What Do SMBs Really Need From Digital Platforms?

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Last week, in the midst of TechCrunch Disrupt, Devin Coldewey published an opinion piece on TechCrunch that got a lot of attention. Coldewey’s post, “How to Disrupt Petty Inconveniences,” laments the lack of vision in the Silicon Valley startup community. Too many of the product ideas he saw at Disrupt, Coldewey says, were “aimed at solving problems so trifling that the first objective of many pitches was to alert the audience that they exist.” It’s the kind of assertion that makes you sit up and take notice. Amidst the fog of buzzwords and the scramble for investment dollars, are startups solving problems that are worth the effort?

Given the explosion of services for small businesses that have popped up in the past few years, I think it’s not a bad idea to consider Coldewey’s challenge as regards the local industry. Within that industry we all generally have a conviction that our products and services matter, but we do spend a lot of our time within a circle of people who don’t need convincing. If our ultimate constituency is the business owner, the question we should ask is: “What really matters to SMBs?”

(1)    Discoverability. A business that can’t be found in local search is one that doesn’t exist in digital space. Aside from promoting one’s own website, there’s nothing more fundamental than ensuring that customers can discover your business on the sites they use for local. Far from an abstract concern, discoverability has a direct impact on the ability to generate business. Only a small minority of businesses can rely on word of mouth; most need to ensure they can be easily found online.

(2)    Accurate Representation. Just being there doesn’t do you much good if customers can’t get in touch with you because of missing or inaccurate information. Accurate representation is the second half of discoverability. Taken together, these two pieces are the foundation on which all local search marketing efforts rest.

(3)    A Steady Stream of Prospects. You’ve taken steps to make sure your business is showing up in local search, but how do you consistently convince prospective customers to click, call, or visit? Listings need to be featured at or toward the top of search results for your business category or they will disappear in the fray. They need to be rich, detailed, and interesting enough to convince users to make contact with your business. Any local search optimization effort must be dedicated to these two goals.

(4)    Effective Promotions. Outside of organic listings, business owners need proven ways of garnering attention through deals, promotions, advertisements, and other sponsored content. Ideally, deals and incentives will provide more than a temporary lift in customer traffic and will make sense economically for the business.

(5)    Retention and Loyalty. You’ve got a steady stream of new customers, having piqued their interest with an engaging online presence and targeted incentives. How do you get them to stick around? There’s a considerable buzz these days around small business loyalty programs designed to help.

(6)    A Good Reputation. Of course, loyalty and retention are primarily driven by quality of service. The more people talk about your business, the more others will be attracted to become repeat customers. As I’ve written previously, effective reputation management tools should be focused on actions businesses can take to spread the word and encourage feedback (keeping in mind ethical boundaries such as the fine line between asking for reviews and soliciting them).

(7)    Tools of Engagement. Businesses know they need to be present on social networks in order to be competitive online. At the same time, there’s evidence that they haven’t yet learned how to generate real value from their presence there, to the point where discouragement has set in. We in the local search industry know there is a knowledge gap to be overcome, but more than anything, SMBs need tools that allow them to manage their social activity without getting overwhelmed.

(8)    Return on Investment. This is about price sensitivity — the lowest price for the highest quality service is the winning combination for the small business community. It’s also about fulfilling expectations. The best services are those that follow through with effective reporting, demonstrating what was accomplished.

(9)    Reducing the Clutter. Otherwise known as Occam’s razor, the maxim which states that the simplest solution is always the best. In local search, this means the greatest amount of work should be accomplished by the fewest and the most intuitive tools.

(10)  Getting Better All the Time. Not just promising but actually delivering on steady, incremental improvement in presence, traffic, and actual sales is the bottom line for all local search products and services.

There are other ways to articulate what really matters for SMBs, but the foregoing represents at least one version of a reality check. If your local product or service does not fulfill at least half of these goals, it may never find traction among small businesses, a practically minded community if there ever was one. Wield Occam’s razor or fall prey to Coldewey’s.

Damian Rollison has served as VP of Product for Universal Business Listing since 2010. He holds degrees in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia, where he did graduate work at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Damian’s articles on emerging technology have appeared in Venture Beat. You can connect with him on Twitter.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.