NCtrend: Making a haul

 In 2015-02

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Acme Tow Dolly Co. was down to its last $1,600 in 2009. Richard Brown opened the business in Kernersville in 2006 and had invested $600,000 to build and sell car tow dollies, mostly to retirees to pull their cars behind RVs. But competing against industry giants, such as Phoenix-based U-Haul International Inc. and Parsippany, N.J.-based Budget Truck Rental LLC, proved difficult. He needed to make a move, and fast. Figuring the end had come, Brown bet the company’s remaining cash on Google AdWords, an online-marketing service offered by Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc. “It was my Hail Mary,” he says. Brown, who had owned a business that manufactured and repaired heavy-equipment trailers, knew little about the service when he signed up. Four days later, Google told Brown it was suspending his account, which had run out of money. But two hours after that call, Acme received two online orders. Brown used the proceeds to continue the ad campaign, and sales leads started piling in. Brown’s one-man show is now a 20-person company, and he recently invested $200,000 for space and employees to keep up with growth. Sales totaled $3.5 million in 2014, up from $400,000 in 2011.

Worldwide, advertisers planned to spend about $133 billion in 2014 on digital marketing, much of it revolving around search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo, according to a March 2014 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.  By 2018, digital advertising will nearly match television ad sales. Much of the spending involves companies paying to have their ad appear when consumers search for specific keywords or phrases. Matching Acme’s experience is getting tougher because the popularity of search advertising has made it expensive, while some experts worry that it is overly complicated and often empties a small company’s marketing budget. But it can be valuable if managed effectively, says JoAnn Sciarrino, who teaches digital advertising and marketing at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It’s not like a radio or print campaign to just launch and forget about,” she says. “Small businesses need to diligently track cost, impressions, clicks, bounces, pages viewed, time on site and audience metrics to evaluate traffic quality that leads to an action. Traffic that leads to nowhere is a waste of time and money.”

Brown quickly saw that he was spending too much per click, so he studied free tutorials and researched strategies online. Advertisers can pay to appear at the top of the search page, or they can make changes to their websites to move up when the information correlates to the search. “My ads weren’t well written, and they weren’t relevant, and I was pouring money in to push them to the top,” he says. So he rewrote his ads and posted tutorials to his website, moves that dropped his costs from $4.50 per click to an average of 27 cents. Brown pays an expert in search-engine optimization — jargon for tailoring a site to show up in Web searches — $500 a month to manage his online marketing. The key is adding fresh information and using the right keywords. A search for “tow dolly” in early January put Acme at the top of Google search results and near the top on Yahoo. For Brown, spending $10,000 a month on AdWords lands about 18,000 clicks. He says 98% of sales — which he expects to reach $5 million this year — come from his website, driven by his search-engine marketing. “What it did for me was astonishing,” Brown says. “It allowed us to compete with the big boys right on the front line.”

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