For small businesses, word-of-mouth promotion has been a time-tested way to reach new customers and generate awareness. But with the growing array of digital and social media options, small businesses can now look beyond one-on-one in-person engagement to capture this critical advocacy from online audiences.
However, a new, independent survey by Deluxe Corp. found that small business owners are spending only a minimum amount of time building and managing their online presence. This may be leaving them unable to cash in on the online buzz generated by their products and services. (While the Deluxe study focuses on small businesses, its findings might be of interest to bankers.)
Meet customers where they look for you
The study surveyed more than 500 small business owners around the United States in mid-May. The results showed that 66% of the respondents had a dedicated business website and 45% had a Facebook page. Still, while 73% of those surveyed thought “word of mouth” was an important way to engage customers, 70% spent less than one hour per week maintaining their online presence. And 51% posted to social media once a month—or less.
“Our close relationship with the small business community has shown that most owners already do a great job being ‘buzz worthy’ by offering remarkable products and delivering excellent customer service,” says Tim Carroll, vice-president of small business engagement at Deluxe. “What they are not always doing is preparing for when buzz about them actually happens.”
Carroll points out that most customers, after hearing about a business through word of mouth, will search for it online, visit its website, look at its social media pages, and read reviews about it.
“Those small businesses with a strong and well maintained online presence can capture this behavior and convert it into lasting relationships,” says Carroll.
Widespread failure to “get” online
Additional findings from the study illustrate how far small business owners have to go in taking advantage of virtual channels:
• Using social media: For direct customer interaction and promoting new products, only 29% of those surveyed found social media extremely important.
• Age drives online presence: 57% of owners under 55 had a business Facebook page, compared to 41% percent for owners over 55. Social media was more important to owners under 55 (41% vs. 23% for those over 55). Owners under 55 posted more weekly social media posts than their over-55 counterparts (17% vs. 9%).
• Using Facebook to sell: 53% of small business owners reported that they used Facebook to sell a product. Of these, women were more likely than men (60% vs. 49%) to use Facebook as a selling platform.
• Website improvement: The most common sources for website improvement included “a colleague or other business contact” (45%), “a consultant” (39%), or “a friend/family member” (31%).
However, 53% of small businesses with more than three employees and 49% of companies with revenue below $100,000 had no interest in improving their web presence.
How to boost online presence
Carroll says there are multiple ways small business owners can give their online presence a boost in order to increase visibility, generate interest, and capture any buzz:
• Encourage customers to talk about you. Whether by providing the ability to post reviews and feedback or by sharing and following your business on social media, this type of direct customer engagement can be extremely helpful. Small businesses not asking for customer feedback are missing an opportunity to use the channel as an extension of “word of mouth.”
• Capture email addresses and engage fans. Target customers who want to know about your business. They want to know what is new, what is on sale, and what promotions are on the horizon. There are multiple tools that allow small businesses to easily capture these customers’ email addresses and create timely and engaging communications to keep them coming back.
• Don’t hide online. To sustain buzz, a website needs to be findable. When potential customers search for you, they expect to find you on the first page of search results. Search Engine Optimization is essential to make sure your website and content will land you on page one.
• Think of your online presence as a group of dedicated employees. They may not be physically there, but your online capabilities are working hard for you 24/7 and 365 days a year. And like any workforce, they need to be looked after and maintained. A website or social media channel that is not updated regularly can give the wrong impression to a prospective customer and send their business to a competitor.
“It can take just one day—one influential person to notice—to make a small business a hit,” says Carroll, “so make sure your online presence is ready to go.”