Automated technology is supposed to make our lives less complicated and it has in many ways. It has done wonders for many industries, including self-storage.
However, setting up your technology, including your website, has become more complicated and so has managing it to maximize your ROI.
“There was a time when websites were nothing more than glorified business cards,” says Mike Farley, search marketing director for Marketing 4 Storage in Woodland, Calif. “They are still that in a way, but they have to do so much more than tell people who you are. They are how you build your persona on the web, which is critical.”
Dan Hobin, CEO with G5 in Bend, Ore., adds, “It’s so much more than a website now; you need a complete solution that includes digital ads, SEO, and your website should integrate back to your management software. It also includes reputation management with social media management, online leasing, scoring, and the analytics piece.”
History Of Self-Storage Marketing
Ken Morrison, COO for StoragePRO Management, Inc., in Walnut Creek, Calif., has been in the self-storage business since the 1990s, long enough to remember when Yellow Page marketing was king. “You knew you were a big player if you had a double truck ad in the Yellow Pages,” says Morrison. “That was two pages side by side.”
Farley’s company owns and operates 20 self-storage facilities and says many older owners/operators have been like his uncle. “He is very old school and the Yellow Pages were still relevant to him three to four years ago,” he says. “Breaking that with some owners and operators is difficult because it was such a strong platform for such a long time.”
For most self-storage facilities, the Yellow Pages are no longer relevant. However, they may be if the facility is in a rural area.
Yet, even if an owner/operator still feels the Yellow Pages is providing ROI for that facility, he/she should still also be up on websites and everything it takes to make it work for your site.
“In the Yellow Pages, we saw the inception of double As and then triple As to get superior placement,” say Morrison. “There is also a need for that superior placement for your website ranking. The key components today are all internal driven online with your website, whether that is coming from a basic site to a complex website. You absolutely must have a strong website and web presence to be able to compete with the bigger fish.”
Gone are the days when you could spend a day building your own one-page website that typically contained a few photos of your property, your address, and your business hours.
Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training, and developmental services for Universal Storage Group in Atlanta, Ga., believes nowadays you shouldn’t even build your own website and try to manage it yourself.
“Google continues to change the algorithms,” says Ballard. “You really need a professional website development company experienced in self-storage. That’s the first thing people need to realize; none of us are experts in this.”
Ballard continues, “You have to realize how your customers have changed over the past few years. In 2010, 10 percent of your customers came from the internet. In 2019, that number had jumped to 40 percent. You can no longer make decisions on your website based on what your nephew knows.”
Hiring a company to build your website can be an expensive venture. “A small operation can’t afford a huge $250,000 website,” says Morrison. “There are co-ops for smaller operators that can create manage and change the website for you.”
Whether you are hiring a company to build or update your site, going to a co-op, or you’re determined to invest the time and energy to learn how to do it, there’s basic things you must know:
- Your website must use Responsive Web Design (RWD). Morrison explains that your website must be designed to respond and adapt to the device the customer is using. In the past, most users were on desktops or laptops. Today they are on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. “If your customer is on his laptop, your website should look different than it does when viewing it from a mobile device,” says Morrison, who adds that 65 percent of his company’s customers use a mobile device. “If you turn your mobile device from portrait to landscape, the website should adapt with it. Most websites don’t yet have this web design.”
Morrison explains this is important to your ROI simply since most younger people are on mobile devices. “If your website is cumbersome to use, you potentially will lose customers; they will go to your competitor.”
- Your website should be lightning fast. Do you remember the days when businesses were trying to differentiate their website from their competitors by including a long automatic loading video and even music? You need to wipe those days from your memory banks. Presently, ensuring your website is running as fast as possible is a great way to compete. “You have a huge opportunity to compete with the big boys by ensuring your website is screamingly fast,” says Farley. “The bigger operators can’t do that. You can audit your website through Google Lighthouse. Make sure your website is as optimized as it can be and running as fast as it can.”
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Once again, this is an area in which the experts say you cannot rely on your cousin or nephew in college who say they’re good at SEO. “If you’re going to spend money on your website, this is the place to do it,” says Farley. “You’re going to pay one way or another, either by paying a company to do it for you or pay in time educating yourself on SEO and how to carry it out correctly, which can be daunting.”
Optimizing your website properly ensures your build the best pay-per-click
ad campaigns for your site and your facility and the site is running as fast and efficiently as possible.
If you hire a company, Farley cautions to hire one that is experienced in SEO and pay-per-click ads in self-storage. For example, mini-storage is rarely used as a keyword these days. For instance, Farley knew of a company that hired a discount pay-per-click company; within two weeks, it had built a $9,000 ad campaign with Google. “It was a boutique facility in a town of 50,000,” Farley elaborated. “We eliminated those campaigns and built a new one. If the company or campaign is poorly managed, it can get you into trouble.”
- Ensure you’re getting bang for your buck. Among other things, you must have a website that looks fresh and current. “I’m constantly shocked when I’m shopping competitors’ websites online and they have spent $4 million to $20 million on a new facility, but their website looks like it just came out of the year 2000,” says Ballard. “Your website is your primary marketing tool and you need it to stay in business.”
- Show your prices. “There are still a few operators living in the 1990s who aren’t going to show their prices,” says Ballard. “When a potential customer with knowledge goes to a website and there aren’t any prices listed, they will stop and go to the next competitor, so you don’t have a choice but to show your prices.”
Along with that, you must manage your prices, if not daily, then at least weekly. “A dynamic pricing system keeps us in business,” Ballard says, adding that you must also manage your promotions. If you’re filling up in a certain size, it’s time to raise those prices. “You can use a scraping tool that comes from Automatit, which gives you data on your closest competitors,” she says.
