Online Necessities for Offline Businesses

One thing I’m looking forward to with this month’s theme is hearing about the things that business owners struggle with. I’m not a masochist, I just find it fascinating to see how others handle the same challenges I’ve faced and I love being able to offer help when I’m able. I was reading the comments on Jess’ post introducing the theme and was immediately struck by this one:

How can local businesses compete with online businesses?

It’s a little insane how many different ways there are to answer Natalie’s question, from a variety of different lenses (product development, branding, marketing, etc.). For now I’m going to give you a pretty general answer from my experiences as a web designer and person-generally-interested-in-small-businesses.

The short answer is: You’ve got to compete by also being online.

Yep, even if you aren’t actively selling online you’ve got to have an online presence, as that’s how people will find you in addition to (or, ideally, instead of) your online-only competition. I’ve listed the seven things that I think are most important for building a strong online presence for a local business. I would start at the top of this list and work your way through – you don’t necessarily have to go in order, and perhaps some of our marketing experts can add some commentary as to which they’d prioritize. I’ve put them roughly in order from most to least important, according to my non-scientific opinion and my experience as a designer and an avid shopper.

Your own domain and website

1. WEBSITE. You may not be selling online but I can assure you people are looking for info on your business online. Even if they aren’t looking for your specific business, they’re probably searching online for your product or service. Make it easy for them to find you, know what you offer, and know how to get it. For bricks and mortar stores, this means address, directions, phone number, and hours of operation, at the very very minimum. Put that info (as text, please don’t put it in an image) on a simple, classy site with a nice photo of your shop or your work (no stock photography, please) with your own domain and you’re already way ahead of lots of other businesses.

Create profiles/ pages on review sites and Google Places.

2. REVIEW SITES. I regularly check Yelp for local businesses to try. Even if there aren’t reviews, I want to see a page with some basic information (and a link to a website, preferably). More info about your business on sites that are seen as legit makes your business seem more legitimate as well. For Yelp in particular, you can create a free business account here.

3. GOOGLE PLACES. There are lots of benefits to registering with Google Places (it’s free), such as having your business show up on Google Maps and in first page local search results. It’s probably worth the time to create a robust profile – the way I see it, the more information I can give Google about my business, the better the chances people will find me using their search.

Consistently use branding and link to your site.

4. BRANDING. Develop a visual brand identity (a logo, at least) and use it everywhere you can. Not to pick on Natalie, but her comment is a great example of a missed opportunity – that blank box at the right is where her avatar would be if she had one tied to her email using Gravatar.com (yes, another free service). That could be a photo of herself, making her feel more relatable as a person to other viewers, or it could be a logo, reinforcing her brand.

5. LINKING. Natalie filled in the Website/ URL field in the comment form, which is key because it links her name back to her website making it easy for me to find her. She did not add an entire signature to her comment with her website name, URL, blog URL, and 5 ways to contact her. That would be spammy. Keep it to the URL field, but don’t neglect to help people find you by linking to your site.

Create a Facebook page and use local marketing.

6. FACEBOOK. I dislike Facebook (I’ll spare you the long and uninteresting explanation), but a lot of people love it and it’s a great way to connect with customers and spread your reach through word of (digital) mouth. Some people will tell you not to have a page that’s not very active but I am of the opinion that it’s better to stake out your space and be clear on the page about your activity level (a nice, “I’m not here much so also find me on/by…” message would be perfect, plus occasional updates and promos). However, do be sure to monitor posts to your page so that you can respond right away if anyone contacts you via Facebook – you never want to leave someone hanging.

7. THINK LOCAL. This is getting to be out of my areas of experience, but it only makes sense that if you are a primarily local business, you should be focusing your marketing and advertising where local customers will see it. It makes a lot of sense to consider ads or PR pitches to local periodicals and media outlets. It doesn’t make much sense to advertise on a really cool but non-local blog.

