New digital technologies have impacted how we all live and work, and most small firms are having to adapt their offering accordingly. David Adams outlines how you can adapt and thrive.
There are still a few businesses that can thrive without an online presence, but today most small firms need a website of some kind, and a broader digital presence on several social media platforms – and possibly one or more digital marketplaces.
They do not have to aspire to ‘digital disruption’ themselves, but certainly must be able to adapt to the changing world around them. Using digital technology does not have to mean fundamentally changing the way you do business, but it should offer a way to improve its profile and drive growth.
This is not straightforward in an increasingly crowded, complex and ever-changing online world. How do you create a digital strategy that will get the greatest possible benefit out of online marketing, communications and commerce?
It’s a difficult question because the answer is different for each business. “What is right for any given business is typically based on a unique set of circumstances,” says Marcus Miller, who runs digital marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO)/pay-per-click (PPC) firm BowlerHat.
One BowlerHat client is Cluego, which runs app/tablet-based treasure hunt events for corporate teambuilding. Cluego is based near Tamworth in Staffordshire, has three full-time employees and runs about 200 treasure hunts each year. It was founded by James Carruthers in 2014, but its digital strategy has been informed by Mr Carruthers’ experience running his other corporate events company, Fradley Croft, founded in 2007.
At that time, using PPC seemed unnecessary, he recalls, as there were not many other companies offering similar services in southern England. However, within five years the competition had intensified and PPC had become vital – so when he launched Cluego, the company spent £500 per month on PPC. It took six months to get a return on that investment, but it now spends £3,000 per month to bring in business worth around 10 times that amount.
“My top tip is don’t bother trying to do it yourself – it’ll just be burning cash,” says Mr Carruthers. “Find a reputable SEO specialist and start with a small budget. You have to start off small and gradually build it up. In the long run you’ll get a good return. It’s a case of looking every six months at what you’re spending and the return you’re getting.” He also advises business owners to monitor click-throughs and conversions closely.
For some businesses, making the most of digital technologies is doubly difficult because, despite years of politicians promising high speed internet access, they still rely on limited connectivity. One business that was in this position until recently was Home Leisure Direct, which sells games equipment including pool tables, arcade games and pinball machines for home or corporate use.
Founded in 2007 by Andy Beresford, it has been very successful, now employing 38 staff – yet its headquarters, a group of converted barns in Elberton near Bristol, has only had access to fast broadband since 2018. As previously reported in First Voice, Mr Beresford and his colleagues spent years struggling on dial-up internet, which restricted and sometimes halted online and offline operations. The company still created an award-winning website that supported online sales, though, as well as a strong presence on YouTube and social media.
Now that it has a superfast broadband connection, the company’s sales staff have been able to make effective use of live chat to interact with website visitors. Fast, secure online communications have also allowed the launch of a new service for corporate clients: online management of pool tables that allow contactless payments via card, phone or Apple watch. Home Leisure Direct’s systems manage the payment process while collecting data about how much money is being paid at each individual pool table. Trials with two major pub chains have led to nationwide contracts.
Mr Beresford says two of the most important decisions a small business will make about its digital strategy usually come early on: choosing a technology platform for the website and a developer to create and manage the site.
“It’s a nightmare if you don’t have a website you can amend easily as your business changes,” he warns. “We’re on .Net: a bespoke platform that anyone can customise. We met with six or seven web developers before we found one we were comfortable with. A lot of people see this as a chore, but it’s so important. We’ve been with our website developer, BlueBox, for 12 years.”
Whoever is building the website, sites must be built with smartphone users and image searches in mind. “Everything is moving towards mobile,” says Glenn Lehrman, vice-president and head of communications at online marketplace Wish. “On many sites you still see a search bar first and that’s not how people use a mobile: they want to spend more time browsing through images – you must build an experience that works for that user.”
Whatever their digital strategy, small businesses need to decide whether to recruit or hire the digital skills they need, or to train existing staff. In May 2019, the FSB and Facebook announced a collaboration that is creating training materials to help improve digital skills among small businesses. They also ran a number of events last summer.
Most small businesses will need to work with partner organisations to extend their visibility and reach into the online, potentially international, market. That may mean working with platforms such as Amazon, eBay, Wish or NotOnTheHighStreet.
Both Amazon and eBay say they are focusing on helping small businesses get the most out of trading via their platforms. In September 2018, Amazon UK launched Storefronts, a new section of its website dedicated to promoting products sold by UK SMEs.
NotOnTheHighStreet curates products sold by 5,000 small UK businesses. Around 250,000 products are available on the site at any one time, and it processed more than 5 million orders from 2.5 million customers in 2018. “There is a lot less risk in becoming part of a marketplace,” says customer and growth director Emilie Mouquot.
One business on the platform is Newcastle-based James Designs, run by Nick James, who builds beautiful wooden furniture and other items for the home. He started out working for himself in 2003, originally building individual pieces such as dining tables on commission. He set up a website only a few years ago, initially as a showcase.
However, in the past few years the business has grown thanks in part to a successful partnership with NotOnTheHighStreet, and he now employs three people. “It’s given me a new route to market and meant I could develop a new range of more affordable products for under £100 – clocks, lights and so on,” he says. “The way that took off took me completely by surprise. Suddenly my work was going all over the world.”
There can be other benefits, too, in using marketplaces. Wish, for instance, allows high street shops to be a distributor of parcels in the UK for them, helping to increase footfall to the high street and generating a small additional revenue stream for those taking part. Freightos, meanwhile, allows businesses to compare, book and manage shipping options on its online marketplace, giving small firms the chance to access capacity on ships – which can help them keep costs down and compete with larger rivals when it comes to delivery.
Most small businesses now use social media in some form. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, TripAdvisor, LinkedIn and some more sector-specific networks can all help different types of business promote brands, products and services.
Mr James uses Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to tell a story about the individual items he is building. “It’s been phenomenally successful: people love behind-the-scenes stuff,” he says. “If they’ve commissioned something, they can watch it being made.”
For Home Leisure Direct, YouTube has been an important tool for interacting with current and prospective customers looking for product information – and tips on becoming better pool players. “We’ve got 85,000 subscriptions, 1,200 videos and 15 million views,” says Mr Beresford. The company now employs its own in-house video production specialist. It also has 37,000 Facebook followers and a presence on all the major social media platforms.
FSB has been running a number of seminars, in partnership with Facebook, to show smaller businesses how they could effectively boost their business by using Facebook and Instagram. Facebook says that around 90 million small businesses use the platform globally and that most of its seven million advertisers each month are small businesses.
This followed FSB’s call to both the Government and industry to tackle a digital skills shortage in small businesses.
As with any form of growth, developing a successful online business creates other challenges, including those related to cross-border logistics, payments and regulatory requirements. FSB and the Government provide useful resources to help businesses tackle those challenges, and to help maintain online and digital security.
The digital dimension of the business must also be factored into business continuity planning. Consumer-facing businesses will also need to stay abreast of customer reviews and develop a policy for responding to any that could be damaging, as well as spreading awareness of positive feedback.
Perhaps most important of all, a digital strategy needs to embrace the certainty of change. “Expect the unexpected,” says Mr Miller. “But if you work hard and cover all the bases, you will reap the rewards.”