Population Smallsville

Opticians, eye docs and marketing experts’ 21 solutions for 17 marketing challenges faced by small town ECPs.

STORY BY HEATH BURSLEM | ILLUSTRATIONS BY MAR JEFFERSON GO

The icon of small-town retail, the general store, may be a thing of the past, but one thing hasn’t changed. In a small market, word of mouth business building inspired by quality service remains paramount, and should still be the starting point for any marketing discussion. But that doesn’t mean innovations aren’t transforming smaller markets, just as they are in urban centers. Residents of small towns aren’t who they used to be, often commuting to larger cities to work, or working remotely. And for independent business owners, navigating social media and online marketing poses unique challenges in a small-town context. We quizzed opticians, eye doctors and marketing experts far and wide to come up with the following 21 solutions for 17 common marketing challenges faced by ECPs in small markets.

We’re a tight-knit town with a lot of young families. How do I make my optical a household name?

In Dansville, NY, little league teams are named for the organizations they’re sponsored by. Vying for the pennant with the Lions and Rotary Club squads is the Mill Creek Optical team. Owner Jennifer Leuzzi sponsors it for $250 a season. Families come to watch, or listen on the radio. “My business name is mentioned over and over. I also have a sign on the outfield fence advertising sports goggles and repairs! I feel good about supporting community sports to keep kids active,” she says.

Similarly, Brad Dobson, OD, owner of Bee Cave Vision Center in Bee Cave, TX (and a second location in nearby Dripping Springs) often turns up at school functions, talking about what his practice has to offer. “We support most school sports, clubs and fundraisers. Taking time to judge science fairs and discuss vision screening results with school nurses creates a rapport and shows you want to be involved with the kids and families.” He’s also had success going to seasonal festivals, where staff set up a booth and give away promotional sunglasses, koozies and T-shirts, which he says gets his name out.

Our small-town market is home to a lot of Medicare and Medicaid recipients. It wasn’t the demographic we envisioned when we set up shop here, but how do we reach these folks?

A few years ago, Pend Oreille Vision Care in Sandpoint, ID, launched a coupon in a “Local Deals” glossy that goes out monthly. The magazine runs discounts and coupons for hair salons, restaurants, contractors, etc. The coupon, for half off lens treatments, was supposed to advertise deluxe upgrades, but the response was poor. “We didn’t realize the choice of publication was everything.” By chance, the coupon featured a summary of the business’s services, including the phrase “We accept Medicare, Medicaid, and other major insurances.” So, while the upgrade outreach bombed, according to business manager Jan Heller, “During that same period, our Medicaid new patient exams increased by over 30 percent. Since Medicaid pays well in our state, we more than made our money back, albeit in a different area of our sales than we anticipated.” 

 

My desert town is wealthy with modern infrastructure, but it’s filled with retirees. Since the demographic doesn’t lend itself to social media, what aspects of my online presence should I be thinking about other than my website?

In less populated areas — and this goes for just about all small communities, not just the kind described above — it’s important to register your business with online directories like Google My Business, Bing Local, Yelp, Superpages, Yellow Pages, Whitepages, MerchantCircle, Yellowbot, CitySearch, Yahoo! Local, and the like. A Google listing gets you on Google Maps, for a start. This’ll bring in people who might otherwise just drive on by. Make sure you fill out all the fields a particular service asks you to, and keep the information consistent across all services.

We’ve got the opposite problem! Many of our rural clients still lack decent broadband and use mobile devices for just about everything. How do I make sure I’m reaching them?

According to Sharon Strover, director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, 39 percent of Americans living in rural areas lack residential Internet access that meets even the FCC’s minimum definition of “broadband” service. Believe it or not, high-speed Internet is still a prohibitively costly option for some rural residents. That means your business needs a mobile-responsive website. Remember, Google is getting tough on websites that are not optimized for mobile devices, ranking them lower in search engine results. To see if your website is mobile responsive, plug your URL in here: invmag.us/061802. 

We envy the immediate feedback on product and service trends that big-city ECPs enjoy. Our small town has changed in recent years. How do we get a better sense of who our market is, exactly, and how they might respond to a new product or service?

Sometimes you’re better off letting the pros handle it. There are various sites online that allow you to ask marketing professionals for advice, and even offer you the use of their research tools. Some are free, others aren’t. Sites like Marketing Sherpa, ResearchInformation.info and MarketingProfs.com have a range of resources. Thrive Hive offers a free downloadable guide with six sample marketing plans for small businesses.

Folks around here tend to be set in their ways. I’m sure if I could get them to try these unique frames made from old vinyl records and lacquered bird feathers they’d love them. How do I get them to take the plunge?

