Merchant Circle has trouble getting it right

I have in the past criticized Merchant Circle’s marketing tactics. However, my recent interview with Chuck Bruce of Central Valley Vacuum and Sewing Center, allowed me to see them from the merchant’s point of view and, for a moment anyways, allowed me to see them in a different light. I figured that if they could make Chuck happy and help him in his retail struggle, they couldn’t be all bad, despite the many Merchant Circle complaints amongst search professionals. If Chuck said that they were a stand up company than who was I to proclaim otherwise. Maybe I just needed to adjust my point of view.

That attitude didn’t last long. I had re-judged them too soon. They are in fact tacky marketers. They have been actively posting stealth comments in my recent In The Trenches interview.

New comment on your post #1750 “In the Trenches: the reality of SMB Marketing- Bruce’s Sew Handy Interview”
Author : Local User (IP: 64.105.141.242 , mx.merchantcircle.com)
E-mail : tom.johnson64@yahoo.com
URL : http://www.merchantcircle.com/business/Bruces.Sew.Handy.559-641-7300
Whois : http://ws.arin.net/cgi-bin/whois.pl?queryinput=64.105.141.242
Comment:
182 Page Views a Month from the MerchantCircle listing. Clearly generating some traffic from there.

They didn’t just post once but have done so 3 times with three different identities. 

My note to Merchant Circle:

You are welcome to come and discuss the issues in Local on my blog. You probably have a lot to contribute. But when you come, come as you are, don’t be skulking around. I can accept warts, I have a few myself. I just can’t abide you using my blog to surreptitiously promote your services.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Merchant Circle has trouble getting it right by

21 thoughts on “Merchant Circle has trouble getting it right”

  1. Oh, geez! Unbelievable. Way to go, Merchant Circle. We’re all convinced you’re cool NOW.

    It’s because of nonsense like this that I have gone out of my way to warn people about Merchant Circle. In point of fact, I was talking to the owner of a startup today who is doing local marketing consultation in the restaurant industry in major US cities. He was talking about issues he’s run into with the various local business entities, but he wasn’t aware about the ‘problems’ with Merchant Circle. He knows about them now, and he’s going to carry that information to all of his clients from here on out. Merchant Circle’s absurd idea of reputation management will secure the reality that their bad reputation will continue to precede them around the web.

    Glad you caught that, Mike. What a joke.
    Miriam

  2. It’s really a shame they behave so sleazily. The reality is their product doesn’t suck and they’ve built a decent community of SMBs.

    We find that their listings are some of the quickest to rank with minimal effort for local AND clients are constantly asking us to join up with them (like LinkedIn).

    Maybe they need to fire the sales and marketing team, do a quick re-brand and 301 the whole site to the new identity while no one is looking.

    Will

  3. @Miriam

    It is ironic that they offer reputation management. What could they possibly be thinking?

    But I am with Will in that their SEO is stellar and a quick way to get a client listing to rank.

    I wonder of their many SMB’s how many actually pay them $?

    Mike

  4. Mike,

    I think MC makes a great free service. The problem is it’s not free — you pay for it in annoyance :)

    Seriously though the bigger problem is that too many SMBs sign up for crap without understanding it. Much like the BBB/Bizzspot thing I wrote up a few weeks ago.

    I mean, for Pete’s sake they’re slapping the BBB logo on a piece of junk and selling it for 4 times the cost of eLocal. I digress.

    Point is, FUD sells. If someone calls you up and says “you’ve got a bad review” or send you an email with “you’ve been tagged in this picture” it elicits a response. It’s that response on which they count rather than a great offer at a reasonable price.

    I guess FUD trumps ROI.

    That’s the shame of it.

    Will

  5. Will – there is a difference between slapping on a BBB logo and ‘overcharging’ (really – if they charge $900/month more power to them) and between MC automated calling about ‘bad reviews’ when there are none.

    And that does not even get into the astroturfing they just did here.

  6. Ahmed,

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the calls are different. In the post I point out that as a BBB participant it has almost the same effect. In other words, “Why the heck is the BBB calling me”? So without saying “you’ve got a bad review” they get the same impact.

    My position is whatever one pays for marketing, it should have a return on investment. So if a service is free (save the labor to maximize it) then the ROI is fantastic. If a service costs $199.00 / mo. and delivers 2 customers each of whom are worth $20.00 then the ROI is tragic.

