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The past few years have had a profound impact on the way business is done online. And while data shows we’ve come down from the peak of online retail in May 2020, the importance of not just selling, but engaging with customers online remains.
This is especially true as businesses continue to face challenging economic conditions, with inflation and rising costs that force them to increase prices for their customers. Despite these obstacles, small businesses have proven to be remarkably creative and resourceful, finding novel ways to connect with customers and stand out among the crowd, embracing new strategies and tools along the way.
I’m inspired by the ingenuity of these business owners and the way they’re not just keeping pace in this new era of digital commerce, but often, pushing the envelope even further to deliver the next generation of online experiences.
Here are three stellar examples of how small businesses around the world are improving online performance and customer experience.
Leaning into lead generation
To me, lead generation has an old-school connotation — you might associate it with a prompt to call a 1-800 number or fill out a static web form and wait for a response — so it’s been exciting to see a new era of lead gen that is much more modern, dynamic, message-based, personalized and on-brand.
Anand Vaidhyanathan, owner of Cake Mall, is a great example. Cake Mall is an institute in India that provides training for home or professional bakers, but when the pandemic hit, he had to halt his plans to open a brick-and-mortar location. Because his business is in a niche category, finding a way to expand his customer base was a huge focus, particularly when people were stuck at home. Vaidhyanathan took a test-and-learn approach and turned to lead generation, which enabled him to start conversations with prospective customers at scale.
Through these lead gen tools, Vaidhyanathan and his team were able to gather key information that helped them understand these prospective customers better. While it took some time and patience, according to Vaidhyanathan, it was worth it: When my colleagues and I spoke with him, he shared that 80% of Cake Mall’s clients during the pandemic came from using lead gen ads.
Cake Mall’s experience shows the importance of strategic customization and communication. Understand that a one-size-fits-all approach to your marketing and lead gen is outdated. Try to segment your customers based on key factors — whether that be how they found your business, past purchases or something else. Then consider the different messages you have and determine what you think may resonate most with this specific audience.
This will require a test-and-learn approach, but by tailoring your message or pitch, you should be able to yield stronger returns.
The opportunity of messaging
Once upon a time, the hallmark of a small business was a friendly smile and a handshake. With the pandemic, this connection quickly shifted online, resulting in three-quarters of small- and medium-sized businesses adopting new, digital-first business models. Enter business messaging, which has now taken center stage to bring this hallmark to life online.
Consider the example of Abogados Latinos, an agency focused on connecting Spanish-speaking people with appropriate lawyers — whether it be a car accident, personal injury or another problem. Rather than leveraging traditional advertising mediums, like billboards or paid TV commercials, Abogados Latinos found that ads that offer an action to message the business were more effective as they allowed the brand to truly listen to the needs of potential customers.
Customizing the training to offer customer support in Spanish and English, Abogados Latinos is able to meet people on their level and ensure they feel heard, starting the business-customer relationship off on the right foot. Richardo Nunez, manager of Abogados Latinos, told me that the vast majority of the business’s 10,000 new customers in 2021 came to Abogados Latinos through this messaging strategy.
Interestingly, the use of innovative messaging solutions is one area where small businesses may have an advantage over larger enterprises. Not locked into legacy systems, small businesses have more freedom to experiment with these new tools and explore how they may help them in a variety of contexts, whether that’s communicating with prospective customers like the Abogados example, helping with traditional customer service operations and more.
I’d encourage business owners to look into business messaging solutions that offer personalized and automated solutions that can scale, saving time and costs, particularly before the busy holiday season. This means engaging customers directly to handle everything from taking an order, offering new holiday deals and providing updates on shipping. It can also make life easier for both you and your customers when dealing with issues like returns or canceling an order.
New frontiers in video
In 2020, 96% of consumers increased their online video consumption, and 9 out of 10 viewers said that they wanted to see more videos from brands and businesses. In fact, as of this year, an average person is predicted to spend 100 minutes per day watching online videos. Needless to say, video is here to stay, and now is the time to consider how to make it a part of your online strategy.
Joanna Guldin-Noll, co-owner of Swatara Coffee Company with her husband John, has found success experimenting with new video formats, discovering that the mobile-first, short-form Reels were a great way to capture attention and drive engagement. Even while still relatively new to using the format, Guldin-Noll shared with us that on average her posts were seeing four times more engagement in a few hours compared to what her previous posts received in a full day.
Guldin-Noll is a great reminder that if you’re just getting started with video, there is no need to be intimated. You can keep things simple: record on a phone and bring a video to life by adding easy-to-use effects, music and text. Focus on the content being relatable and authentic more than on high production. Remember, the more accessible your content is to online audiences, the more engagement there will be. This was Swatara Coffee Company’s strategy, showcasing real menu items, community events at the shop, or behind-the-scenes glimpses of their team preparing local favorites.
It’s clear in the months and years ahead, the digital landscape will continue to change rapidly. I have no doubt that small businesses — like Cake Mall, Swatara Coffee Company and Abogados Latinos — will continue to evolve and adapt with it. As these businesses demonstrate, there is tremendous upside to embracing new tools and experimenting with new strategies. Small businesses that continue with this open mindset will flourish in the new generation of commerce.