Dr. Scott Keating at Vision Trends in Dover, OH, has an idea. “I fit key people in key business locations with free unique eyewear. I fit some of the grocery store checkout ladies in fun frames. Think about all the people who go through their checkout lines.” To ensure it is cost effective, let your rep and lab know about the plan and ask for a discount on that frame, Keating advises. “The patient/customer becomes a walking model for several years. This is a great return on investment.”

What hours should an optical/optometric business be open in a small town?

The question of opening hours is a particularly tricky and important one in a small market. According to SmallBizSurvival.com’s 2017 Survey of Rural Challenges, small business owners said staying open later with no success was their number one challenge. U.K. marketing expert Dr. Scott Dacko coined the term Time-of-Day Marketing. His study, which relies on psychological, geographical and marketing data, shows that different types of people shop at different times. Elderly, “non-time pressured” and non-working people, as well as “variety-seekers” and families with small children are more likely to be morning and afternoon shoppers. (Women tend to do more morning shopping than men, while youth, people looking for a new experience, and those without kids tend to shop in the afternoon.) Busier people shop in the evening. “A retailer can adjust...strategy and tactics dynamically throughout the day to be in tune with potentially important...customer characteristics,” a summary of his findings reads. Retailers “can alter their environment, pricing, promotions and...staff for different shoppers that...frequent their stores at different times.”

Social media isn’t working for me in this rural bedroom community of professionals who work in a nearby coastal city but local residents are tech savvy and well heeled. I’ve studied optimization, I tend to my Instagram daily, we’ve even dabbled in Facebook Events. What am I doing wrong?

That may be what your customers are asking themselves when they finally make it into your store. The double-edged sword that is social media can be particularly sharp in a small market. “When you live in a smaller community,” says Dr. Zachary Dirks of St. Peter and Belle Plaine Eyecare Centers in Saint Peter, MN, “fewer people ‘find you’ on social media, big mailer campaigns or even radio ads. Most people know you are there.” If you want to retain those people and have new ones trust you, he says, they are going to need to hear it directly from someone. In other words, in a small town, word of mouth can make you or break you, and social media’s role in this is amplified. Back up the pretty pictures with excellent service, or it could backfire.

⇢ William Chancellor of Eye Can See Eyewear in McDonough, GA, says his use of Facebook and local county discussion pages really boosted Eye Can See’s two small practices. “It’s amazing how well the positive feedback from those who do post to Facebook discussion pages has increased our walk-in traffic,” he says. The practice’s online posts include everything from educational tidbits to promotions and recognition/appreciation for customers. “Our practices are situated in smaller towns so our word of mouth and social media referrals are very important.”

We’re located on Main Street, but most of our customers in this rural town drive in for 30 minutes or more to reach us. We’d like to attach our name to an event that brings people together. Any ideas?

No need to re-invent the wheel on this one. Many of the tried-and-true marketing techniques take on a special power in a smaller market. Take trunk shows, for example. “Chatter,” according to Leah Johnson, optical manager at Central Texas Eye Center in Kyle, TX, “is important in a small town. The more we can get people to talk about us the better.” CTEC hosts a trunk show for one day every other month, showcasing a different brand each time. Each party has a theme, and themed drinks and small bites are served. “We send email invitations and pay for Facebook advertising. Customers feel special because we ‘invited’ them to a party.”

I spend a lot of time on Instagram. There are more interesting folks than I thought in this small town; and I thought I knew everyone. How can I use this to help my business?

Welcome to the world of micro-influencer marketing. According to smallbiztrends.com, the aim is to leverage the local clout of those people in your town who actually do know everyone. You’re not looking for just anyone; the mailman may be on a first-name basis with the whole town (and he may be a lovely guy) but you’re looking for people with shared values. Start paying attention to the folks in your town who follow or like your optical on social media. Look for those who have the biggest followings of their own and who seem to post things that gel with your tastes or target customers. It could be a hip record store owner or a rabbi with digital eye strain. By leveraging their local clout, you can increase awareness of your own brand and lend it a little authority. To make this work, think of a way to engage them; offer to fit them for free or discount some frames. In return, they post images of their experience at your business. This could work well for Facebook, too.

We’re a small town that gets tourist traffic due to some local sites of historic interest. We’ve advertised in guidebooks and pamphlets but it didn’t do much for us.

Remember that what tourists are after these days are “authentic” experiences. According to SmallBizTrends.com, “Instead of checking famous sights off a list in a guidebook, they’re seeking out the local artists, authentic foods and hidden gems recommended by friends and fellow travelers.” These are the people you want to be cross-marketing with. According to David Brown, president of the Edge Retail Academy, “Stores can really celebrate their localness, their quirkiness, what makes them different. Celebrate your localness and try to make the experience unique.”

