What does an online presence actually mean?
You’re being told you need to have a website or be on social media. But, how does being online actually help a small business grow? A online presence encompasses far more than your website. Research shows that most people turn to the Internet to research companies and products. This trend is global and growing at twice the rate originally predicted.
Is your small business making the best of its online presence?
WHAT IS AN ONLINE PRESENCE?
The obvious answer is, a website. But, this is just one way your small business can appear online.
Online presence means anywhere online your business can be searched for and found. This might include a:
- social media profile,
- professional directory listings,
- profile on a network like Linkedin,
- company website (static pages),
- company blog (a regularly updated page),
- guest post on someone else’s blog,
- domain name,
- a branded email address,
- a landing page or sales page, or
- an online shop.
So, you can see, there’re many ways a small business can be searched for and found online.
All of these combine to create your online presence.
HOW CAN A SMALL BUSINESS BENEFIT FROM AN ONLINE PRESENCE?
There are a number of advantages to being online:
- You can build relationships.
- Your small business becomes searchable and, therefore, can be found.
- It boosts your credibility and expands your reach.
- It opens the door to content marketing.
- It streamlines and improves customer service.
Developing an effective online presence takes time and effort. This is an investment, not a quick fix.
Planned with your business goals firmly in mind, there’s no doubt nurturing your online presence can offer you long-term and cost-effective benefits.
1. YOU CAN BUILD RELATIONSHIPS
You turn up, share valuable information, answer customer questions, pre-empt any barriers to buying, show how your product or service can meet their needs and address their pain points. You do this consistently, over time, and build trust.
92% of consumers prefer to get product information from a company website rather than a social media page (VeriSign, 2015).
Effective content marketing — whether you share helpful information via social media, email or your website — relies on building relationships with your prospective customers.
Your online presence gives you the perfect vehicle for this:
- Tell your story through your social media updates.
- Use analytics to find out what people read and share, so you can give your customers more of what they want.
- Use your social media channels to listen to your customer’s questions and concerns (and keep an eye on the competition).
- Answer customer questions and concerns with a blog.
- Reinforce brand familiarity with a consistent graphic style and written voice.
How to Start:
If you are new to creating online content, it can be hard to know what to talk about.
- If you don’t have an online audience yet, look at your competitors' social media to see what they’re sharing and how they’re interacting with customers.
- What sales questions do you get asked all the time? You can answer these on your website. This makes great content and improves customer service.
- What puts people off taking the final step and making a purchase or appointment with you? Can you pre-empt these concerns with an article on your site?
2. YOU BECOME SEARCHABLE
To be found, you need search engine optimisation (SEO). This simply means your content is formatted in such a way as to make it easy for search engines to find your website, read the content and index you accordingly.
A study found that 93% of internet traffic comes via a search engine (Forrester, 2006, after Search Engine Journal).
Remember, you are not Google's primary customer, that's the person carrying out the search. Search engines want to produce the best lists of results it can for each person’s search. To do this, they need to search the web (crawl) and use software (bots) to index a site.
If the words you use on your site match the words I’m searching for, you will appear in my list of results. Unfortunately, this will initially be on page 100+. I know, it’s a little disheartening at the start. All good things and all that.
As we now know, online presence isn’t limited to your website. YouTube, for example, is the second biggest search engine on the web.
Without an online presence, of course, you won’t appear in any search. You need to be there to be found.
How to Start:
Don’t be intimated by the term SEO. Yes, it can get complex but, for a beginner, even the simplest steps can give great results. You just need to develop good habits every time you create a new piece of content.
- Keep a note of the words your customers use to describe their problems. That’s what they will type into a search engine when they’re looking for the product or service you provide.
- You’ll need to find your keywords to get started. This can be a little confusing at first but does get easier with practice. Here’s a great, practical podcast from ProBlogger to get you started.
- If you use WordPress for your blog, consider installing the Yoast plugin. This does the heavy lifting for you and, by aiming for that green traffic light, you'll soon learn how to optimise your blog posts.
3. IT BOOSTS YOUR CREDIBILITY & EXPANDS YOUR REACH
Looking for information? How many of you grab your phone and head for Google? The stats tell us that most of us do just that.
Even if you run a bricks-and-mortar business, people are still searching for you online.
