I was asked by Adam Jolly to give some advice about the web and its value to small businesses for his forthcoming book The Growing Business Handbook. I'm very happy to acknowledge help from colleagues in the KITC, and particularly Vishal Soni and Jason Marshall
If you are searching for growth, look online. In the UK, the web economy now accounts for 8.5% of all activity, which is a higher figure than any of the world’s other main markets.
To give you a sense of scale of the change that is happening, consider online groceries. They already account for 4.5% to 5% of the market. If they continue growing at their current rate of 15% a year, their share will be 10% to 12% by 2020.
So how can you as a small enterprise start capturing this potential? Here are a series of relatively easy steps that you can take that might end up transforming your business without saddling yourself with too many extra costs.
Phase 1: web presence
First, change your mindset. It is no longer a matter of thinking whether you should be online, but about how you must build your presence.
At a minimum, whether you are florist in Canterbury, a curry house in Margate or anyone else, you have to create a basic web page. It is how your customers now find you. Many brands represent themselves through their “domain name” like google.com, or amazon.co.uk, so it’s worth finding which domain name you can purchase for yourself, such as floratheflorist.co.uk. This name will then be a key part of your overall brand, and you can then publicise it through local online directories, many of which are free.
At this web site, as well as saying who you are and where you are, you can start adding details that your customers will find useful, such as what you have on the menu or what bouquets you might recommend for different occasions.
Alongside your own activities, it will be worth placing yourself within a wider picture. As a florist, you might point customers towards your preferred maker of vases and carry a link to an online ordering service like Interflora.
Similarly, at the restaurant, you might plug yourself into a national infrastructure for making bookings. Any visitors are likely to go through one of these networks in planning their trip. Like most of us, they are likely to rely on recommendations from other customers on sites such as Trip Advisor. These reviews can be highly influential in how anyone unfamiliar with your area makes their spending choices.
Phase 2: social media
So far, you are still taking a relatively passive digital approach. On the web, you generally rely on customers to come to you. On social media, or Web2.0 as it’s sometimes called, you can connect them with more directly.
If you build your own page on Facebook, you can start sending out messages to those who choose to like you, highlighting any special offers you might be running.
On Twitter, you can create an account for yourself by finding a name that no-one else is using and put a @ in front of it, like @floratheflorist. Anyone who follows you will then receive your tweets. It is a powerful way of starting to build a relationship.
When you tweet, you can highlight any words or phrases, such as flowers for Easter, with a hash tag #flowersforeaster. Anyone who is searching for that hash tag will then find you.
You need to find followers, of course. People may give you all sorts of different advice, but probably the simplest way is to follow people: if you follow them they are more likely to follow you. Then, once anyone comments on you and you respond, all their followers will see what you have to say. Another way of attracting followers is to forward (or “retweet”) others’ tweets.
Advertising on the web has completely changed how advertising works. Instead of placing an ad in a newspaper, and hoping that some of the readers will respond, it’s now possible to target your advertisements. You can choose to advertise to people who search for particular words, and you only pay when someone has clicked on the link to read more. The cost will depend on the level of demand for any combination of words. ‘Cheap booze’ is likely to command a premium. ‘Curries in Margate’ or ‘flowers in Canterbury’ are likely to much more affordable.
Phase 3: e-commerce
Once you have worked through these options, you will have created your online presence. The next stage is to start making sales directly through e-commerce. Again, you can go a long way without incurring too many upfront costs, or too much technical effort.
You can create your own shop on e-Bay, who, as well as running auctions, let you sell direct through their ‘buy it now’ option. Or you can become a partner on Amazon and appear on its listings when customers search for your type of product. For services, like hotels and restaurants, sites like Trip Advisor are now moving beyond its origins in customer advice into linking directly to hotel booking sites like hotels.com. If you want to sell through your site, companies like PayPal will process payments for you, saving you the complications of managing credit cards.
Potentially, such activities will transform the nature of your business. Think about second-hand books. We used to travel the country, dropping into shops in the hope of finding a title. Now you can essentially see a whole country’s stock of second-hand books on a site like abebooks.com in an instant.
Equally, in your own business, you might start expanding into areas you never thought possible before. Our florist in Canterbury, for instance, could look at selling animated cards to send with bouquets.
Phase 4: brand dialogue
By inviting your users to start conducting a conversation with your brand, you are moving from a static presence online to a more dynamic two-way flow. But how do you keep yourself fresh and ready to engage?
Right at the start, you want to make sure that you retain the option to manage your content. Many of the companies we see at the University of Kent tend to create a striking first site, which they struggle to adapt as the nature of their business changes and expands. One way of keeping your site up to date is to use a Content Management System (or CMS); your web site developer can advise you about this.
Later, as you move into social media, you have to be ready for the eccentric and unexpected comments that you might attract. So it is worth thinking in advance about the tone you might adopt. If a slip-up happens, rather than being defensive, it is generally better to be graceful. Your relationship with your customers and clients has changed: now you are in a conversation with them, and keeping track of what’s happening on your social media is something that you need to keep on top of. That way, you can keep building your audience.
Once you have taken the steps here, your business will be more sustainable, because you’re visible in the media that people – particularly young people – are increasingly turning to. As well as this, you’ll have found new business directions and hopefully you’ll be interacting with new groups of customers in different ways.
You’ve seen how quickly things have changed in the last five years with the advent of twitter … one thing for sure is that there will be the same number of surprises in the next five years, so keeping up with what’s going on on the web is a real priority for all small businesses.
Social media policy
- Define: What type of company you want to be seen as - informal, formal etc. Remember your target audience.
- Time: Online promotions and monitor the response
- Monitor: What is the sentiment toward your business and topics related to you
- Respond: To the key topics that are related to your business and to your target market
The Kent IT Consultancy
The Kent IT Consultancy is an IT consultancy based in the School of Computing at the University of Kent. Its mission is to support the community by solving business problems with technology, as well as providing its students consultants with the skills to make them more employable. Its motto is “the graduates of tomorrow supporting the businesses of today”.