We’re a new optical in a semi-rural area. What’s the best way to get our marketing off the ground in this small market?

Here’s an oldie but a goodie: mailers. Dr. Danielle Jackson at Jackson Eye in Fairburn, GA, sent out postcards to the surrounding neighborhoods and subdivisions when the business first opened. “That initial campaign has had the largest ROI so far,” she says.

We’d love to do something for the community but don’t know where to start. We’re looking to engage with people, not just stick a donation box in a corner of the optical.

Community relationships and charity involvement are a particular strong suit for Jocelyn Mylott, director of optical operations at D’Ambrosio Eye Care based in Lancaster, MA. They even have an internal committee that plans upcoming events and fundraisers. That’s an idea you might think about if, like D’Ambrosio Eye Care, you’re running more than one practice. When it comes to outreach ideas, take your pick: “We may do a staff and patient fundraiser and donate funds or supplies to local community outreach like homeless children birthday gifts,” says Mylott. “Just recently we fundraised for a local police department to help outfit their new canine unit with a bullet proof vest.” Staff also visit assisted living facilities to do eye screenings and eyewear repairs, or even just stop by with flowers. “In the end, a lot of the town in some way has been positively on the receiving end of what we try to do through kindness. The mayor shops here, the emergency room and school nurses refer here, etc. because of the care we provide and the kindness we try to provide locally.”

⇢ Dr. Robert Easton Jr. of Easton Eye Care in Oakland Park, FL, summed this up in two words, “community action,” which he defined as “being active in my 160-member Rotary Club, doing projects to raise funds for scholarships, ‘sweat equity’ projects to help injured vets in the community, providing youth exchange from different countries to help build world peace, and more.” Easton was also active in Leadership Broward for years, a leadership networking group out to help Broward County prosper with planned growth and opportunities.

Our town just doesn’t have the planning resources that bigger towns and cities do. Wouldn’t I be better off moving to a bigger market so I can benefit from these?

⇢ Stop and think about the aim of most urban planning: Walkability, public spaces, a sense of community and locality: Basically, they’re trying to make cities more like small towns. SmallBizTrends.com reminds us that in terms of your town’s core, you probably already have these features. They just need to be revitalized. Get together with your business neighbors and get a project going.

We’ve always been curious about selling private label, but our business just isn’t big enough to justify the risks or support the large orders. It seems online should be a good option for small town retailers, but we don’t have the distribution know-how or financing to gear up for it.

Trigger alert: This item discusses online sales, and, yes, Amazon. We know this will be a red flag to a bull for a lot of independent optical retailers, but this is an article about small towns and marketing — and what is Amazon if not a market place swarming with millions of people brandishing credit cards? The service known as Fulfillment by Amazon basically allows small manufacturers to piggyback on their order-filling service, so if you’re, say, a frame retailer you can store your products in Amazon’s warehouses, sell the goods online, and they will deliver for you. It’s potentially a new twist on the private label experience, one that taps a marketing and logistics behemoth with few equals in terms of scope. The benefits for retailers in small markets, who are not located near logistics hubs, should be obvious.

We’re a one-doc practice in a small town. We’d love to expand our services but don’t know if our small client base can support such a move.

Obviously, you’d need to do your homework, but we suggest you consider the case of Family Vision Care in Alma, GA. They’re based in a county with just 13,000 people but their full-scope optometry (everything from glasses and specialty contact lenses all the way through to amniotic membranes/stem cell treatments) has such a reputation that 45 percent of patients are from the greater surrounding area; the service here stands out so markedly it sells itself. Says owner Dr. Blake Hutto, “Being in a small town you’re often the front line, and the final leg of treatment for some complex cases. It’s literally solving puzzles all day...and we love it!”

We don’t buy the idea that TV is dead. But is TV advertising worth it?

Many people assume TV advertising is prohibitively expensive, but in fact it’s usually cheaper than radio and has certain advantages that work particularly well in a small-town context, such as building facial recognition for staff. Caitlin Bruno at Binyon Vision Center in Bellingham, WA, was surprised at first when a TV ad through Comcast became the store’s most mentioned campaign. “We had a local production company shoot a 30-second commercial of a patient moving through the office with a voice over. The production was high quality so it has lasted four years and still looks good.” The local Comcast rep has even tailored airing times both on major cable channels and network cable websites (like espn.com) to fit the store’s budget.

Texas State Optical of Nederland, Port Arthur, TX, was similarly surprised when TV worked for them. They had long assumed it would be too expensive, but, “We were able to co-op an annual package of air time with other associate practices in the area and are very pleased with the results,” says office manager Pam Housley.

 


This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of INVISION.

 

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