Farley agrees with putting prices on the website. “I had a customer who didn’t want to put prices on their site. That might work if you’re very upscale or you’re the only game in town, but for 99 percent of facilities, that really is just crazy,” he says.
You should also keep in mind that online shoppers are the most price sensitive. “If they’re in your store, they’re there because they like how you look and they’re not so price sensitive,” says Ballard.
- Making sure your website has fresh content. Google ranks websites that consumers use interactively, and they must have fresh content. According to Farley, the customer that wouldn’t put their prices on their site had let their website sit untouched for eight years. Not making changes, especially for that length of time, is a no-no.
Making the site interactive with online reservations, bill pay, rentals, and other perks is just one piece of the Google ranking puzzle. You can also ensure that your website is getting new content by creating a blog. “You should update it every one to two months with good content,” says Morrison. “You can put content on that will keep the local base interested such as spring cleaning tips, holiday ideas, or BBQ recipes in the summer.”
Morrison suggests talking to the website developer about an easy blog platform, so you don’t have to call your developer each time you want to make a change. “Word Press is really super easy,” he suggests.
Bells And Whistles For Increased ROI
According to Morrison, your website must offer the ability to:
• Make a reservation online
• Rent online
• Allow customers to change their information on the site
• Download forms, such as for automatic pay, insurance, etc.
While many facilities already offer these services on their sites, there are plenty that have yet to catch up, which could be costing them business.
One of the least likely for a facility to have is 100 percent online rentals. “That is huge, but it isn’t fully embraced by the industry,” says Morrison, adding that the hesitation has been the ability to verify who is renting the unit.
However, there are now identity verification programs that allow you to verify their identity with both a government issued ID card and a selfie (the program compares the two photos). Morrison’s company uses such a program; their online rentals in April and May of this year were up 65 percent month over month and 35 percent over last year. “When we can see an increase during a pandemic, that is huge in growing our revenue,” says Morrison.
“We couldn’t have made it through the pandemic successfully without online rentals,” says Ballard. “We sped up that on our project list, tested it, and went live as soon as the pandemic hit.”
Hobin says, “Some of the big REITs don’t even have online rental. Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, we were doing about 10 to 15 percent online and that jumped to 50 percent during the pandemic. I think it is with the industry to stay. You can do it in almost every other industry, such as booking airline reservations, and self-storage is going to be forced to catch up.”
How Google Ranks Your Website
This is where matters get complicated, and it’s partly due to the fact that Google is always changing and evolving its algorithms. Google rankings is important. It determines how far down the list your business falls in an internet search, and this whole piece falls back to your website.
Of course, the largest companies, with the biggest budgets to spend, will likely rank highest. But there are ways small operators can increase their ranking as well.
Some of the simplest things you need to know to help you maximize your ROI:
• The most effective way is to ensure your free listings are up to date. Each business has a “Google my Business” page, and you are responsible for ensuring that page is accurate, matches your website, and is up to date. Citation sites, such as Yelp, Bing, and others should be viewed as your online Yellow Pages. “Your name, address, and phone numbers should be up to date and all should be consistent with your website,” says Farley. Don’t forget your business hours and gate hours, which may be different. For example, if your gate hours are longer than your store hours and your site doesn’t show this, you might be costing yourself business. Landscapers, for example, cannot wait until 10 a.m. to obtain their equipment, nor do many of them quit by 5 p.m.
• Online reviews. This is an area in which some business owners don’t pay attention, or maybe wish would go away. However, if you receive a negative Google review and do not respond, you will lose in the ranking game. Negative reviews give you a ding, but not as much as not responding. Your social media strategy should include how you or your managers are responding to negative reviews both on Google and other sites, as well as social media. “If you respond, hopefully you can turn those one-star reviews into five-star reviews,” says Morrison. “It may have even been a mistake, as a survey found that many people meant a five star when they actually gave a one-star review.”
Ballard suggests that your managers take the time to ask for online reviews, either after they’ve leased or even during a move-out. “A lot of programs will send out an email asking for a review.” However, she warns, “You cannot pay customers for a review. I had a client do that and Google shut them down. It took us a year to get it straightened out.”
• Social Media. Once again, Google is crawling the web looking for your online presence, and social media plays a part in it. You don’t have to be on every platform, but Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seem to be the most helpful, but that will vary by your location. “Google wants to see you where your customers are,” says Farley.
Your facility should have a social media strategy, but keep in mind that social media is to be “social,” so you’re informing your local base about things happening at the facility, in town, etc., not selling to them.
You don’t have to do it daily; one to two times per week is sufficient. “This is where you have someone create your content and schedule it, and it can be your nephew who is good at social media and can follow your guide; this is an area they really can’t harm unless they go crazy.”
• Ad Campaigns. These can be complicated, and some of our experts say it cannot be done without right without an advanced tracking system to ensure you’re getting the right leads for your facility and they’re converting. This is an area best left to an expert.
Know The Rules
Hobin cautions that there are now more government regulations covering your website and what you can and cannot do. For example, there are lawsuits being filed due to the fact the website is not accessible for those with disabilities. “Your website must meet those guidelines, and make sure you’re up to date on them,” Hobin says.
Other regulations include privacy laws. California has the California Consumer Privacy Act, which was scheduled to be implemented on July 1, 2020. “Other states are following that example as well,” Hobin says.
“Websites are becoming more and more complicated. You really need a technical and marketing partner,” Hobin adds.