UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are weathering the tempest that 2016 has blown their way, remaining ambitious, while providing a sturdy backbone for our economy during this period of uncertainty.
It will surprise few that websites, social media and online marketplaces are a conduit to success, and a driving force behind increasing revenues in domestic and international markets. What may surprise some, however, is that according to a Department for Business paper, some 2m SMEs have no online presence, meaning that nearly a quarter of all businesses are missing profitable opportunities.
Among developed economies, the UK is the most internet-reliant, benefiting from (mostly) speedy and reliant internet connections. Not coincidentally, more online shopping takes place in the UK than any other member of the G20 countries, with 13.5 per cent of all purchases being through the internet.
“SMEs developing an online presence increase their potential to grow,” says Colin Standbridge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “It increases the number of hours in which trading can be done, it opens up advertising and partnership potential and it massively increases the customer reach.”
Getting your digital presence up to scratch comes with many benefits, even for businesses that don’t actually sell anything online. According to the ONS, one of the top three reasons that startups fail is through a lack of online presence. The first thing that most prospective customers will do when looking for a product or service is search for it online, so it makes sense to be at least viewable.
Conversely, says Vince Mignacca, founder of Redsquid Communications, “while not having a website could cause your business to miss out on expanding beyond your familiar customer base, not having any digital presence may also be viewed as a warning sign that you either don’t exist or that you’re not to be trusted.”
Any transaction made between a customer and a business online comes under the umbrella of ecommerce, and for those with a product to sell, it’s almost unthinkable not to have the facility. Well known names like Ebay’s Magento and Amazon’s Marketplace offer easy to set up, ready-made platforms, with varying levels of sophistication that can be upgraded as a business grows.
Although platforms like these are mostly out-the-box ready, transactions are neither Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI) or VAT compliant right away. PCI is a set of requirements that all businesses who handle credit or debit card payments must comply with, to establish a “minimum security standard.”
Ensuring your prices include VAT will save you a headache domestically, but when selling either automated digital products, or distributing in the EU, there are myriad rules you must comply with, depending on your business, so it’s worth resarching before you start.
An ecommerce site can really elevate a company beyond its current market. Kara Rosen set up her business, Plenish, with the intention of having both a shelf presence and ecommerce store at launch. “None of the buyers I went to see wanted to list us – so we launched online only.” The success of the ecommerce store became an enabler for the business. “From there we proved the concept, we were selling online, and we were able to go back to retailers and show them how well we were doing online in their area. They soon changed their minds.”
Rosen talks of “finding a balance” between aesthetics, functionality, and information when setting up her ecommerce store. “It’s hard because your product needs to be appealing; if it’s a t-shirt it needs to look like something you’d want to wear – you can’t smell, touch or taste it – that’s really important. But what we found is that as attractive as it might be, a website needs to be useful to visitors; they’re coming to the site to learn more about the product, the business, our values and ethos.”
Clearly no digital strategy would be complete without taking social media into account. Think how much time you personally spend on Facebook, Instagram, or whichever social media platform you prefer. The Internet Advertising Bureau UK and UK Online Measurement Company found that people spend an average of 2 hours 51 minutes per day on social media in the UK. If your business isn’t on social media, it’s missing out on millions of potential interactions.
Lily Tomala, social media manager at Rated People, says that it is the “open door that invites consumers into your brand. It’s both exciting and exposing; handle it well and it can be an invaluable tool for advocacy. Handle it badly and it can inflict serious damage on your public image.”
Social media is about interaction and exposure, and depending on your business, there are endless platforms to consider. It makes sense for every business to have a Facebook page, if only to replace the telephone directory – it makes you discoverable.
If a customer is happy with your service or product, the opportunity for free promotion is one not to be missed. If a customer has a query, Facebook is an easy, centralised place for them to contact you. It costs nothing to set up, is very user friendly, and has paid options to expand your organic reach and advertising spend if needs be.
Mignacca says that there’s no set model for how to run your social media. “What your social media should look like entirely depends on what your business does and who its audience is. What any corporate social media site shouldn’t be is empty.” Overloading your customers to the point of disinterest can be just as bad, says Stu Conroy, founder of Activ8. “Throw irrelevant content at the platform and you get an audience disengaged from who you are or what you ultimately want to deliver. You should provide content that is interesting, relevant to the brand.”