Bottom Line: You've got to have an online presence

Wondering about a specific platform I left off? Want to argue that one of these isn’t that important or you’d prioritize differently? I’d love to hear it in the comments. (And by the way, I love Twitter but I think it’s not particularly useful for local businesses working to build a client base so it didn’t make the list. Please, feel free to disagree if you know otherwise!)

8 comments

  1. Apolline says:

    Hi Zoe 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience with you. i’m working myself on building my shop+brend+online presence, so your article is very useful to me! However, i think otherwise about Twitter : I watched a very interesting video on Laura Roeder’s blog last night about creating on line fame. Your local clients have local ( and “not local”) friends that can get to know you thanx to Twitter. It can also help you meet partners and other entrepreneurs and build a community.
    And I like your idea of a local blog…i’ll definitely be working on that 🙂

  2. Thanks for joining the discussion! My thought on Twitter is that it’s great for building wider communities and it’s great for business to business client-base building, but I’m not convinced it’s an especially good resource for building a local retail client base. I think if you have the time and interest, you should definitely still engage with Twitter, my theory is that it won’t be a key lever for building your customer base in a local way.

    Instead, I think Facebook is a much more localized community – in my experience, people have connections on Facebook that are more consistent with who they know where they live. That’s why I think that’s a stronger way to build online “word of mouth” in a local context.

    I’d love to see actual research about location and relationships across Facebook/ Twitter, though!

    • Jessika says:

      I think this is a really interesting topic-I know I have been able to connect with locals that I may never have met if not for Twitter-this has led to some collaborations & new friendships. So I think Twitter is awesome for local capacity building & connecting with local media/editors & bloggers to help spread the word about your business. BUT I agree with you Zoe I don’t think it helps with building a buying customer base-more in helping promote…I would be interested to hear more from other local based businesses if using twitter has resulted in any sales.

      Thanks for your awesome post Zoe!

  3. brenda says:

    Great post, pleased I found this site. I have a big struggle – so here goes. My business is new, I make aromatherapy products, working on branding, packaging and labels. I wear all the hats and many are taking away from the actual making of my products! However, I do love being creative in all aspects. OK the question – product labels – I see all these great product labels on Etsy and wonder – what program do they use or how do they do that?
    Currently I have been hand stamping plain labels (they do look lovely but time consuming) and printing them myself. Where to get templates, design art, papers, labels. I am in Canada but open to suggestions. I am one of those people who tries to do it all but this has me stumped. Please help 🙂

    • Jessika says:

      Hi Brenda! Thank you for sharing your question/story. We actually have a number of posts from contributor April MacKinnon of http://www.nurtured.ca a natural skin care company, you can read all her posts here: http://www.ohmyhandmade.com/category/monthly-columnists/april-mackinnon/. Most well designed brands are created by a designer or a small biz owner with a strong interest in design. The most common program for creating beautiful packaging is Adobe Illustrator though some people also use Photoshop. Both programs are pricy & have a significant learning curve (you can take classes online to help speed the process like Nicole’s Classes or via Lynda.com) and it usually ends up being more cost effective in the long run to hire a designer to help you create your branding. We have a number of articles & resources on finding & hiring a designer. Also the author of this post Zoe offers some great consulting! Best of luck to you with all your adventures: )

  4. Zoe- Fabulous Article. When I teach Product Development we discuss the changing business models since the advent of online stores. The fact is that companies with a brick and mortar (storefront) are still the most effective. I think you did a great job outlining basic steps a store can take to drive traffic and create the all important online presence.

    I also do not like Facebook and have found myself continually frustrated by the fact that many promotions or competitions in the industry require a Facebook account to participate. I believe they are limiting themselves. Twitter however I use solely as an additional driver to my blog. So I agree it increases collaborations with other artists and perhaps a following but is not going to be the main driver for new business.

  5. MOXIELisa says:

    Great article Zoe! Yelp has been my best friend recently so I would definitely put that one up there on the top of the list for local brick and mortar stores. I also like that you emphasized having an online presence even if it is just a place page with basic information. It is a missed opportunity if you don’t have something out there.

Leave a Reply