COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - With many associations, the first choice for a winter convention host city is somewhere sunny with relatively mild winters. Think Florida, California, Arizona or Texas. But for its 40th event, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America decided to abandon conventional thinking - especially when they had a chance to stay at a famous five-star hotel Feb. 5-7 in Colorado Springs, Colo., at a not-so-lofty price.

The Broadmoor, a 90-year-old resort, has hosted presidents, movie stars and now, air-conditioning contractors. Although there were plenty of recreational activities to distract them, perhaps the crisp air of 6,000 feet about sea level kept them focused. Most seminars were well attended.

Brian Kraff, CEO of Market Hardware Inc., gave Air Conditioning Contractors of America members suggestions on improving their companies’ Web sites and being easier to find on search engines such as Google.

Untangling Web sites

That was certainly true of two that dealt with Internet marketing. In less than a decade, Web sites have moved from a gee-whiz feature for HVAC contractors to an essential marketing aid for most. However, many of those who attended a Feb. 5 seminar on Web site makeovers acknowledged their company’s Internet presence could use a little - or a lot - of sprucing.

The speaker, Brian Kraff, started the session by asking attendees how many had Web sites. Most did. The last time Kraff, the CEO of Market Hardware Inc., spoke at an ACCA event two years ago, that still wasn’t the case. He said he was glad to see more ACCA members are online.

“The Internet has really changed everything,” he said. “When I look for my HVAC guy, I go to the Web.”

But just being on the Internet isn’t enough, Kraff said. It has to have the right look and features.

“Not having your Web site be as professional as the rest of your company is a very serious liability,” he said.

What not to do

He showed examples of HVAC and plumbing contractors’ sites that were “absolutely abysmal.” They had dated designs, poor graphics and few pictures. He apologized if anyone from those companies was in the audience.

“This site says to me ‘1996,’ ” he said after showing an Alaska HVAC company’s basic site. “If you still have ‘blue’ (colored) links on your site, it says 1995 or 1996.”

Seventy percent of homeowners do online research before buying a product or service, he said. And a poor Web site won’t give you enough time to make a good impression.

“Statistics show that 90 percent of Web site visitors will view a Web site for less than 30 seconds,” in most cases, Kraff said. “Internet customers do not read; they scan.”

If you want visitors to stay longer, you have to give them reasons: demonstrate that your company is credible and trustworthy. He suggested putting association membership logos and accreditations on the main page where they’re easy to see.

Kraff said he judges business sites on these criteria:

•Image. Would a visitor want someone from this company in his or her home?

• Brand. Does the Web site distinguish itself and the company it represents?

• Relevance. Does it meet visitors’ needs?

• Contact info. Where is it? If it’s not easily found, the site isn’t worth much. Kraff prefers the upper-right corner of the screen, and he says all companies should have phone numbers and addresses listed. Only having e-mail is a red flag to many people.

A rudimentary Web site with easily found contact info is better than a fancier one without it, he added.



Be family-friendly

Since so many decisions involving new heating and cooling systems are made by women or other family members, Kraff urges his clients to use family-friendly images on their sites. He’s often fought over the issue.

“One of the toughest jobs I have as a Web consultant is getting ‘tough’ HVAC companies to put ‘soft’ images on their Web sites,” he said.

Another tip: Keep links on the left side or at the top of the page and make sure images and logos are easy to read.

“If you don’t have a logo that’s up to date, to 2008 standards, please have it redone,” he said. “If the logo looks ‘off’ or is hazy, what is it saying? It’s saying (your company) doesn’t care about the details.”

The good examples Kraff showed had pictures of women relaxing comfortably in their homes and of shiny fleet vans and easy-to-find online contact forms.

Kraff said he doesn’t like heavy use of Flash video. Currently, most search engines cannot “see” what’s behind them, making companies hard to find through Google and other sites.

Another issue Kraff has with many of his HVAC clients is they are reluctant to spend much money on Web marketing - a problem he said he doesn’t see elsewhere. And he said contractors should drop the images of polar bears and NASCAR drivers on their sites. They don’t sell anything.

“I don’t want you to put something that is not core to your business on your Web site,” he said.

