The 5 Most Important Things SMBs Can Do Online

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Taking your local business online doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to tap into a massive network of potential new customers. Perhaps that is the endgame for some ambitious entrepreneurs, but for many businesses — especially local and service-based business — the aim is quite the opposite. Rather it’s about building and maintaining meaningful online and offline relationships at a local level.

Over the past decade retail centers have changed nearly beyond recognition. With the explosion of outlet malls, online shopping, and generally tough economic times, local merchants have been faced with a host of challenges — and, of course, opportunities. Independent, local businesses simply cannot rest on their laurels: they need to innovate and think creatively if they are to remain the trusted faces at the core of the local community. The past year has seen a lot of buzz in the retail sector about the potential value of getting the online-offline mix right, and 2012 is going to be the year that really sees local businesses following that lead.

So what are the five most important things a locally-minded business can do to make the most of the web-based tools available to them?

1) Focus on the channels that really matter
With limited budget and without the luxury of a dedicated marketing team, you need to take stock and review which promotional and sales channels can really make a measurable difference to your business. Think about where your target audience is online, and make sure you have a presence there. As connected devices move away from being purely the realm of early adopters to well and truly in the hands of the mainstream, a targeted and personalized online presence has become more relevant to local retailers than ever before — regardless of size, sector or location. Yet in many cases it is being done very badly, if at all, with data from last year showing that just 46% of small businesses have a website at all, never mind a specific online strategy.

Always bear in mind when selecting which online channels are right for you that your audience is primarily local; this isn’t necessarily about aiming for a huge digital expansion — it’s about adapting to a changing local landscape and being able to create long-term value from each one of your customers. Also consider how you can maximize your limited resources by always measuring results and limiting spend on anything that can’t deliver a decent ROI.

2) Make your business as accessible as possible
At the heart of getting your online-offline presence right is effective communication with customers. For local businesses, the key to being as accessible as possible is thinking of your business as a 24/7 entity. Just because the store is closed or you’re off for the weekend doesn’t mean there aren’t customers wanting to buy, book or inquire about your products or services.

Think about how and where are you displaying or advertising your offerings and availability. How are you letting people know what’s bookable and what special offers you have? Think about how you can do that in a way that is personalized matches their online habits. If someone sees a great haircut on TV at 9:00 p.m. and decides to book a spur-of-the-moment chop, can you take that booking? Or will you have missed out by the time you get to the phone 12 hours later? In these always-on, always-connected times, relying on walk-in or phone bookings during open hours is extremely limiting. Rather, you need to make your business as accessible as possible – that means matching your online presence to where your customers are. Think beyond your website being your sole online touch-point. Yes of course it’s your flagship, but there are many other third party channels that can help promote your business at a local level and drives sales.

3) Create an compelling online-offline journey
By evolving your business from 9-to-5 into an offline-online entity, you can not only give your customers freedom and ability to browse and select your services, but also automate much of the admin that becomes so time consuming. You take the hassle out of sending confirmations and managing cancellations, which minimizes void time and frees up precious staff time to focus on other activities. This is particularly important for smaller businesses where taking on more staff, or delegating, simply isn’t an option.

In fact, while many large retail stores have been focusing on increasing their online presence to generate awareness and sales, they have neglected to join up the dots and create a seamless online-offline journey. And this is where smaller and local businesses can really excel — they know their customer inside out.  Focus on offers and promotions that will turn online interest into offline purchases.

4) Get long-term value from offers, coupons & daily deals
The rise of daily deals sites for local business has been well documented.  These services are here to stay, and, if managed well, their benefits in filling empty space and building direct brand awareness have been proven. But whether you’ve experienced it yourself, or heard the horror stories secondhand, the challenge of managing the influx of hundreds of calls or emails from deal buyers — then scheduling each one — can be a daunting prospect.

Daily deals are a key part of the online-offline journey for small and local businesses and by adapting your customer management to match the way they work and letting customers select, book, and pay for their own slot online, you can run a successful campaign while avoiding the pitfalls. Also remember the value of the customer data you collect when running deals, campaigns and competitions. Use it intelligently to ensure that future offers and promotions are as targeted and personalized as possible.

5) Nurture your local advocates
Finally, think about how you can use your most loyal customers to do your marketing for you. Social media has changed the way people make recommendations and share their experiences. Weary of the constant bombardment of marketing messages and with a whole internet of opinions, rants (and even occasionally praise!) at our fingertips, we now just have to turn to Facebook or Twitter for advice. A business can be made or broken in minutes. The mass adoption of online social networks has changed the way we make purchasing decisions and businesses of all sizes, no matter how local, can capitalise on that. Take for instance your local independent driving instructor. If a student posts to Facebook saying how great their driving lesson was, it’s going to be seen by hundreds of school or college friends – each one a potential new customer.

Best of all, these social recommendations are super-targeted, personal and free and a local business that is able to connect and engage with its online community as well as offline is giving itself a huge advantage over those that fail to do so.

Kate Hyslop is Head of Marketing at BookingBug, a U.K.-based startup that helps service-based businesses to distribute their availability online.