is built on. The process is only slightly different because it’s reversed online. You want to build your facility first (website) and then you focus on the plot of land where it is built (search engine results page).
You want your facility to be clean, secure and welcoming, and so should your website.
Spend the money to make sure it looks good, functions well, has the information your visitors are looking for, and most importantly, make sure it is easy to navigate. If someone gets lost at your facility when they are doing a walk through, do you think they are going to choose it as the facility to store their stuff? No, and the same is true with your website. The longer they are navigating, the less likely it is that they will rent from you.
If you want to stay competitive with your website, don’t go with the cheap guy or your nephew that made a really good website once for that bake sale his school was having (unless that nephew is also a full-time web designer with an SEO background and has a lot of extra time). Spend the money on a good developer or company that has a good design, web development and SEO skill set.
You can go outside the industry, but remember that within the industry, you’re going to find a series of talented companies with industry specific site designs in mind that are proven to be effective. Think of it like building a new facility. Do you go with one of the industry builders who build storage facilities for a living or hire out to someone who has never built a storage facility before?
Once you have your premium website built, you need to turn your attention to its location on Google’s search engine results page. In short, when people search online for storage in your area, where does your website show up in the list? Google ended 2012 with nearly 70% of the search engine market share, so that’s why there’s a heavy focus on Google’s results. Bing and Yahoo! follow Google’s lead. If you optimize for Google, you won’t have to do much work to also optimize for the other search engines.
When you search online, there are three types of results: Paid, local(maps), and organic. Local results are arguably the most important since they can be the best medium for customers to find you.
Compare local results to the big sign outside of your facility that draws the attention of people passing by. They see where you are located on a map (Location is still the most important factor to them, too), they can get your phone number, address, see pictures, operating hours, etc. without even having to go to your website; but if they do want to check out your website, the link is available. Additionally, after paid search, local results are typically the first results listed. To set up a local listing is free and requires little effort or maintenance. Between the ease of setup, cost, location, and value of the information displayed, it’s easy to understand why local results are regarded as the most important type of results.
Organic listings are where your website shows up in the search results below the paid results and local results and are entirely the result of your SEO work on your website. Your organic spot is equivalent to your plot of land.
Google factors in a huge number of different aspects into their algorithm for rankings and they are constantly changing their formula. Google’s complexity and constant change is why it is usually better to hire out a company to manage this for you and ensure your website is constantly up-to-date. Organic results are often very effective, but can take a lot of time and money both to get a good position and maintain that position.
Paid search is just like it sounds. You pay per-click to show up in results and you compete for better results. If it’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea, think of paid search as similar to bill boards. You can’t own the spot, but you can pay to be there. The downside to paid search is that if you stop paying, you disappear. Also, users are learning to ignore paid results because they have begun to realize that they are ads and not organic results, making them less reliable. Paid search typically has high costs, requires time to setup and maintain, and often yields poor or inconsistent results. You will likely hear of many companies slowly eliminating their paid search budgets and adding to their local and organic ones without seeing a noticeable decrease in leads. However, if you have the budget and your facility is struggling for some real estate, it could be very worthwhile.
Where do lead aggregators such as StorageFront and Sparefoot play into this online real estate strategy? Consider these websites like leasing a land plot. You would rather own the land, but if that’s not an option, it’s still a great piece of land and you can make profit on it, so why not lease it? Aggregators have a similar advantage to the Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) when it comes to online marketing. They have size and influence, they are national and they have a lot of concentrated SEO power, which allows them to secure top search results in most markets. You pay to lease their space and you get leads in return. Love them or hate them, they were inevitable and do allow a lot of smaller owners to compete on a similar level of the REITs. As long as the ROI is always positive, using their services is a smart online strategy. Plus, since they do all or most of the setup and maintenance, the only cost to you is the leads. (StorageFront is owned by the StoreLocal co-op, changing the analogy as co-op members would own a piece of StorageFront, so it would be similar to being an investor in the land, while also owning the facility leasing on it).
Between paid, local, organic search and aggregators, you have ample real estate opportunity. The ideal Google search for your keywords and your market would show a paid result for your facility, a local result for your facility, an organic result (or two) for your facility, and a couple of aggregator results for your facility and/or market. If you have those results, you can equate that to owning every facility in a market. However, that’s not realistic, but one or two of those can be very effective.
When you think about your web marketing, start thinking about it as real estate and it will all make a lot more sense. When you are looking over those marketing budgets, remember how much money you put into your facility and remember half of those customers will see your website before they see your facility. It is worth the money to fix it up and make sure it looks nice. It is not just worth it to invest in web marketing, it is an absolute must if you want to compete in storage moving forward. Every day that you don’t invest in online real estate, it gets more expensive and harder to enter the game.