Damian Rollison Of SOCi On The Supply Chain and The Future Of Retail
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Be the best example of whatever your product or service might be. When consumers think of an item they need, you want to be the first brand to come to their mind because they know you do it best.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Damian Rollison.
With over a decade of local search experience, Damian Rollison, SOCI’s Director of Market Insights, has focused his career on discovering innovative ways to help businesses large and small get noticed online. Damian’s columns appear frequently at Street Fight, Search Engine Land, and other publications, and he is a frequent speaker at industry conferences such as Localogy, Brand Innovators, State of Search, SMX, and more.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I can always tell how long I’ve been working in local search because it’s the same as the age of my daughter, who just turned 16. My wife and I found out we were going to have a baby while I was in a PhD program that I was getting sick of, so I decided to go do something else.
Through my graduate school work, I was exposed to technology-based research methods such as content tagging with XML. I found a job that was local to me at a software company working with similar technologies, with a major provider of search data as their biggest contract. What appealed to me about the private sector was that the real world consequences were more directly apparent. I discovered that the world of local search is complex and challenging, but enjoyable because it’s a puzzle that never sits still. You can’t just solve it and be done, so I saw an exciting future ahead.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
No one story comes to mind, though I’ve certainly seen ups and downs in the SEO industry. The more dramatic stories tend to be the failures — companies or ideas that were overly ambitious and crashed. Success stories are usually not so dramatic and tend to involve slow progress and dedication over a long period of time. But some of the ideas that weren’t ultimately successful are the ones you tend to remember. I was involved in a successful patent application years ago for a technology that would have brought the internet into cars a bit earlier than was ultimately the case. But the financing fell through and it never came to fruition. Some wild bets pay off and some don’t.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think they might help people?
I’m excited to be on the cusp of launching the 2022 edition of SOCi’s Localized Marketing Benchmark Report. Our analyst team has done a ton of work in the last several months to produce a report that is very broad and comprehensive, and helps to measure indicators of success in local marketing for multi-location brands. The report compiles an overall benchmark score for nearly 300 brands, which we call the Local Visibility Score, as well as benchmarks by industry across 15 focus areas to give a full picture of performance against other businesses.
We all know digital marketing is critical to the success of companies who are trying to engage customers at the local level, but there is a lot of mystery about what exactly are the most important priorities, tactics and strategies in that arena. We’ve helped to specify what brands need to do to be successful and spelled out the characteristics of top performing companies so others can model themselves on that success.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My first boss 16 years ago was a great teacher and taught me enough about software development to be dangerous. But, he also taught me how to run a business, how to think about marketing, and how to understand the ins and outs of this complicated world of local search/SEO we live in. I was transformed as a person in the first four years of my career by the things I learned from him, including what to do and what not to do.
Our main challenge at that company was to find content related to millions of businesses in order to create a rich directory of business listings for digital publication. This is a complex big data problem, and by working on it I learned a lot about creative problem solving, managing complexity, quality control, and even how to use tools like regular expressions to make data work for you. It’s interesting to think how these tasks would be approached very differently today, probably with heavy reliance on machine learning, but meeting those challenges with the tools at our disposal was a huge learning experience.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The Japanese concept of ikigai is something that appeals to me a lot. It means something like “what one lives for,” and is broken down into four components, as a kind of formula for true happiness: do what you’re good at; do what you love; do what makes you a good living; do what brings good to the world. Most of these priorities are relatively straightforward; bringing good to the world is often the tough one. Most people doing white collar knowledge work figure they are working to help faceless companies make slightly more money this year than last year.
But I’ve found there’s more than one way to do good. Most immediately in my daily life, I try to bring good to the world by treating my colleagues with respect, honoring their contributions, and trying to help create a work environment where multiple viewpoints are valued and where people feel invested in helping each other. After all, we spend most of our waking life at work, so work is a great place to practice being good to our fellow humans.
