Digital marketing pushes deeper into 21st century

Apps, virtual tours, social media management and other tools increasingly vital for small businesses 

Former Canpages CEO Olivier Vincent heads digital marketing company LocalSphere – a venture that offers apps, virtual tours and mobile commerce options | Dominic Schaefer

Small-business owners are increasingly using marketing techniques previously thought to be the domain of larger businesses.

Some new options for entrepreneurs include allowing customers to store loyalty points within an app and to pay using their smartphones.

Mechanics, veterinarians and yoga studios can also court potential customers with websites that include a Google Street View-style tour of the premises.

These options are becoming affordable as digital marketing firms expand their expertise beyond simply developing websites, ensuring high placement on search engines and achieving effective cost-per-click advertising.

“One of the keys is to have a wide offering,” said LocalSphere Inc. CEO Olivier Vincent, who is likely best known for heading the fast-growing, paper-based and digital Canpages directory business before selling that venture to what is now Yellow Media Ltd. (TSX:Y) for $225 million in 2010.

His new digital marketing venture recently raised $2 million from a bevy of well-known Vancouver angel investors such as Anthem Properties CEO Eric Carlson, former Everything Wine owner Paul Clinton, Peer 1 Hosting founder Lance Tracey and Krystal Financial Corp. principal Terry Holland.

Vincent aims to elevate the concept of what a one-stop shop for digital marketing can be – something far beyond simply doing the expected social media reputation management and search engine optimization.

LocalSphere’s app has a tab where clients’ loyalty offerings are listed. Customers scan QR codes presented at the point of purchase and loyalty points are credited.

“That will change in January, when we will start developing customized apps for clients,” Vincent said. “Those apps will include loyalty rewards either for number of visits or amount spent.”

Another offering is a payments app that LocalSphere developed in partnership with Vancouver startup PayWith, which in turn collaborated with MasterCard Inc. (NYSE:MA).

The service includes the potential for people to send digital gift cards.

Buyers send the recipient a link that contains a 16-digit number. The recipient then shows that number to, say, a server at a restaurant; the server then enters the number as though it were a credit card, and the denomination registers.

The number, which is assigned to a business of the gift-giver’s choice, does not carry identifying information about either the donor or the recipient, Vincent said.

Clients such as Ralf Schwiede, who owns a Maid Brigade franchise as well as Brisas Carpet Care, Decks Awash and C.J. Builders, are excited about the possibility of these future offerings.

Schwiede uses LocalSphere for social media management and for web design.

“They charge way less than the company that used to handle my web page development and other marketing,” Schwiede said. “Perhaps I will get an app in the future.”

Clients pay between $50 and $5,000 depending on what services they want. Most pay about $430 monthly.

Vincent’s aim is to have 150 employees by the end of 2015, with about 100 in sales and the rest in technology development, customer service and other areas.

Some digital media analysts, however, are critical of hiring a one-stop shop.

“It is possible to be a jack of all trades but it is challenging,” said Shane Gibson, who co-wrote Guerilla Social Media Marketing with Jay Conrad Levinson and is a Langara College marketing teacher.

“If you’re an entrepreneur on a moderate budget and you’re not going to do a lot of these [digital marketing] things unless you go to a one-stop shop, it’s better to do it than do nothing at all.” •