    The downside of leveraging free resources is that you wind up building a property you don’t own. The upside is a low cost avenue to top of page 1.

    Will

  7. Will – I still think there is a difference.

    1. MC explicitly says there is a bad review. But there are no reviews. That isn’t misleading – it is outright lying :)
    2. I don’t recall BBB giving an explicit mention of a bad review – that is a difference to me still (misleading vs lying)
    3. I fail to see the problem with their pricing. If I can charge a dentist $100,000 a year are you going to hold that against me? At the end of the day, it is the merchant’s money to spend. Now – I don’t agree with fooling merchants, but like I said – it is the merchants’ choice to spend their money.

  8. Ahmed,

    You are completely entitled to charge a dentist $100,000 / year. And from what little I know of you I’m betting he’ll make $500,000 or much more from the effort.

    And clearly, lying is a lot worse than intimating.

    Maybe we need to test the product and see if I’m wrong, but it’s about ROI given a limited budget.

    $199 can go a long way if well leveraged. If wasted, the advertiser may be burned for some time to come for you or me.

  9. Will & Ahmed,
    I think it’s clear you both agree that lying is totally unacceptable, but I’m a little less clear on the ROI. Yes, all marketing efforts SHOULD show an ROI, but in this business, one can’t really offer guarantees. So, I think that’s a grey area. We don’t control SERPs, user behavior or customer behavior. It also strikes me that anything that is a package deal seems even less ‘guaranteed’ to offer ROI when it is sold to all manner of businesses, without regard for their specific needs. I tend to be leery of fixed price package services, in general, but they have the appeal of simplicity for the busy and often confused small business owner.

    MC is enjoying high visibility and huge success right now, and it does ‘pay’ to be listed with them, if only for the consistent high rankings they get for business-related searches. However, a thuggish or deceptive approach to doing business will likely prove their ultimate undoing and someone else will come along to replace them…hopefully someone with more developed ethics. Interesting conversation, fellows.

    BTW, Ahmed – your use of the term ‘astroturfing’ cracked me up. I’d not heard that one before. That’s pretty funny.

    Miriam

  10. Miriam,
    I cannot agree more. ROI is an extremely blur term for the online marketing. I am always amazed, when scholars are trying to put existing notions to a complex mix of non-tangibles.

    My opinion is that for the self served platforms, we should abandon building expectation of magic for SMBs and be clear upfront that what we provide is a combination of online tools, search engine optimization and content distribution that can and will bring some traffic to client’s profiles. Will traffic be solely converted to offline sales? Depends.

    From the interview with Chuck Bruce it is completely clear, that email list played a key role to direct existing customer’s traffic to the specific website (MC), if he would put a link to his own website, effect of coupon redemption would’ve been the same.

    Which brings me to the point that without business owner active participation online and offline it will be very hard to achieve any results at all.

  11. @Eugene
    Thanks for stopping by…I agree 100% on the active participation issue. In some ways that is the difference between the $200 solution and the $20,000 solution. When the business pays the $20,000 there is the assumption that they are hiring someone to do that active part for them.

    In Chuck’s case the putting the coupon on his site would have worked IF he had optimized his site as well as MC…there is redemption after the email push, even now…

    @Ahmed/Will
    I am with Will on the BBB sleaze factor. They may not do it on the individual level like MC but their business model is predicated on the inherent conflict of interest created by getting financial benefit from the companies that they are theoretically regulating.

    @Miriam
    I would agree with Eugene on the difficulty in using the term, ROI….Whether you use the words ROI or Measurable Outcome, there should be some way to evaluate the results, no? Marketers should be accountable.

    Mike

  12. @mike

    ## In Chuck’s case the putting the coupon on his site would have worked IF he had optimized his site as well as MC…there is redemption after the email push, even now…

    considering the curve of open rate for email campaigns and compulsive checking of known destinations for new content by small % of recurring customers (out of the initial email list), i would not be that surprised if coupon would work on Chuck’s site. He would’ve loose a customer or two, but I don’t think it can be measured in double digits.

    Eugene

  13. @Eugene

    That’s an interesting point.

