Escaping the 60’s

TPP-2014-04-Escaping the 60's By Bill Smith

When the parking industry was still in its infancy in the 1950s and ’60s, just a handful of companies worked to manage demand for spaces, and business in general tended to be done through relationships with a handshake. Little thought was given to marketing beyond taking prospects out to dinner and putting together proposals.

Over the years, as the automobile came to represent part of the American dream, the parking industry grew to unimaginable heights; today, the parking industry is estimated to bring in more than $35 billion per year in revenue alone. Factor in the revenue that’s generated from the design and development of new parking facilities, the creation of parking equipment, and the introduction of new parking technologies (just to name a few significant influences), and it’s clear that parking is no longer the insular community of the past.

However, while parking has evolved into a vital, lucrative industry, the marketing strategies of most parking organizations haven’t evolved in an equal fashion. Many parking organizations—from municipalities to private parking owners to consultants to parking equipment suppliers—still approach marketing as if they are living in the 1960s.

According to Brent Robertson, a partner with Fathom, a marketing consulting and web design firm in West Hartford, Conn., in today’s economy, marketing is essential to the success of any business.

“With the rate of change, the parking industry is getting more competitive and will continue to get more competitive,” says Robertson. “There are a lot more players in the space, and parking organizations need to know how to stay ahead of the competition.”

According to Robertson, the key to staying ahead is having a strategic marketing program. He says leaders need to understand the challenges their organizations face and build their marketing programs to overcome those unique challenges.
“You need to be able to reach your most important audiences, whether they are customers or parkers or strategic partners,” says Robertson, “and you need to be able to communicate effectively to those audiences to differentiate yourself from your competition.”

The Digital Age
Robertson says the digital revolution that has seen substantial advances in web design and exponential growth of social media platforms is good news for parking organizations looking to get the word out about their products or services.

“Having a web presence is really important,” says Robertson. “Ultimately, before customers or clients will hire a company, they want to see what that company is all about—what its values and experiences are. A good website will demonstrate a company’s expertise, accomplishments, and approaches, but more importantly, it will also convey the values of the organization and its people.”

Robertson points to the website of Fuss & O’Neill (fando.com), a civil engineering firm in Manchester, Conn. In addition to offering examples of the firm’s projects and introductions to its people, the Fuss & O’Neill site focuses heavily on answering the questions, “Who are we, and what do we stand for?”

“If you looked at a number of civil engineering websites and stripped the logos off them, you’d find that they are pretty much all alike,” says Robertson. “They only talk about what the firm does—what services they offer and what projects they have done. They don’t talk about who they are, what they stand for, and how they strive to make a difference in the world.”

“Fuss & O’Neill’s website works because it takes a completely different approach. Its theme is, ‘Our dedication to our work is connected to our desire for a better life. We are committed to helping create a better world, and this is how we do it.’ It’s a message that resonates with municipalities, developers, and other potential clients.”

According to Robertson, there are parking organizations that know how to use the Web effectively. He says that the SP Plus site (spplus.com) stands out.
“SP Plus’s website is effective because it’s abundantly clear who they are and what they are up to,” says Robertson. “Aesthetically, it’s well put together, and their passion and attention to detail really comes through.”

As important as web presence is, it’s far from the only way the digital age is revolutionizing marketing. Social media can be particularly useful for both public and private parking organizations. It provides the means for communicating in real time with key audiences, which can benefit municipalities wishing to keep parkers, business owners, and residents up to date on parking policies and developments. It can also be a great way for parking businesses to share the latest developments with customers and prospective customers.

“In the past, marketing was about speaking to the public,” says Robertson. “Now, because of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, organizations can carry on a dialogue with the public.”

Social media use is nearly universal. Facebook alone has well more than 1 billion users. The trick is knowing which tools to use and how to use them. Social media strategy begins by asking a number of questions:

  • What are my challenges?
  • Who do I have to reach, and where will I find them?
  • Who are their influencers?
  • Where do they spend their time?

The answers to these questions can help organizational leaders decide whether to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or one of the many other social media tools. They’ll also help determine what messages will be most effective.

A final digital approach that has gained traction in the parking industry is the e-newsletter or e-blast. For many organizations, e-newsletters have replaced traditional paper mailings, providing a more convenient and less costly alternative for reaching clients, prospects, and industry leaders.

Walker Parking Consultants’ experience with e-blasts demonstrates the potential this technology offers. Walker distributes monthly blasts offering overviews of recently completed projects and news about company milestones.

“The e-newsletters are a great marketing tool for us,” says Laura Stinnett, a marketing manager with Walker Parking. “They give us an opportunity to showcase our projects through attractive photographs and show how the garages benefit the communities where they are located.

“They also provide a platform for keeping in touch with thousands of contacts throughout the world, and they let us measure how many of our contacts are reading the newsletters,” continues Stinnett.

Traditional Marketing
For many parking organizations, traditional marketing approaches can also provide valuable results. Public relations, particularly publicity, can be especially useful for reaching key audiences that include clients, prospective clients, strategic partners, and industry leaders. Stories arranged in print and broadcast media can reach large numbers of people, and there may be no better way to raise an organization’s profile.

Walker Parking has used PR for more than 20 years to staff and showcase its projects, and it continues to publicize the firm, its projects, and its people in parking industry press, media serving other industries in which it is active, and in local media throughout the United States where the firm has a presence or does work.

“We value public relations very highly,” says Steve Cebra, senior vice president.

“Our PR program is geared toward supporting new business development, while at the same time, helping us maintain a high profile among current clients and the industry as a whole.”

While Walker Parking relies on PR to maintain its profile in the industry, other companies use it to refresh their images. Sentry Control Systems is one such company. Sentry has long been known as a leading provider of SKIDATA technology, but it is less well-known for the other solutions it offers, which include parking guidance, license plate recognition, cloud-based validation, enforcement technology, CCTV, 24/7 technical services, and professional services.

“SKIDATA has always been an important part of the Sentry story, but it’s just one of many solutions we offer,” says Whitney Taylor, executive director of marketing for the company. “We needed to find a way to tell our whole story.”

According to Taylor, the company’s marketing team chose to pursue a comprehensive strategy that combines web marketing, social media, and public relations. Through this program, the company completely revamped its website and will launch the new site in the coming weeks. It also recently began public relations and social media campaigns. The campaigns are designed to complement each other, using the three different approaches to raise the company’s profile and communicate key messages to its most important audiences.

According to Fathom’s Robertson, Sentry’s approach is a recipe for success. It is important for the individual elements of a marketing program to be designed to complement each other. Individually, marketing tactics can play an important role in helping parking organizations achieve their business goals. However, when marketing approaches are combined, their effectiveness increases considerably.

Parking has evolved significantly during the past 50 years, from an insular community to an international multi-billion dollar industry. When it comes to marketing, however, many parking organizations are still stuck in the 1960s. Many could benefit from strategic marketing programs that utilize a combination of traditional marketing approaches and digital marketing techniques.

Bill Smith, APR, is principal of Smith-Phillips Strategic Communications and contributing editor of The Parking Professional. He can be reached at bsmith@smith-phillips.com or 603.491.4280.

TPP-2014-04-Escaping the 60’s