Local Businesses…Now is your time on the net!

How  Local High Street  Businesses can Use the Internet to  Explode Customer Numbers.

Back in 1998 when I made my first commercial website drop-shipping kitchen appliances, my partner and I started to get approached by local businesses to make websites for their shops and services too. They had been told that they needed one of these new-fangled web sites, that it was terribly important for their businesses and, if they didn’t have one pretty soon, they would be pointed to and laughed at in the street.

So get a site they did. Virtually every business either hired a web designer or asked their 14 year old nephew to get their ‘web presence’ sorted out for them. Many of these sites were awful, others were merely functional and a few were so impressive that people may have felt a bit let down when they actually visited the business after seeing it online. Two things that most of these business owners lacked, however, was the first clue of why they needed a site and exactly what the site was supposed to do for their business when they had got it on the net.

For the first time, a local high street business, the local hairdressers for example, could reach a global audience. Thing is, the global audience didn’t either notice or care. And why should it? Who, apart from someone visiting a town they were not familiar with and planning to have a haircut while they were there, would seek out the site of Daphne’s Curl Up & Dye Salon in Heaton Norris, Lancashire? If people did seek out the site, they would only usually see a few photos, the opening times and a pricelist. Mostly they would be visiting the site in order to find the phone number….Yes, they would still have to phone to make an appointment.

Pretty soon, local businesses got tired of their websites and they just forgot about them. They are mostly still there, neglected, gathering cyber dust, hopelessly out of date. But at least it is on the business card (in small print in the corner) and at least they have a website because, well, they needed one, right?

Wrong. They didn’t really need one at all.

That was then and this is now. One of the great things about the internet is that just as you think you know what it is about and what it allows people to do, it all changes and a whole load of new possibilities suddenly emerge.  High speed broadband brought us streaming video.  Blogs made websites maintain relevancy and brought us dynamism. Social Networking has brought us a whole new way of using the web.

The amazing reach of social networking  sites means that suddenly local businesses will be getting contacted again by annoying  people sporting designer  eyewear just as they did some 15 years ago. This time, however, local  businesses  do need what will be suggested to them.

Whereas the old website just enabled the local business to reach an indifferent  global audience, now that same local business can use the same  global communication tool to interact with a local audience. A local audience made up of customers and, more importantly, potential new customers.  For the first time a local business has a new way to connect with customers and a new way to advertise to their exact, targeted demographic group for an astoundingly low cost. Often far less cost than running an un-targeted ad in a local newspaper.

To do this, the local business owners will need the help of a strange new breed of entrepreneur; The Internet Marketer.  A new profession born out of a very old one, Internet Marketers have taken age-old sales and marketing skills and constantly adapt them to work on the internet. They speak a strange language full of references to such things as “SEO” (that’s on-page SEO and off-page SEO!), “SERPS”, “syndication” and rude sounding things like “AB split testing”. For an Internet Marketer a “Plug In” is something that adds functionality to the WordPress platform, not something you do with an electric kettle. They help and advise each other (often free of charge) and their internet hang-out of choice is something they call “The Warrior Forum”.

Many Internet Marketers have, in recent years, been successful in exploiting the viral nature of Facebook. They have developed Facebook apps (applications) to create interaction with users, which in turns informs other users creating a knock-on effect. Also, by integrating internal Facebook communication methods (wall posting, sharing, liking) with building an external list of e-mail subscribers who have ‘opted-in’ to receive an e-mailed newsletter, customers can remain in the loop. A business can now easily interact with it’s customers, provide updates, offers, coupons as well as expanding its customer base to ‘friends of friends’.

Facebook has made this possible not only because of the social connectivity it offers but also through it’s advertising platform. A Facebook page can be advertised so that it is displayed on the wall of people who fit the perfect demographic grouping and be within a set radius of the location of the business. Suddenly, Daphne can connect with women on Facebook between the age of 18 and 40 who are interested in “hair” or “beauty” and live within 80km (50 miles) of Heaton Norris. Actually, looking just now, there are currently 63,980 people who meet that demographic. So Daphne would have her advert appear on the wall of only the people who would be interested in her business and who live within a set radius (reducing the radius to 16 km – 10 miles there would still be 18,500 people to go for).

So, how would Daphne go about connecting with these people? Daphne’s goal should be to connect with as many people as possible through her Facebook page and collect subscribers to her newsletter service through which she will be able to inform subscribers about new product launches, special offers, events and general salon news on an on-going basis.

What tools would she need? Well, the very least she would need is a Facebook page for her business, an account with an e-mail marketing service and a self-hosted WordPress blog and a Paypal account. A typical strategy would be to have a landing tab on the Facebook page which asks for the visitor to ‘Like’ the page. An incentive could be offered. “Click like and see how you can get 50% discount on your first visit to our shop”. Then on the the tab which is visible only to people who have ‘liked the page’ the coupon could be offered as a gift for subscribing for the free newsletter. The coupon is generated through a WordPress plug in on Daphne’s WordPress blog.  To promote the page, Daphne could set up a Facebook ad to those 18500 people and pay (usually less than $0.50) only when people actually click on the advert and visit her Facebook page as a result.

If you are a local business owner and have started getting a little moist while reading this…there is more to come!  More people are going to connect to the net on smartphones and mobile devices than through PCs in the next couple of years. In a town centre and want to find a good place to eat lunch? Guess what people now do. They search for local businesses on their smartphones. Having a business on Google Places with a map and all of the GPS functionality it offers will explain why some places are always full and some always empty. Anyway….Back to Daphne in Heaton Norris…

A good Marketer will have tools to make the whole process more viral by asking the visitor to share information on their wall so their Facebook friends also get exposure to Daphne’s page. All Daphne needs to master is how to put out an interesting and engaging newsletter, maybe doing a competition or two. Marketers who work with ‘offline’ clients will often help by putting together marketing ideas and initiatives on a monthly basis for a retainer fee.

All of a sudden it makes perfect sense for a local High Street business owner to get back online. Every business, new or old, large or small needs to compete for those local cyber customers. Those that do not will be left behind.

Time to go find yourself a friendly neighbourhood Internet Marketer.

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