In the online world, we’ve seen the emergence of social networking sites that allow for the discovery and sharing of websites, of bookmarks, of common interests, and the meeting of friends and friends of friends. In the business world offline, small businesses have the opportunity to be socially active in a number of ways, from referring their customers to others for goods and services, to joining business networking groups and participating in Chambers of Commerce as well becoming active in local politics.
How can small businesses with physical business locations work both separately and together to merge online social networking with offline social networking to benefit themselves and others?
There are a number of steps that small businesses can take to develop their own online presence. I’ve been watching along and participating a little as local businesses in my community explore different aspects of getting online. A number of my neighboring businesses haven’t yet ventured on the web, but I’ve taken examples from my local Main Street to show what communities may or could be doing elsewhere. Here’s some of what I’ve seen:
Development of an Individual Online Business Presence:
The Web is a medium that offers many opportunities for a small business to reach out to customers and interact with them. A newspaper or radio advertisement runs once, but a website is available around the clock and throughout the week. You don’t need a website to promote your business online, but it becomes easier when you do have one.
Build a Website – This may be the easiest first step to take. A little more than half of the businesses that stretch from one end of my nearby Main Street to the other have put a website online. Some of them are professionally polished, while others are only partially complete.
Become listed in local directories – There are a large number of nation wide directories that list local businesses, but relatively few local or regional directories. The few that are smaller in geographical scope tend to include some very detailed information about local businesses, but I haven’t seen many of my Main Street businesses listed. One regional directory near me offered businesses a premium membership in exchange for writing and submitting an article for the directory within the area of those business owners’ expertise.
Get your URL out there – A few local businesses include their web addresses on receipts, on their storefront signs, on posters announcing special events. A smaller number attach calls to action with those listings such as offering a monthly prize for people leaving feedback, or providing the opportunity to make reservations at their website when there might be limited seating available for local events.
Encourage customers to write reviews – I’ve been surveying some of the larger review sites such as Yelp, Judy’s Book, and Yahoo Local. I wanted to see if many of my neighboring businesses were listed, regardless of whether reviews were positive or negative. I just didn’t see many at all.
Offer online newsletters – I’ve only seen one local shop offer a newsletter to their customers. Those shoppers can signup for the newsletter in the store or online. It provides a nice overview of new products, sales offerings, and commentary on local events. One local music store has a whiteboard inside their shop where they provide a weekly list of all of the newest music, as well as some short reviews of many of these CDs. It would make a great newsletter.
Create a blog – in place of a newsletter, a blog could be used to keep customers informed, and to provide a place for them to leave feedback. A local natural foods grocery store started out as a cooperative business, where members purchased membership in the business, and were required to work a few hours a month. In exchange, they reaped benefits such as a discount on products offered by the store. It’s not surprising that they recently started a collaborative blog that lets members know about the business and community.
Participate in online social networks – A restaurant two or three towns away sent me a friend request from their MySpace page. I hadn’t been there before, but what I found on their page was friendly and informative. It provided a nice glimpse of their restaurant as well as a schedule of upcoming events, and a history of past parties and promotions. I haven’t visited in person yet, but these really are people that I want to be friends with.
Individual Online Efforts that Benefit Others:
On many business websites, you may see directories that the site’s owners have built which list other businesses, sometimes in exchange for a link back from the listed sites, and sometimes because the site owner believes that their visitors may find the listed sites of value. Here are some alternative ways of raising awareness of a local business community:
Promotion of associated businesses – A local tavern is known for the quality of the bands that perform there a number of nights a week. They’ve created individual profile pages for those bands, which allow the bands to share some words and images and links to their MySpace pages and web pages. The bands have a place for people to learn more about them, and the club has a way for customers to learn more about the bands that have and that will perform.
Newsletters can include information about other local shops/stores, events, points of interest – Letting people know what is happening near your business location might convince them to visit. Letting them know about other interesting things happening nearby might bring them into the neighborhood for some other reason, and allow them to stop by your business to say hello, and maybe shop.
Writing reviews of local businesses that you use – Own a shop in a town that people might walk-in after seeing your storefront? Honest, interesting, and positive reviews of nearby businesses may bring shoppers near your business. Reviews of businesses may influence the rankings of those businesses in local search results and drive traffic nearby – perhaps even next door to your location.
Work with competitors – There are around twenty antique shops within a five mile radius of my location. They are competitors, but they work together, by providing pamphlets with maps of each others’ locations in the foyer areas of their shops. It’s much more likely that they will attract visitors to the area if those potential customers set out for a full day of shopping. None of these local antique shops have sites online, but publishing that map online might be even more effective than the pamphlets in attracting people interested in collectibles and antiques.
Create a custom local shopping search engine – Another effort that may convince people to visit neighboring businesses is to create a local business and shopping search engine. You could put together a local business search engine including your site and your business neighbors using Google’s custom search engine. In addition to being a useful tool for visitors, doing so may result in the display of suggested query refinements on geographically related searches in your area in Google’s web searches.
Collaborative Promotional Efforts by Small Businesses
As the owner of a small business, it’s possible to find opportunities to join together with some other local small businesses in a number of ways. Membership in a local, regional, or state wide Chamber of Commerce is one possibility. Private business networks may have local chapters meeting near where you are. Some towns may have Main Street Associations that hold promotions and events intended to bring visitors into town. Local government websites may provide opportunities to help shape the economic development of the area where you live or conduct business.
Getting involved in one of these networks may enable business owners to start conversations with others on how they can create cross promotions and relationships.
One online community that I was involved with a few years back worked together to create an joint online shopping mall, allowing them to showcase the products that they had to offer, and to share the costs of offline promotion to that mall in some expensive print publications. Subscriptions to a community based newsletter that discusses local events and shopping may be able to develop a much larger subscription base than one from an individual business.
My local Main Street Association includes a directory of local businesses on their website. The Association has worked hard over the past few years to make Main Street an attractive place for unique shops and restaurants to locate, and for people to visit. Main Street has become a popular place for holiday visitors to shop because of those efforts, which have included convincing the City government to offer free parking in town at municipal lots during a number of days in December, and some creative advertising points people to those webpages. This past year saw them promoting the web site through:
- Posters in shop windows
- Ads on billboards on local highways
- Presentations shown before movies at the local theatre
- Promotional t-shirts worn by store and restaurant staff at work
- Advertisements in the program guide to a growing local film festival
- Promotional stickers handed out in shops in town
There were probably some missed opportunities in the Association’s efforts. The landing page that visitors were sent to wasn’t a great match for the promotion, and their site may focus a little too much upon becoming a member of the Association than a visitor to the shops that are members of the Association. Promotional materials could have been handed out by parking attendants at City lots to people parking in town who may have been visiting for reasons other than shopping. But these are some of the lessons that the Association takes away from their efforts at joining together and trying to work together.
Building and promoting a website for your business can bring customers to your business. Building and promoting a local community may be a very helpful next step.
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