Say you're running a neighborhood bakery, and you suspect that there might be a better way than the smell of fresh bread to let thousands of people know that a batch is fresh out of the oven, in case they happen to be close-by.
Or say you're the proprietor of an outdoor-goods firm, and your customers find that brochures aren't giving enough of a sense of what it's like to use your tents - but an online walk-through might.
Or, perhaps you've seen one too many people walk past your art-supply store staring at maps on their smartphones - and realize it's time to make sure your business comes up when someone does a search.
The Internet and the words "making money" haven't always gone together hand-in-hand - especially where it comes to small businesses. And the thought of using Twitter to drive sales might conjure up more eye-rolls than thoughts of riches. But as millions of Canadians of all ages get online, snap up web-connected smartphones, and sign up for social networks, the Internet has become inseparable from the way we make the simplest of purchases.
And that spells opportunity. The online world might have a reputation for being a playground for young'uns, but it's increasingly an arena where even the most local of businesses can listen to customers, build loyalty, spread the word - and yes, drive sales. Yet, as of last year, CitiBank found that 40% of small businesses it surveyed didn't even have a basic website.
"There's nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by listening to see what the opportunities are," says Dave Fleet, vice-president of digital at Edelman Toronto, a major marketing firm. "There's no case where a business shouldn't be listening."
Over the next few weeks, Your Business will look in detail at some of the avenues open to small businesses looking to get the most out of the Internet in their day-to-day business, without an enormous outlay of time or money. Here's some of what we'll be looking at:
In the heart of London, a bakery called The Albion has picked up a neat trick: every time a new tray of pastries comes out of the oven, a message and picture goes out to 2,029 Twitter subscribers (and counting). You wouldn't get thousands of people to sign up to live updates from a bakery via e-mail, but on Twitter, it's easy as pie.
Used by substantially fewer people than Facebook, Twitter makes up for size by being more than just a broadcast outlet: it's an excellent way to hear what people are saying about your business and your market.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter is almost entirely open. Its users tell the world what they're thinking and what they're doing at a rate of some 65 million messages a day - almost all of which can be seen and searched. Tuning in is a chance to hear what people are saying about you, your competitors, and the market you're trying to serve.
Everyone's heard of viral video successes. These are rare creatures at best, however, and of dubious value, anyway - hardly a good use of limited resources. But there are down-to-earth ways to make online video work for you. Take Marmot, an outdoor-goods company that converts buyers by posting detailed walk-throughs of their tents to YouTube. It doesn't cost a million, but it brings a whole new dimension to customers' understanding of their products. Making simple video tours of your products and services can help boost your company's presence on Google, and give prospective clients a sense of what you're offering that they might not get from text alone.
With over 500 million users, Facebook's advantage is its ubiquity. Despite the love-hate relationship some have with the site, most younger Canadians have an account. Most Facebook pages are walled off from the general public, but it can be a good place to build a brand and generate a local buzz, especially for retail and service businesses.
For instance, Facebook makes it easy to create a homepage for your business (Facebook calls them "Pages"), which users can easily declare their interest in by pressing a "Like" button. Using Facebook's community tools, patrons can gather to share photos and discuss, building a sense of loyalty and buzz around a firm.
With every passing day, more and more online services cater to not just what people want, but to where they are. If a prospective customer uses their smartphone to search Google or Bing for a restaurant in their neighborhood, local restauranteurs will want to make sure their business comes up. Moreover, new opportunities to cater to location-aware customers are coming from Facebook (with their Facebook Places, which pinpoints users). FourSquare, a smaller startup, has been winning over users with games that reward users for returning to a store or business more than anyone else. (Kitschy, yes, but the tactic is winning over users in droves.)
Not every online service is right for every business: Finding the right fit for your firm is important. We'll be taking a closer look at all of these options, and taking a step-by-step look at where they're proven to work, and how to get started. For many, it could be well worth the while. After all, the Internet is no longer just the domain of kids and big business. Everybody's there - and they're your customers.
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