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A digital presence is just a start – businesses strive to meet their customers’ online expectations.SUPPLIED

From start-ups to physical storefronts, a growing number of small businesses have taken steps to move into the e-commerce space. Now, the task is to create a superior digital experience for their customers.

“Online is becoming part of the new normal,” says Laura Jones, executive vice president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB).

A recent CFIB survey showed that 18 per cent of small and medium businesses engaged in e-commerce pre-COVID. Since then, another 15 per cent have joined the ranks.

“This is no longer a trend, but a dramatic change towards digital,” adds Richard Heft, president and founder of Ext. Marketing in Toronto.

And it’s a change that small businesses must welcome in order to successfully build a customer base online.

That’s a challenge for many. While more and more small businesses are exploring online shopping, only 19 per cent of them can be considered digitally advanced, according to the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).

“Many small businesses had to pivot quickly and adjust their business models to move online,” says Danielle Doiron, general manager, marketing at Canada Post.

As e-commerce continues to expand, she says these businesses have to up their digital game. That means embracing a digital vision, digital strategy and culture, as well as the technology and tools to interact the way consumers expect.

For years, bigger players have set the bar for what consumers have come to expect with e-commerce, from professional design to a smooth end-to-end customer experience. It’s important for small businesses to start to reach for that bar.

They don’t have to get there right way. Becoming more adept at digital is a work in progress, and many partners can help. That can include assistance to enable the features available through e-commerce platforms, or to leverage the online solutions of shipping carriers.

“It has never been easier to develop an e-commerce presence, thanks to a range of experts and enablers that specialize in getting online quickly,” says Ms. Doiron.

But getting online-ready is only step one on the road to digital. Small businesses also have to pivot from driving foot traffic to online traffic.

People will only come if they discover your brand, says Sarah Bullock, a marketing consultant at Techlicity Ventures Inc., a Toronto-based digital business development company. This means that small businesses have to spend considerable time on marketing efforts.

Ms. Doiron agrees. “Customer acquisition remains one of the biggest challenges for small business,” she says. “So having a marketing plan and an optimized marketing mix is key.”

Go where the clients are, says Mr. Heft. It sounds obvious, but it requires sophisticated tactics. He says that getting your message out means creating targeted content to engage potential customers in selected audiences. Blanketing Facebook just doesn’t work. “You may need to use geo-targeting strategies to reach the right people,” he says.

Ms. Bullock adds that it might be useful to build a community of potential shoppers using social media. The platform you use would depend on your target audience and offerings, like TikTok for a younger audience or LinkedIn for business-to-business sales.

While online visitors are important, businesses need to be able to convert them into customers – and keep them coming back. That means optimizing the end-to-end online experience, which includes everything from navigation, to the checkout, to fulfillment, to packaging, to shipping.

It might sound overwhelming, but help is there. Even with budgetary restraints, small businesses can “eat an elephant one bite at a time,” says Ms. Bullock. You just need the right tools and strategies to create a seamless experience. “The last thing you want to do is being unprepared to go digital.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.