Online opportunities join old-school methods as ways for independents to build a reputation and draw clients.
When Sue Burns started SMB Transport, based in Marlow, Okla., in January she had no advertising budget. So she took advantage of the free service Webs.com to launch a website, smbtransportllc.webs.com, promoting her hotshot trucking business.
“The Internet to me is the equivalent of the Yellow Pages,” says Burns, a 52-year-old former police officer. “I take advantage of every free option I can find.” For example, Burns chronicled her CDL training period on a blog through WordPress.com.
Her first load, however, came through traditional means. A customer saw one of the fliers she distributed for her startup in Marlow, an oil-field region with strong demand for hotshot hauls.
As Burns has learned, marketing options for a small trucking business have proliferated and all have some value. Smart operators are taking advantage of many of them to establish their name, tout their equipment and services, and distinguish themselves from competitors.
Websites can be “a trucker’s front door,” says Ultimate Marketing Solutions CEO Landon Middleton. He advises the Texas Motor Transportation Association and spoke recently at the First Annual Truck Driver Social Media Convention in Tunica, Miss.
Middleton and other Internet marketing experts say independents with small budgets should use free websites, as Burns does, to establish credibility and make contacts. Content on websites, videos and social media outlets should be precise, with contact information posted clearly. Services, equipment and pertinent information should follow.
Having a website and linking to it from Facebook, YouTube or LinkedIn boosts a company’s exposure. While it isn’t as widely known as Facebook, LinkedIn, a social media network for business, puts owners closer to brokers and shippers.
Burns uses free services transport911.com, truckingplanet.com and hotshotcarrier.com to advance her website’s visibility. She also has a Facebook page devoted to the business and still blogs regularly.
Videos, whether posted on YouTube or a business website, provide immediacy. They give viewers the chance to see an owner speak about his values and services, as well as to see the appearance of equipment. Often cited as effective tools are Schneider National’s YouTube videos for driver recruitment. Less than two minutes long, each explains the company’s mission and provides useful information.
Those who can’t afford to pay a professional to design and maintain a website can establish one themselves for free. Thousands of people use websites such as WordPress.com, Blogger.com or Webs.com to build their own website. Using instructions on those sites or tutorials available through Google searches, someone with basic computer skills can create a website.
Having a weekend to work on the project and getting outside help can be productive, too. “If you’re not computer savvy, find a kid in your family or someone who is,” Burns advises.
Still, successful websites and social media pages need ongoing attention, so expectations for online marketing should be realistic. “A one-truck guy is not going to have the time to manage a website,” says Joe Rajkovacz, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s Lregulatory affairs director. “He’s going to spend a lot of time during his day just getting loads.”
Mark “Gator” Arnold, 53-year-old owner of Bells, Texas-based All Ways Trucking, launched a Facebook page to help build his reputation.
“I can have a new broker signed up before most guys can find a truck stop,” Arnold says, noting he can often find food loads for his 2007 Volvo and reefer within 100 miles of his home.
Clay Allman, 54-year-old owner of Road Dog Express, based in Indianapolis, hired veteran drivers for his startup two years ago, but relied on younger workers for online efforts. Office manager Crystal Shafer and sales associate Clay Graham, both in their late 20s, helped Allman work with a web designer for a planned January website launch. It emphasizes service and driver experience as the strengths of the seven-truck fleet.
“They had to change my way of thinking,” says Allman of his young office staff. “They’re the future. They tell me that website’s going to make a big difference.”
Fleets as small as one truck need to market their trucks, drivers and customized service, says David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies, which has 3,000 members.
“The large carriers go out on the golf course to advertise,” he says. “Our guys don’t have that luxury.” Internet marketing and other online tools, Owen says, give small fleets “inexpensive access to where the rates and loads are.”
Fifty-year-old Dale Harshbarger of Petersburg, Ky., started Burlington, Ky.-based Edge Auto Transportation in 2003 with one truck. A former municipal fire chief, Harshbarger “talked to people and made good friends at the large auctions” to develop a client base.
He promotes dependable service with a website, a tri-fold flier and business cards. He also makes image part of his marketing, using new Peterbilts, washed weekly, and having his drivers wear uniforms.
“You have to market your organization well,” Harshbarger says. “If you do, it’s easier at the bank when you need a new truck and a new building.”
His website, edgeautotransport.com, which also hosts a logistics company Harshbarger runs, displays gleaming rigs at the top and helps him schedule jobs.
In August, Harshbarger bought his sixth truck, a 2012 Peterbilt, and a new trailer. He now moves 400 cars weekly, primarily in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Wisconsin. The regional service makes it possible to deliver cars on schedule in this time-sensitive niche, Harshbarger says.
“Any time you can make a positive impact in this industry and your drivers are clean-cut and professional, it’s good,” he says. “Our drivers are proud of what they do in a very labor-intensive and dangerous job.”
Online activity. Internet use is affecting the way business is done more and more. For example, 65 percent of all U.S. adults now use social-networking sites, the Pew Research Center says. Readers 34-44 years old spend from three to five hours daily online, and those 44-64 years old two to four hours, the Wall Street Journal says.
Taking a saucy approach
Making an impression with flare is important to Mark “Gator” Arnold, 53-year-old owner of All Ways Trucking in Bells, Texas. Arnold not only uses business cards with a photo of his rig, a 2007 Volvo and dry van, but he has given Christmas cards and pens to clients. “It just kind of connects on a personal level,” Arnold says.
A unique touch is his homemade Red Wiley’s Sweet & Sassy Bar-B-Q Sauce, which he often gives to clients. The spicy concoction has helped land him loans at the bank as well as repeat loads. Once an Arkansas broker called him back “just because of the barbecue sauce,” Arnold says. “Those people don’t ever forget you.”
Research, cold calls & image
Keeping a clean truck and developing an established niche are more practical than online marketing for many drivers who hope to become independent one day, says Joe Rajkovacz of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
Henry Albert, 47, used that plan 15 years ago, when he launched Albert Transport. Karen Albert helped her husband, named Overdrive’s 2007 Trucker of the Year, making “cold calls by phone,” she says. “I’d say hundreds before Henry even bought his first truck.”
The industrial sector of Charlotte, N.C., boomed in the mid- and late ’90s while the Alberts, of Mooresville, looked for flatbed freight to haul on the East Coast. But even then, a client base of shippers grows slowly, Karen says. “It takes time, years, to establish the groundwork to get your relationships set.”
Albert started showing up early for jobs wearing a tie, pressed khakis and steel-toed shoes. “I had to deliver the promise,” he says. After Albert hired other drivers, who wore shirts with embroidered names, they took donuts to new clients’ shipping offices. Henry often bought sodas and bottled water for loaders.
“They remember you,” Karen says.
‘The trucks with the paws’
Clay Allman started Road Dog Express two years ago with high expectations of his drivers. “They are expected to be well-groomed and introduce themselves to customers,” he says.
The quest for quality is reflected in his trailers, which are emblazoned with paw prints and a slogan: “We’re making tracks to be the best.”
“I get comments from other truckers, ‘Oh, you’re the trucks with the paws,’ ” Allman says of the popular motif.
Road Dog Office Manager Crystal Shafer says the display works: “It makes people think and they pay attention.”
Allman, a former nursery products and block hauler, had prior contacts and used them in his startup. He hauls wire, sheet metal and home improvement store displays from Chicago to Florida and Kansas and back. He started with one tractor-trailer. Soon after, he bought three new Great Dane trailers, adorned them with the paw prints logo, and now owns seven trucks. He plans to expand to 17 trucks and 30 trailers.