Franchises and their franchisees often tend to have love/hate relationships—it’s the nature of the beast. Franchises tend to want their franchisees to focus on corporate priorities and to play by the corporate rules. Franchisees tend to want fewer restrictions from corporate and more support. In general it seems like the relationship works best when each side plays to its strengths and lets their partners play to theirs. So how does it work in the burgeoning field of search marketing, where it’s likely that neither partner has much experience?
As a search marketing consultant working with both national players and small local businesses, I have seen a noticeable trend of the franchises providing recommendations for the franchisees that aren’t always in either side’s best interests. For example, one client recently was referred by corporate to an “off-page SEO” company to do link building. The proposal was to submit the client’s site to 50 directories per month for $300 per month to help rank the client for three search phrases. The sales materials promoted link building as critical to the SEO process. They also offered to claim and optimize the client’s Google Local listing for an additional $500.
On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with this proposal. It seems reasonable to think that it might take a few hundred dollars of time to do an initial optimization of the a Google Local listing. It also seems reasonable to think that it would take a few hundred dollars of time to submit a site to 50 directories. We can debate how effective directory link building is or isn’t, how black, white or grey hat this technique is. The fact is that a lot of people do it. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And let’s not even get started on the “three search phrases” thing.
To me the bigger issue in the communication was that the franchisee had no tools to make the decision as to whether this was a good idea or not for his business (which is why he called me, by the way).
So I thought it might be useful to provide some thoughts on how the two sides can best work together.
Start with education. I know everyone is always in a hurry to get customers but when you are pushing something as relatively new and foreign as SEO or social media marketing, it’s probably best to start with an education process. Franchises should hold regular webinars to provide examples of best practices and keep everyone current on the state of the industry. Search is complicated, but it’s an important channel and everyone should understand the basics.
Let knowledge bubble up. While there are plenty of SEO companies who can provide effective services, chances are there are franchisees who have already figured out how to rank well in their markets. These guys should be encouraged, perhaps even paid, to share their experiences step-by-step with the rest of the organization. Chances are their advice will be just as—if not more—relevant than anything a national SEO provider could offer.
Be transparent about relationships. In the above example, the off-page SEO company’s proposal was above market rates (and in my view wasn’t even proposing the right things). Often when a national organization provides a partner with access to their local affiliates, there is typically some kind of quid-pro-quo. I am not saying that the franchise was getting a cut of the franchisee’s spend, but the pricing sure made it seem like they were. It would probably be more beneficial for everyone involved if instead of marking up a service, the franchise worked to bring the cost down for their franchisees. It would have been a great message to say the price was usually $500 but we got it for you for $300.
Recommend multiple service providers. No one wants to over-complicate things, but there are a variety of approaches to SEO and instead of making a bet on one company trying to make it happen for all of the franchisees, it would be beneficial to get proposals from multiple providers so price and methodologies can be compared.
Provide access to unbiased advice. In this case the franchise recommended that these businesses spend 10% of their total marketing budget on SEO. That’s a huge number for someone who most likely doesn’t have a clue about it. The provider recommended by the franchise may be awesome or they may be weak, but there is no way the franchisee will know this until they are well into their campaign and have spent a nice chunk of that 10%. While I am sure the person at corporate has some knowledge of SEO, chances are they are also the ones making recommendations on direct mail, email marketing, social media marketing, PPC ads, banner ads and car wraps. They can’t be expert at all of these things and I am going to go out on a limb and guess that SEO is probably one of their weak spots (it is for so many, after all). Franchisees need unbiased advice to help them make decisions about these kinds of programs. So do the franchises by the way. There are several reputable SEO communities that provide this kind of advice. My guess is that they would be more than happy to give a discount on membership fees to these kinds of clients.
Work together on SEO. Treating each franchise as a separate SEO program makes sense as each location might need some customized work, but corporate should be devising a strategy that works for both the corporate site and the franchisees. The corporate web site should be optimized to promote local partners. Whatever link building and content creation corporate is doing should do the same. Franchisees should be given explicit strategies for helping both themselves and the corporate site rank well. I have yet to see a franchise implement such a program, but if they did, it would be pretty powerful.
Some of this is blue sky kind of stuff. Inevitably it’s easier for everyone involved to outsource SEO to a skilled (or perhaps non-skilled) provider. But too often these corporate-devised strategies don’t always translate well to the locals, and they end up acting like guinea pigs and blowing their budgets in the process. Not all corporate programs are bad per se, but they would all work a lot better if the ultimate client had better tools to understand and evaluate what it is they are buying.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.