Make your strong local reputation stretch further

Just because you’re a local business doesn’t mean you can’t broaden your horizons. Forbes journalist David Prosser looks at how easy it is to find customers beyond your area.

Many businesses start local, but thanks to current technologies they have the option of going global very quickly. This is the key to growing your business: while the local market is an excellent place to start, you will only ever reach a limited number of customers unless you start expanding your horizons.

In the past, taking that step was difficult for small and medium-sized business. Frequently, the only way to extend your reach beyond the local area was to open shops in new locations or spend a fortune on advertising. Often neither option was practical. The internet, however, has changed everything: today, any business, no matter how small, can communicate with potential customers all around the world.

Make sure people can find your business

The buzz phrase in modern retail is ‘multi-channel’. It means selling your products through more than one medium – the options include a retail outlet such as a shop, selling by phone or post, online trading and mobile commerce. Giving people a range of different choices to buy from you is likely to lead to an increased number of customers and higher sales volumes.

Start with the basics, however. Research from publishing company Johnston Press suggests almost half (44%) of all small and medium-sized enterprises haven’t even set up a website. And those that have taken the plunge often make basic mistakes: more than nine in 10 SMEs (93%) haven’t put their phone number on their home page, the research suggests, while almost four in five (79%) do not publish their address. Only 50% of SMEs have a contact form on their site, while just 39% provide a contact email address.

These errors could cost you. If you’re not planning on selling online straight away, customers need to be able to get in touch in order to buy from you – or even just to ask about your products. Don’t get hung up on fancy designs and clever content, at least until you’ve got the important bits of the site right.

Most people will be able to get a simple website up and running by themselves – there are a huge range of online tools and services to help you do so – but if you prefer to pay a professional to do the job for you, that’s fine too. You’re more likely to need help if you want to sell through the site, where expert advice on payment methods and security, for example, can be valuable. One essential to consider is that your site is ‘responsive’ and works well on mobile phones and tablets.

Improve your Google search ranking

Building your site is just the beginning: you also need to encourage as many people as possible to come and look at it. Start with ‘search engine optimisation’ – the techniques that help your website appear high up in the list of results when someone uses Google or another search engine to look for something relevant to your business.

SEO specialists make a good living from advising businesses on the tricks of the trade, but there is plenty that SMEs with no budget for such help can do for themselves. Partly, this is a technical task – you need to set up your website in the right way for search engines to find it. But it’s also a creative exercise – Google’s famous algorithms are top secret but the company says they favour sites with interesting and original content that is regularly updated.

In fact, the best source of advice on SEO are the search engines themselves. They all publish free guides packed full of information on how to improve a website’s search engine ranking. See Google’s Webmasters pages for a start.

Another option is to pay for advertising on the search engines through services such as Google Adwords and Bing Ads. These guarantee your business will appear prominently in search results in certain circumstances and you can target precisely – with adverts placed in response to particular search times, in particular locations and at particular times of the day, for example. You’ll need to spend money, but you can set a daily budget.

Reach out with social media

Social media, meanwhile, presents another opportunity to drive traffic to your website and to raise your business’s profile, yet too few SMEs are taking advantage of it. The Johnston Press research found 69% had no Twitter account, 70% had no Facebook page and 89% had no LinkedIn presence.

Which social media platform provides the best fit for your business will depend on the nature of your trade, so do your research before deciding where to focus your efforts. Equally, don’t be half-hearted about your social media – aim for engaging content rather than an outright sales pitch and keep working at it, posting as regularly as you can.

Find new customers with mail and email

Finally, don’t overlook marketing methods such as direct mail and email marketing as highly effective ways to reach out to new customers beyond your local area. In fact, research shows that 51% of people want to receive both mail and email, and using them effectively together is likely to have the best results.

That doesn’t mean bombarding random groups of people with junk. Using a bespoke data list should enable your business to purchase the contact details of key groups of potential customers who will be susceptible to your message. Make sure your campaign is as relevant as possible to the target group to give yourself the best chance of good conversion rates.

David Prosser is a freelance journalist with more than 20 years’ experience writing about business, entrepreneurship and personal finance for national newspapers, magazines and websites such as Forbes. He is former Business Editor of The Independent.


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