Many small-business owners just want to hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete and shut down shop at the end of a long day. After fielding calls, filling orders and working with customers, tending to their online marketing presence can seem exhausting and, well, daunting.
“It’s gotten very complicated for everyone, from Fortune 500 companies to the sushi place on the corner. They get the why but they don’t get the how,” says Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy at the Local Search Association.
The Fortune 500 firms often have resources to hire teams of sharp social media strategists and ad agencies to hone their brands, and they can buy the online presence they need.
But for small businesses, the abundance of options for showcasing their wares on the Internet, and the effort it takes to master them, can be overwhelming. For them, the Internet has created a demand for information from consumers that they sometimes struggle to meet.
Consider this: The majority of retail purchases in the United States are still made in stores, but the Internet and mobile devices influence $1 trillion in retail sales each year. Four in five people use search engines to find information about local businesses, yet Google estimates that just 37 percent of businesses have updated their information on a search engine.
Gregory McCottrell’s fiancée, Lynnette Jackson, owns Lynnette’s Cakes and Catering in Annandale, Va., and he’s determined to make the business stand out in searches. He and about 90 other entrepreneurs recently attended a free workshop in Southeast D.C. organized by Google and the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development to learn how to list their businesses on the search engine.
“We’re all over the Internet but we’re not listed on Google business,” he lamented. That’s important because Google dominates searches in North America. Getting bumped up the list depends, in part, on complete and accurate listings. Incorrect hours or missing phone numbers can frustrate potential customers.
“The days of putting your phone number on your awning are over. That’s not how people are finding your information,” says Soo Young Kim, a senior product marketing manager at Google. Businesses with complete listings — including name, address, phone number, hours and Web site — are twice as likely to be considered reputable, and consumers are 38 percent more likely to visit them and 29 percent more likely to consider buying from them.
Instead of shuttering storefronts, mobile phones are guiding consumers who still walk and drive through the world to receive the services they want. More than half of all Google searches are done on mobile devices, and “near-me” searches have doubled over the past year.
“Mobile presents an unbelievable opportunity for the world’s physical businesses, most of which are small. It is antithetical to e-commerce in a lot of ways. It gets people out and about,” says Howard Lerman, chief executive and co-founder of Yext, which organizes and updates online listings for businesses in location-based apps such as Yelp, and on Yahoo, Bing and other search engines.
Bottom line: If you don’t pop up, you may be out of luck.
Being found is the first step. Small businesses need to lure customers in and keep them coming back with e-mail blasts, Web sites and social media. This is where it can get complicated for businesses strapped for time and money.
Social media management can cost a few hundred bucks per month with tools such as HubSpot and $99 Social to thousands of dollars for full-package e-mail, Web and social media boutique services. “The myth is that these tools are all accessible and are a democratizing force,” Sterling says. “It isn’t true. That is the cruel reality.”
But there are free apps and tools, too. Pinterest, a virtual tackboard, allows users to share what is resonating with them on a business’s site with friends and followers. Businesses can use the app to build their Web presence, says Jimmy Sopko, Pinterest’s online partnerships leader. “Consumers do the work for you.” Facebook’s tools for small businesses include a new shop section on pages to feature products. Both — along with Google, Twitter and YouTube — are expanding their e-commerce features, which could significantly impact small businesses that don’t have the infrastructure to support online transactions. Businesses can lasso it all with social media management apps such as Hootsuite.
McCottrell and Jackson have worked at getting the word out about their business. Jackson was on the Food Network series Cupcake Wars and for the past two years the couple has invested time posting photos, recipes and videos on Facebook and Instagram. They’ve attracted customers and struck partnerships on LinkedIn, including one with a national catering company that delivers local food to offices. “We did it one click at a time,” McCottrell says. “I got a really great return on investment of my time. Social media does pay off.”