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How to ensure you are making the most of the internet


The internet has become an indispensable part of how small businesses operate. Research by FSB found that 94 per cent of members felt that it was either critical or very important to their business. These companies aren’t all tech-savvy digital start-ups, either. Many offer traditional services but communicate with suppliers online, some use social media to heighten brand awareness, while others use the Internet as a reputation-building or customer-acquisition tool. 

That said, many smaller businesses face barriers in getting the best out of their online access. Research by Ofcom found that only 68 per cent of small businesses have access to superfast broadband, compared with 83 per cent of residential premises, for example. Few have a full-time IT manager to advise on technology-purchasing decisions, so they can struggle to understand the fast-changing market. 

In spite of these challenges, many still use the Internet to support business growth, reach out to more customers and increase productivity. Here, we look at 10 of the most effective ways to do this. 

Sell, sell, sell 


According to FSB, 51 per cent of small businesses do business online, while 15 per cent plan to do so in the future. One outdoor goods retailer saw its sales rise by 40 per cent in a year after deciding to sell products online, its research found. 

James Barron, who runs e-cigarette firm Evaporate, started selling on eBay, and progressed to selling via his own website. “Going online gave me the freedom to sell, and to build my brand identity and customer base,” he says. 

Here is the news 


Email newsletter marketing should be a no-brainer for small firms. But creating something that potential customers will click on is easier said than done, says Jessica Phillips, an Account Executive at technical PR agency Stone Junction. “To avoid appearing pushy and impersonal, ensure your email is around 80 per cent content and limited to 20 per cent promotion,” she advises. 

Get productive 


While the Internet is an effective way to market your business to potential new customers, it can also improve how employees collaborate and communicate. FSB’s research found that 55 per cent of small businesses used cloud computing, for example, allowing staff to access systems and documents from anywhere. One software provider used Google software that allows teams to collaboratively edit documents, while an accountancy firm has moved all documents into the cloud, reducing admin and allowing staff to focus on fee-earning work. 

Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, says this trend will only accelerate as more employee’s demand flexible working and broadband infrastructure improves. 

Make your website work for you 


It’s no longer enough to have a static website that simply states what your business does and offers a point of contact. Building a visually engaging and interactive experience is crucial if you want to get the best return. 

Sue Nelson, Chief Executive and founder of Breakthrough Funding, which helps tech start-ups access research and development credits from the Government, felt it important to reflect her customers’ expectations through the company’s web presence. So there’s a live chat function, or people can use an interactive calculator to see if they qualify for funding. “Our potential customers tend to be in their late 20s or early 30s, and prefer to be online than use the phone,” she says.

Be creative with content


Businesses can benefit from hosting short pieces of content or blogs on their website. A blog can host anything that can showcase your industry knowhow and experience. “Blog posts have to be interesting and bring added value to the reader,” says Ms Phillips at Stone Junction. A blog acts as dynamic content to use elsewhere in your Internet marketing strategy – by sharing on social media platforms, or to start a discussion in a professional forum. Using the right keywords can also help your search engine rankings. 

Thrive on feedback 


Paying for a listing in a trade directory or securing a listing on one of the many ‘trusted business’ sites, can be worthwhile. Mr. Barron from Evaporate says such sites have been useful to increase brand awareness and his website’s search engine optimisation. Reviews can also add to your ‘searchability’. Facebook and search engines won’t allow adverts for e-cigarettes, so marketing his firm in this way has opened his business up to other potential customer channels. 

Video stars 


Gymnastics chain Affinity Gymnastics has acquired a faithful following, which it hopes to grow through its online presence. One of the ways it will do this is through publishing videos on its site, says owner Jennifer Page. “Our members are young people who are all over YouTube, and it also helps us to reach out to those who can’t make our classes.” In spheres where learning or demonstration is a key part of the business, video can provide an interactive, three-dimensional view of your brand. 

Pay it forward 


‘Pay per click’ is an advertising model used to direct traffic directly to your website, and refers to how much you’re prepared to spend to get customers to click on your home page. This can be done through Google AdWords, where you choose search terms that will make your brand appear in Google results. 

However, it’s important to take a joined-up approach, says Ms Nelson at Breakthrough. “You may drive more people to your website, but is someone there to answer the phone if they call, and do your back-end systems work?” You also could boost your SEO by peppering keywords through your site, but Google’s algorithms change frequently. 

Shine on social 


Getting your name out on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is one of the most basic and cost-effective ways to improve your online presence, but businesses need to approach this process strategically. Zoe Cairns, who runs a social media consultancy, says: “Go back to pen and paper. What do you want to do? Who are your target audience, and which web channels do they use?” 

It’s not just about broadcasting messages about your brand to potential customers. Embed social feeds into the sales pages of your site, for example, so customers can see Facebook or Twitter feedback from people who have invested in your product or service. It’s even possible to help fund your business using social media – one company Ms Cairns has worked with asked LinkedIn followers to ‘crowdfund’ the development of an app, and received enough to go to market with its product. 

Measure, review, 


“Change is the only constant when doing business online,” says Mark Layzell, Chief Executive of HITeam Group, which helps companies refine their web presence. “What works now might not work in the future.” It’s crucial to embed ways of measuring the success of your online efforts, reviewing the data produced and tweaking the site or how you drive people there accordingly, he says. Google Analytics is free software that shows which pages visitors look at on your site. You can also add tags to links you put out on social media or through flyers, indicating how visitors came to those pages. Consider what these results show and, if something isn’t working, it could be time to take a different approach.