He also suggested buying domain names that are common misspellings of your company’s Web address to ensure customers find you, and encouraged the use of online customer testimonials and site traffic-monitoring software.

Who's No. 1?

The next day, Kraff hosted a related session, “Getting to No. 1 on Google: Getting and Defending Your Business on the Internet.” He was quick to point out that the name was a trick; no one can guarantee that a company will consistently be the top search result on engines such as Google.

The systems search engines use to decide who is No. 1 are constantly changing, Kraff said, and if your company is No. 1, it’s certain it won’t be forever - or even very long.

However, there are ways that you can ensure your company is prominently featured - for a fee. Most now offer customized local listings that companies can pay for.

“If you do not do something about Internet marketing, someone is going to take your customers,” he said.

Even with unpaid listings, search engines are much better at getting users the right information. Five years ago, he said, a search for HVAC companies by city often would turn up incorrect results from far-away places such as Norway.

To see how Google performs now, Kraff asked attendees to search for their companies using their towns and ZIP codes.

He predicted that soon many companies would remove themselves from the Yellow Pages and instead just pay for online listings. Kraff said he doesn’t favor abandoning traditional phone listings at this time. But any Web-based marketing program should include ways to gauge its effectiveness. He suggested establishing separate phone numbers for Web sites so you can quickly determine how customers heard about your company.

Jeff Lee of Goyette Mechanical Co. in Flint, Mich., explained how he used mostly unpaid “buzz” marketing to grow his company’s residential heating and air-conditioning business.

‘Mr. Television' (and radio and print)

“Yeah, buddy.”

That’s the catchphrase of Jeff Lee, a contractor with Goyette Mechanical Co. in Flint, Mich. He’s used it to create a persona in the local media as a comfort expert. His commercials and public service announcements, featured often on Flint-area television stations, include his aw-shucks demeanor and the phrase.

His Feb. 6 session, “How to Create a Marketing Buzz in Your Local Community,” drew on his former experience in advertising sales combined with his more recent career as an HVAC estimator and TV pitchman.

Lee said he helped Goyette grow its residential sales arm from next to nothing to more than $3 million annually in about three years, and he said ACCA contractors can find similar success - yeah, buddy.

The best marketing, he said, is “buzz” marketing, sometimes called “word of mouth” or “viral” marketing. Usually, it doesn’t happen by paying for traditional commercials, but instead by building a reputation as an expert and a company that cares about its community.

“This is the best way to take your company to the next level and beyond conventional marketing,” Lee said.

Reputation

For Goyette, that’s meant giving away high-quality furnace filters - and making sure the area’s newspapers and TV stations know about it by sending out press releases. He gave some press release-writing tips: find an angle, don’t write in the first person and don’t try to sell anything.

“It will ruin your relationship with the media,” he added.

Keep the release short, about 300 words.

“If you keep it short, it’s less likely to be hacked up. Editors love to do that,” he said. Call editors or reporters directly to pitch the story idea or follow up with them.

What interests most editors?

“It’s just as simple as doing something good for somebody and telling people about it,” he said.

Lee has found a lot of radio stations allow him to produce short public service announcements in addition to his advertising programs. Unlike commercials, these offer general energy- or money-saving tips in 20-second increments and don’t mention the company’s contact information or try to sell anything.

He has found recording the messages himself works best - and is cheapest.

“The less professional you are, the more credible it seems,” he said, adding you don’t need to have a deep, smooth “1960s radio disc jockey voice.”

Cable and columns

Cable TV has also been a popular medium for Goyette Mechanical. Lee said many cable stations will allow you to air two service announcements for every ad you buy.

“The more that you do, the more people are seeing you,” he said.

Another option that works well, especially in smaller markets, which tend to have more opportunities, is becoming a newspaper or magazine columnist. Writing short, 500-word columns on seasonal issues is a great way to become a local expert to the public. Again, keep selling messages out of the copy and if you advertise in the same publication, make sure your ad does not appear on the same page as your column. Lee personally doesn’t even like to advertise in the same issue as his column.

“You’ll blow the game” and your credibility, he said.

If your column proves very popular with readers, you may have the chance to get a title for your column. Lee is known as the “healthy home expert.”

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.