77% of adults bought goods or services online. The internet was used daily or almost daily by 82% of adults (41.8 million) in Great Britain in 2016. (Internet Access - Households and Individuals: 2016, ONS)
It’s amazing looking back at the stats for web usage and online search. Internet use is now twice what was predicted 10 years ago (ONS, 2016). Like it or not, the online world is now an everyday reality. So much so, consumers measure a company’s credibility by its web presence (VeriSign, 2015).
What's great about this is, it puts you on an equal footing with your competitors. Your premises or turnover might be small in comparison, but your website can look as impressive on a fraction of the budget. The Internet is a real leveller.
As high-street numbers continue to fall, there has been a continuing rise in online sales (Retail Gazette, Jun 2016).
It also expands your reach. If your product or service isn’t limited to local customers, the world literally opens up to you. Someone sitting on the other side of the world can search for you in the same way as someone sitting down the road.
How to Start:
If you’ve been reluctant to take the first step, ask yourself why. Your online presence can evolve over time, as you feel comfortable with the technology. Don’t feel you have to do everything from day one.
- Explore Google My Business to make sure your core information is online.
- Consider a simple website to dip your toe in the water. It doesn’t need to be an all-singing-all-dancing e-commerce site. Just a home base with your company information, an about page, an easy way to stay in touch, and a way to contact you.
4. IT OPENS THE DOOR TO CONTENT MARKETING
Content Marketing is a way to attract customers to your company using valuable information you create. This information can take many forms, for example: blog posts, videos, podcasts, social media posts, emails.
Rather than you going out to find customers, they find you online. This is because the information, with good SEO in place, of course, has been indexed by search engines.
The information you provides helps them solve a problem or answer a question. Over time, this positions you as an expert in your field. When a customer makes a decision to buy, your small business is familiar to them and trusted by them.
'Helps build customer retention and engagement', was rated as the most important goal in the 2015 B2C Content Marketing Trends Survey (Content Marketing Institute/Marketing Profs).
It also provides you with an opportunity to capture emails. Seth Godin coined the phrase Permission Marketing. Customers have given you permission to contact them. A direct line of communication between you and a potential customer. In a world full of fleeting tweets, FaceBook posts you might see, you might not, and millions of blog posts, inboxes have held their own. People still check their emails.
Starting a blog, podcast or YouTube channel doesn’t cost a great deal upfront. But, it's a serious investment of time, if you want to do it effectively. You will need to produce relevant, valuable information on a regular basis.
With the shift to online search and shopping, it’s proving to be time well invested.
How to Start:
Start by having the ability to collect emails. Once that is up and running, consider what form of content would best suit your audience. What are your competitors up to? What do you have the in-house skills to produce?
- You can collect emails with a simple one-page website or landing page (pages designed for one purpose without any other distractions).
- Collecting and holding people’s emails comes with a myriad of legal requirements. To make sure you keep on the right side of the law, it's best to use an online email marketing provider. MailChimp is free to get started. ConvertKit is great it you want to segment your subscribers according to their interests.
- If you already have a social media account, you can add a link to your signup page in your bio.
- If you have a website, make sure the email capture box is front and centre.
5. IT CAN IMPROVE & STREAMLINE CUSTOMER SERVICE
Fancy being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? No, I thought not. Having a website, of course, makes that option a lot less painful.
93 percent of consumers use the Internet for research before making a purchase (VeriSign, 2016).
Answering questions before they’re asked can reduce the need for phone calls or emails. Having useful, customer-focussed information and articles online further adds to a professional and helpful company image.
Extended opening hours don't only apply to answering queries. If your product or service is suitable, you can be selling 24 hours a day too. An online home may even provide opportunity for you to diversify your income with digital or online products.
For a small business, having a well-planned website can be like having another member of staff.
How to Start:
See your website as a member of the team. It’s taken time and money to put together, make it start working hard and earning back some of those costs.
- Start putting together a dedicated FAQ page. Most businesses get asked the same questions over and over again.
- Do you face regular barriers to purchase? Can you address these with blog posts? Show people how your product or service can meet their needs.
- Do you supply guides or instruction manuals? Add these as free PDF downloads.
- Why not make your company literature available for download? This will save printing and postage costs.
With the Internet becoming the first port of call for customer research, and more than three quarters of adults (UK) buying goods or services online, it's not difficult to see how a small business can benefit from an online presence.
Don't be overwhelmed by the scale of the project or intimidated by the jargon. You don’t have to do it all at once.
Start by creating a simple website to act as your home online. Build your presence from there, expanding as you learn and feel comfortable with the new skills and technology.