I was lucky enough to witness another kind of good that our industry helped bring to the world during the pandemic. When consumers suddenly needed up-to-date information about grocery stores and healthcare providers more urgently than ever, we were there to act as a conduit for that information, and to jump in and fix problems when they inevitably arose. When grocery stores were mistakenly marked closed on Google, we got that fixed and showed them as open. We were even able to help provide data about availability of COVID testing and vaccination. I was grateful for that chance to contribute and to realize that the information we help manage is very important to a lot of people.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
What really has shifted is consumer expectations. We’ve noticed as the pandemic has dragged on that some of the things that became suddenly important, like virtual appointments, have become more of a permanent expectation rather than a temporary one. Things are not going back to the way they were before. More info about a business and more functionality for connecting with businesses is available online now than ever before. Even if you’re going in-person to make a transaction, you want to know everything you can about that transaction before you go. Whether you’re booking an appointment, browsing furniture to see how it looks in your new house or even clothes shopping, the new expectation is that everything but the actual transaction should be available as an option to do online.
In order not to lose more market share, local businesses need to model themselves on some of the best practices of online retailers, like continuing to make sure they’re meeting consumers’ needs for same day delivery, or allowing customers to order in advance before they pick something up. Virtuality is something various industries can look into in different ways. For example, for the apartment and property industry, why not allow potential tenants to visit the property by themselves and just enter a code for a self guided tour that they arranged for online?
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
It’s probably too early to predict the total demise of local stores. In fact, they are still, despite the impressive growth of Amazon, the dominant way most people purchase a majority of their products and services. Trends change a bit during holidays, but local stores are still very dominant and probably will continue to be so.
What we’ve begun to question is what really is “a store,” and what is “local?” Instacart couldn’t exist without a local source for the groceries. Ghost kitchens and businesses that don’t operate with a storefront might not be considered a store, but there is still branding going on and a local aspect to what you provide, whether it’s delivery or takeout. This is not a matter of local stores going away, but rather mutating into a new set of forms. There is a digital layer of our reality that is expanding to encompass local. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need local sources for products and services.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
There are so many options on Amazon, so much so that you don’t know what you’re buying half the time or from whom. There is a type of competition with cheaper reproductions of products you can buy elsewhere. To break through this clutter, retail companies should provide quality services, quality products, and build trust with their consumers. People are price conscious but at the end of the day, if you need to buy multiple of one item in a year, you’re losing money in the long run. Companies should convey that they are able to offer trustworthy signals of quality.
Toms Shoes comes to mind. You know exactly how the shoes are made and you know they also donate to a good cause. That ethical aspect is also important to consumers, moreso now than ever.
Overall, you want to convey expertise, authority, and trust (or EAT). Google uses this acronym as a signal to determine whether to rank you highly in a search. The more great reviews you have, the more you show how you care about your customers, and the more you share useful, relevant info to make people’s lives better, all of this will help your SEO and ultimately, your customers.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be the best example of whatever your product or service might be. When consumers think of an item they need, you want to be the first brand to come to their mind because they know you do it best.
- Customer experience is huge. Be attentive and show signs you care about customer concerns. Listen to them, learn from them, and use their feedback as a signal to improve.
- Be informative and available with needed information of the kind consumers are asking for in the time and way they need it. You must provide accurate and up-to-date info for them to make their final buying decision in an informed manner.
- Keep an eye on the competition to learn from them and their own successes. And don’t just stick to your most obvious competitors. Look outside your own industry at companies who are simply doing a great job at quality service and customer experience.
- Ethics are becoming increasingly important to consumers and they want the brands they do business with to share their values. There was a time where companies were reluctant to make statements about societal issues, but now more than ever, consumers will choose to spend money with a company that aligns with their beliefs, even if that comes at a higher financial cost.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
There are many signs the educational system in our country is not doing as great a job as it should in teaching the basics of critical thinking. As a result, people have a hard time distinguishing truth from fiction, seeking out accurate info online, and knowing when they are being deceived by people who are working to influence their behavior. My movement would be to expose children and adults to the fundamental concepts about what it means to deliver a logical argument and present reasonable, defensible evidence. If these concepts were taught more thoroughly and effectively, I think we’d have a lot less division politically, we’d be much less worried about disinformation online, and we’d be better able to work toward worthy common goals.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on Twitter @damianrollison, read my regular columns on Street Fight or follow the SOCi blog where I share a weekly Local Memo highlighting the latest news in localized marketing.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!