Six months after the start of the pandemic, we posted this blog entry to help small businesses navigate the online world and eCommerce – things many had never before even considered for their operations. More than a year later, we feel a lot of this information is still relevant. So we’ve made a few updates and are re-sharing; read on…
COVID-19 challenged traditional retail models. In Canada alone, eCommerce sales in May 2020 reached a record CAD $3.9 billion – a 2.3% increase over April, and almost double pre-pandemic eCommerce sales for February (CAD $2 billion). Although Canadian shoppers are still embracing eCommerce in 2021, the easing of pandemic-related restrictions have prompted many to return to brick-and-mortar stores for ‘experiential’ shopping. Regardless of this trend, it’s doubtful that eCommerce is going anywhere soon.
So how does a small business owner remain competitive in an online environment? We have a few ideas.
Check your website.
It’s very easy to neglect a website once it’s been set up. And considering the events of the past 20 months, its imperative that all small businesses maintain an updated online presence, regardless of whether or not they plan to engage in eCommerce.
If your company doesn’t have a website, setting one up is your first step. You’ll need to select and register a domain name (the URL you’ll share with potential clients) and pick a host for your site. (This article offers some great info about this.) You’ll also need to determine your site’s purpose – is it there to offer information about your company, or are you going straight into the world of online sales? An eCommerce website will require a little extra work to accommodate payments (both domestically and in your export market), but the basic information needed in any business website includes:
- Company name and logo,
- Its purpose and value statement,
- A bit about the company’s history (and possibly staff), and
- A strong call to action, with complete contact information.
Setting up a website doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. The Internet is full of website-building platforms that offer various templates based on a website’s intent (information site, blog, or eCommerce), thereby taking care of the set-up and allowing you to focus on content. And when it comes to content, ensure your product descriptions are clear, your photos are sharp (and legal for use), and your information is up to date. Your website should also be responsive – which means that it works across various devices. Canadians are doing more of their online shopping on their mobile phones, so your site needs to work on smaller screens, too. (Fortunately, most of today’s site-building templates are responsive by design but it’s good to test your layout before going live.) And don’t forget to optimize your website.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to build the world’s most dazzling website. The important thing is to get your product and/or service in front of potential customers as quickly and easily as possible. Simple navigation, good visuals, and ease-of-use will win out over flashy and overly-complicated websites every time.
Promote your business.
You’ve built a fully-functioning website that works on multiple platforms – and now you need to tell people about it. Most small businesses don’t have the budget or staff for large marketing campaigns, so you’ll need some help via social media.
Despite the bad rap it’s been getting, social media is a boon for business. It’s allowed companies a way to broadly display their products and/or services, and engage directly with a large swathe of customers and potential clients. Social media accounts are free and fairly easy to set up; the real work comes in deciding which platforms to use. And this is where a business really needs to understand its target audience.
So, who are you trying to reach? Is your product/service geared to the millennial market, Gen Z, or an older crowd? Do your products show well visually, via photos or video? Is yours a niche market, or do you have a broad base? Different social media platforms have different strengths; Instagram and Pinterest have great visual capacity, and a broad user base. A dedicated YouTube channel is a great way to show your product in video format. TikTok is providing great video advertising and content to a younger audience.
The trick, then, is to find a platform that offers the best reach to your audience. Hootsuite – our go-to resource for valuable social data – has compiled some great info about the demographics for each social media platform, and we recommend using this guide to select the ones that will allow you to reach as many potential customers as possible. (Note: while LinkedIn is often classified as social media, in reality it’s a business connection tool and we recommend setting up a company page there and sharing information with peers on that platform, too.)
You may find that yours is a product or service that has broad appeal, and can do well in many social platforms; should you join them all? To answer this you’ll need to realistically consider the resources you can dedicate to social marketing. Large companies with marketing budgets and dedicated staff can join many platforms, but small companies cannot. We recommend picking one or two top prospects and focusing on those. (Don’t worry too much about the ones you miss – today’s social media users can have up to eight social media accounts so if you don’t reach someone on Twitter, you’ll probably reach that person elsewhere.)
Once you’ve selected your platforms and set up your accounts, you’ll need to start posting content. Again, figure out how much time you can dedicate to this task. Quality always wins over quantity, so make each post count with compelling visuals, clear messaging, and proper spelling. Ensure your tone matches your brand’s image. And finally, when sharing third-party links be sure the information they contain comes from reputable sources.
Build – and monitor – your network.
There’s a reason why it’s called ‘social’ media. Posting with compelling content is a start, but you need to connect those messages with the right audience. And this can take a bit of time.
Start by finding people to follow. These can include accounts connected to your peers, competitors, trade events, organizations dedicated to your business sector, and the like. Have a look at these accounts and figure out who they follow, who they interact with, and who interacts with them. Find the ones that fit with your company goals, and start following. Share any information you find relevant to your business and sector, and be sure to engage these people with @-replies and hashtags. (But use these tools carefully; too many hashtags and mentions can undercut your brand.)
Building a good social media base does take time – a resource that can elude small businesses. Again, we recommend figuring out how much time you can realistically dedicate to this task, and sticking with it. Even a short, ten-minute session each workday will provide a chance to catch up on trending topics and engage with new accounts – and help to slowly build your online brand.
Be aware that customers will be part of your online strategy, and will require a slightly different approach than connecting with peers. Studies indicate that consumers are going to a company’s social media account first to address any questions or concerns, so have an on-brand strategy to address any issues that might arise.
Once you’ve had some success building your company’s online presence, it will be time to expand your reach. That will require analyzing metrics including follower growth and engagement; check out the resources available to help determine which numbers are important, how to read them, how to measure success, and how to plan and chart your company’s digital strategy.
The world of social media can seem daunting; thankfully, there are numerous online resources available to help you navigate these waters. We’re big fans of Hootsuite’s social media resources – they’re well researched and clearly presented. Sprout Social and Buffer also offer a lot of useful information on topics related to social media and digital marketing. And be sure to follow us on Twitter for more updates.
Photo by Pexels