The Internet has revolutionized the role small businesses have in the larger economy. Despite smaller spaces, they can now compete with larger businesses through an effective online presence.
Shashi Bellamkonda, director at Network Solutions, an organization that works with small businesses to leverage their online presence against bigger corporations, says that the ability for strangers to share reviews has changed everything.
"In 1999, I was working as a chef at a restaurant and we decided to get a website because our fax machine broke down," Bellamkonda told us at the Small Business Summit 2012. "Things have changed."
"Right now, people who don't know each other can generate word of mouth about places," Bellamkonda says. "You always have to think, 'How do I get my customers to continue talking about me online?' Review sites are good for this."
Here are Bellamkonda's tips for small business owners to improve their online presence.
1. Ask your customers where they want to receive news and updates
"Just a few years ago, 50 percent of small businesses didn't have a website. Today you have to have a website and a social media presence," Bellamkonda says. "It's not only about Facebook and Twitter. You first have to figure out where your customers go to receive their news."
"Then, if they are using social channels (and most Internet users are!), the next step is to engage with them. Social media isn't a one way street. Listen to your customers and reply to their posts. That's how you turn average customers into brand ambassadors."
2. Find out exactly what people are saying about you
Set up a Google Alert about your small business. This is how you'll be able to get useful customer reviews that can benefit you.
With all of the information swirling around the Internet, Google e-mail Alerts sift through the noise for you, and deliver all of the articles pertinent to your business, right to your e-mail inbox. There are tools like Postling.com that provide you with work flow to take action on what you see in the social media. You can use content curation tools like paper.li, xydo, summify or news.me to find news that your networks are sharing.
3. Know what you need to learn and do it quick
Again, this can be done by keeping on top of your customer reviews and be in constant communication with your customers. This is how you compete with larger businesses.
While they may have corporate hoops to jump through to make even the simplest business decisions, small businesses are more nimble and able to follow their gut instincts on new trends to beat their larger competitors to the punch. Small businesses pride themselves at customer service and will go out of their way to serve and retain a customer. Social media tools will allow them to wow their customers in real time.
4. Have an advisory board of people in you network
Find out who keeps up with trends and the latest technology that can help your business. For example, if there's a new IPO system available, you need to know this.
"Whatever you do, don't invest in things and technology if you don't know what it's going to do for your business. Whether you're looking specifically to impact the bottom line or you're more concerned with awareness building, make sure you set goals and understand the steps you can take to achieve them. I remember the times when I worked in a restaurant way back in the 90's, we setup a website when the fax machine broke."
5. Become a presence in your community
You need to continuously be out there and attend as many trade shows as possible.
Networking is very important, but beyond that, find your niche and establish yourself as a thought leader. Becoming a resource for your peers is a win-win: you'll help them while you challenge yourself to continue to grow. Sharing knowledge earns you karma and also gives you the opportunity to pay it forward.
Photo credit: Shashidhar Bellamkonda