    I asked Chuck why he hadn’t reprised his email to the campaign as it had been so successful the first time and he said that he just hadn’t had time. It’s always fascinating to me how often in small business when there isn’t time to do something again that had garnered such positive results. Speaks to the active participation once again…

    Mike

  14. @Eugene – great point re: the email campaign and use of his own site. You’ve now in my feedreader.

    In regard to ROI, I don’t think it has to be such a challenge. It requires one of two things on the part of the advertiser, trust or attention.

    Trust: “Hey Mr. Advertiser, let me install this code on your site and manage your local listings for you”
    Attention: Mr. Advertiser says “How did you find us? Oh, online huh? Can you tell me on which site?”

    I prefer the first because I get, as an old partner of mine would say, “the first count” (he was previously in gaming, no not D&D).

    Much like direct mail, email is among marketing’s pariahs which when well executed can be super-effective.

  15. @Will

    I agree with you, when multiple distributional channels are linked to the single tracking location ROI calculation gets fairly simple.

    Complications arise when coupons are distributed across Internet eliminating single referral point. With today’s opportunities it makes sense to syndicate coupons on the other sites, use social sites/blogs to push business content through widgets/apps, take an advantage of mobile web and distribute coupons through sms/apps and etc. This distribution strategy is equally applicable to various business content such as: service offering, products, specials, events, job listings and etc. allowing businesses to actively or passively (track this!) build local brands online.

    Here is also a challenge. Coupons for Marketer and Coupons for Business Owner are two different animals. Marketer sees coupon as a tracking instrument, in disregard of the business specifics. On the other hand, business owners are very cautious about coupons because of multiple reasons that have to do with particular business nature, customer attraction, up-sale of services/products, loss of potential revenue and etc. That is why tracking ROI by coupons only would be very deceptive, especially if business owner is reluctant to cooperate by putting coupons on the site(s).

  16. Hi Mike,
    Well, being more on the design/on-page side of thing rather than the advanced marketing side of things, I tend to think more along the lines of “let’s get this done right for this business owner” rather than “here will be the exact results.” The results of what I, specifically, do tend to be general. People who work with me end up with a good, optimized website that begins to get rankings and traffic. On the local end of things, we try to get the best results we can. But, doing things like phone tracking, heavy-hitting conversion analytics, etc. aren’t my area, so this may be coloring my view of measurable results. I don’t think I see this quite like a marketer would.

    A world of metrics I find especially interesting is actual sales conversions. In the most driven marketing circles, I know marketers take the approach that you can sell anything with the right pitch. In my own experience, sales depend heavily on a good product. Being responsible for conversion rates for a poor product would not be a task I’d like to take on.

    So, while, yes, marketers should have responsibility for the usefulness of their services, I would be hard put to determine what the degree of responsibility is, Mike.

    Miriam

  17. We are not MC, but we are staunch advocates of same – though not of the robo-calling FUD, per’se. Notwithstanding, when we got our FUD call in 2006 we were duly impressed with the marketing ‘genius’ of it.

    Okay, okay, I can hear someone ready to quote the famous Zen proverb “When two thieves meet no introduction is necessary.”

    Be that as it may, we have numerous examples of “VERY” satisfied MC customers, some of whom would be willing to be ‘dissected’ by phone or email. These are not remote minority examples, but rather the MAJORITY of LSM clients whom we have initiated into MC

    The point that we will iterate is that often we read these blogs critical of MC and we find that ‘even’ amongst the local search and seo experts that MC truly is misunderstood… like when Blumenthal says he “couldn’t find the ratings…” Ratings are NOT reviews on MC, they are something different.

    We have realized MC’s potential and have made it a cornerstone of our broader LSM mosaic.

  18. HI DMK

    Thanks for dropping by….

    Just for the record, I do use MC for most of my clients but only after I have optimized their website.

    But after you remove all of the bad marketing that MC does, what value in the end do they really add to the whole system?

    They optimize on business trade names, service + locale and coupon + locale, generate lots of traffic so that they can marginally represent a business AND make adsense $ and get some recurring revenues from their SMBs (and they have done this with 17 people).

    So they know how to optimize for the above? That is a short term benefit that will someday be lost at the flick of a Google virtual switch….I don’t see what long term value they really provide.

    Mike

    All they are really doing is they have figured out how to make

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