Adam Pearce, director of web consultancy Blend Commerce, often hears the same refrain from potential customers: “They always say ‘If someone wants the product, they can just give us a call or come into the shop – we don’t need a website’. All we can do is show them the results we’ve had from sites we’ve created and the impact going online has had on sales – it soon makes sense.”
This caution is echoed across the small business community, according to figures from FSB. Encouragingly, during the past three years, more than half of businesses have adopted online banking (59 per cent), paid for goods or services using BACS (55 per cent) or adopted a company website (51 per cent). However, more than a quarter lack confidence in their digital skills, and 22 per cent believe a lack of digital skills among their staff is preventing them from doing more online.
The Government recently updated its basic digital skills framework, which sets out five categories of digital skills that it says all adults should have: communicating; handling information and content; transacting; problem solving; and being safe and legal online.
For SMEs, the digital skills framework is slightly different, setting out the five digital skills that SMEs should have as: communicating; transacting; problem solving; managing information; and creating. The Lloyds Business Digital Index in 2018 found that around 1.7 million small businesses do not have all of these digital skills, while FSB research revealed that creating digital content is considered the least important skill of these five. Many respondents cited concerns around GDPR compliance and cybersecurity as reasons for not going online.
Whether it’s a virtual shop window for your offline product or service or a fully-functioning ecommerce website, there are compelling reasons to move your business online. “Just having somewhere people can find your phone number, a map to your premises or some background can be useful,” says Iain Bell, Managing Director of web consultancy Minted Box.
“After that, they might want to improve efficiency or offer ecommerce. They want to make an existing site look more professional – a brand that was designed for table mats or posters may not look right on a website.”
It’s perfectly possible to start small – spice retailer Spice Kitchen began as a kitchen sideline selling spice mixes via a personal eBay page at very little cost. “Ecommerce has helped us to turn a hobby into a business,” says Sanjay Aggarwal, who started the company alongside his mother, a talented chef. “We thought we wouldn’t sell many, but we’ve done it with very little upfront investment.”
By starting on eBay, Spice Kitchen prepared orders as they came in, meaning cash flow was good. “Our whole business has been bootstrapped this way – all of the money we’ve re-invested into it has come from revenue we’ve generated online,” he adds.
The company is now moving in the opposite direction to many brands, by taking its products onto bricks-and-mortar supermarket shelves, and moving into wholesale as well as ecommerce. “Being online meant we could test things from a branding perspective and it took us a few years to work out our signature product,” says Mr Aggarwal. Gaining a presence on other shopping platforms such as Not On The High Street, Etsy and specialist food and gifting sites also helped.
For businesses making their first steps online, there is a host of support available. If you want customers to be able to buy goods or services online, popular shopping web platforms such as Shopify have busy Facebook support groups and many offer local face-to-face events where you can pick up tips and meet other businesses. In Scotland, Business Gateway offers small businesses an online health check, where they answer questions on a range of topics from cybersecurity to social media to ecommerce, and receive recommendations based on their responses.
If businesses decide they want an agency or developer to create a website, it pays to speak to a few candidates, advises Business Gateway Marketing Manager Jacqueline Macdougall. “Look at what they charge per hour for design, development, user testing and implementation,” she says. “It’s easy for someone to pick a number out of the air and say ‘I’ll build you a website’.”
It’s also important to know what you want the end result to be, and whether you can achieve it. A shiny new website can be a great marketing tool, but you’ll receive negative feedback if you can’t deliver on your promises. “If you’re reliant on particular suppliers and you do a big web marketing campaign, are you sure they can deliver?” asks Mr Pearce. “Think about lead times.”
For many businesses, marketing is a central factor in the decision to develop an online presence. It’s crucial to understand your target market and shape imagery and content accordingly, advises Mr Pearce. “Sometimes businesses assume they appeal to a certain market, but when they look at the data it’s not the case,” he says. “We worked with a Swiss watchmaker who tailored his marketing to appeal to young businesspeople, but in fact it was 55 to 65-year-olds, and we had to tweak his content.”
It can also be tempting to spend a lot of money on agencies to manage your search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising, but it’s possible to do much of this yourself. “Sites such as Spyfu.com can look at the onsite activity of your competitors – SEO, what keywords they appear under, how much they’ve spent on Google Adwords – and this will help you work out your best strategy,” he adds.
As with any physical business, getting the customer journey right makes all the difference. You wouldn’t expect a customer in a bricks-and-mortar shop to have to get past several barriers before they could buy a product, so make sure you don’t give them the virtual equivalent. “Once you’ve got the look of your site right, it’s all about the user journey,” advises Mr Bell. “How easy is it to place an order, what’s your call to action? There’s no point attracting lots of visitors if there’s no way to get in touch with you, for example.”
Minted Box’s own website puts control in customers’ hands by offering them the ability to book an appointment for a demonstration. “This way we’re responding to the fact they have shown an interest in us and it’s up to us to get back to them, rather than treating them as an inconvenience.”
And there’s no reason why a strong online presence can’t complement a thriving offline business. “We work with a hire company that has moved its whole inventory online so people can see what they can hire,” says Mr Bell. “Everything’s there apart from the money changing hands. They do business more efficiently without an expensive web investment.”
But choosing not to go online at all could end up damaging your business in the long term. “I think all businesses need a website these days,” he warns.
“A simple one-page presence is fine – people are more likely to forgive a bad website than not having one at all.”
Ella Rauen-Prestes is founder of Fitbakes, which produces low-sugar, high-protein cakes. She was driven to go online after spending hours at food and fitness shows without generating much of a return. “When we started we didn’t have much money to spend on exhibiting at shows and, when we did, there seemed to be a lot of networking and talking,” she says. “People said it took a while to build up to solid sales of their products.”
With three teenagers at home, she realised that social media channels such as Instagram would reach a bigger audience in a much shorter space of time. “I ploughed the money we would have spent on shows into building a website and contacting around 500 influencers. Now we have nine ambassadors for our brand and around 20,000 followers on Instagram.”
She posted every hour in the beginning, using relevant hashtags such as #slimming or #fitness to ensure her message reached the right audience. She has also given away samples and partnered with other health food or gym brands.
A video of a type 1 diabetic showing her blood sugar levels before and after having one of the Fitbakes cakes (the levels barely changed compared to eating a typical, sugary cake) has been particularly successful in bringing in loyal customers.
But with a fast-growing social media presence, the business needs a solid web platform to support it, so she’s looking to move onto another system. “We need to be able to ship enough products if we get a huge order, for example, so now we need to upgrade our platform so we can handle more orders and process subscriptions,” she says.
What is your goal and who is your target market? These are basic questions you need to answer before designing or building a website. Look at your own sales data or explore your competitors’ activity through sites such as Alexa.com (demographics), Spyfu.com (SEO and paid-for ads) or RivalIQ.com (social media stats)
Should you do it yourself or outsource? This depends on how much time you have. Platforms such as Shopify are user-friendly and there are multiple support groups online. However, if you want to focus on your day-to-day business, price up a number of developers
What will you do about inventory? If you have an offline presence, it makes sense to combine product inventories so there’s no confusion about how much stock is available
How will you reach out to more people? A static website can be a useful shop window, but using social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest will extend your reach. Find out where your customers spend most time and concentrate your activities there