But it is remarkable the number of smaller companies that still haven’t mastered the basics of the internet. And these SMEs aren’t just in danger of looking old-fashioned and out of touch with the advances of Twitter, Google Plus, and all the other rapidly developing technologies. They’re missing out on a great and easy opportunity to grow.
More than a third of the UK’s SMEs don’t have a website, according to recent research. The study by Lloyds Banking Group and Go ON, a campaign to improve Britain’s digital skills, found that one in five companies weren’t online on purpose, as they felt the internet had no relevance or potential benefit for them. And only about one in three smaller businesses have the facility to transact online. But more than half of those operating online admit they increased their sales. They reported saving time, broadening their customer reach, and increasing marketing effectiveness and cost savings. Those that use the internet frequently are more than twice as likely to have seen an increase in their turnover in the last two years as those that shun technology.
So, the evidence for using the internet is pretty persuasive. But how can a technophobe get started if they want to start doing business online?
Register a domain name.
Even if your company uses no technology in day-to-day practice, potential customers will expect to find you via Google or other search engines, even if it is only a home page containing your contact details. So, your online home will need a relevant and memorable name. If you are coming to the online party at this late stage, there’s a strong chance that your first choice may have been snapped up by someone else. If this is the case, you could offer to buy it from them, though it could prove expensive. A sensible option may be to try for an alternative to the conventional .com or .co.uk web address ending, such as .net or .biz. Web hosting sites such as www.register.com or www.fasthosts.co.uk are good places to start your search and will charge from as little as £2 for a domain name, though some will cost far more.
Build your website.
You could pay a web designer to construct a website, but more SMEs are turning to DIY platforms, which allow anyone to bolt together the most basic of sites from templates, paying extra for more sophisticated elements and extra features. Some of the biggest and most popular building platforms include www.wix.com, www.weebly.com, or www.iconosites.com. Other operations such as www.godaddy.com, www.mrsite.com and www.1and1.co.uk offer similar services, as well as website hosting, domain name registration and basic e-commerce functions for as little as £2.99 a month. If you use a web-building site and it has no web hosting service, you could try BT or Google for other free offerings. Once you start to need more bandwidth, you may think about paying for a hosting service. Again, basic costs are low – just a few pounds a month – but you could also consider getting your own web server. It’s quite affordable, starting at under £100 a month.
Make sure your site and payment systems are secure.
You need to instil confidence in your new online customers, so if you are going to be taking payments through your website, register with the Trusted Shops accreditation, a Europe-wide benchmark for online retail. Online payment systems such as PayPal, WorldPay, and Sage Pay are all tried and tested methods of allowing customers to pay with credit and debit cards online. But if you only sell to other businesses, then the BACS system may be best.
Use Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to drive traffic, and don’t forget email marketing.
It’s no good putting all of this effort into your website if no one can find it. To get your company nearer the top of online search lists, Google, the biggest of the search engine beasts, has offered a few tips. These include creating distinctive, descriptive, but accurate titles for your web pages, as well as using the meta tag description function; compose easy-to-understand URLs; create better navigation for the site as a whole; and write better, easily understood anchor text – the clickable content that users will see as a result of a link. And don’t forget more old-fashioned marketing methods. Start to collect the email addresses of your regular customers and create an email marketing newsletter that tells them all of your latest offers and news, as well as directing them back to the site itself.
Think about your customers’ delivery needs.
If you are selling goods through your website, of course you need to make sure that you have a fail-safe and efficient delivery system. But offer a range of delivery options, from courier service right through to a click and collect option. Given that many small firms have a customer base that is geographically close to their premises, you may find that people are happy to order goods via the internet, then pop around the next day to collect them in person. Many large retailers are offering this delivery service now and, for SMEs, it has the advantage of being cheap, easy and keeping you in touch with your clients even if your online business is taking off.
Offer a little extra.
Why not broaden your customer base by being imaginative and thinking about how you can give them a little more? It could be a free gift-wrapping service, or a partnership with another local business that gives people a reciprocal discount when they use both firms. You could even post a regular blog on the site to generate new interest, or post pictures or video content, livening up your website in an easy and cost effective manner. If you’ve gone all out and embraced Twitter, flag up these new features on your main site via tweeted links.
Whether your business has the potential to operate online or not, the fact is that a basic internet presence is an essential in the 21st century. And the digital deniers who think that the web has no relevance to their operation risk more than looking out-of-date. Before long, they may be out of business, too.
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net