If you are having the same experience as me, you may have noticed that some of your favorite local shops have gone out of business. Others may be on their way out soon. It’s sad to watch a small business shut down, especially if it’s a place you enjoy, such as your favorite Thai restaurant, the used book dealer, or the coffee place that has great muffins.
I love shopping locally and supporting the small business owners in my town. It’s to everyone’s advantage to have local businesses survive the downturn in the economy. Why? Because they keep your town from turning into a generic strip mall or getting ‘Wal-Martized.’ They support the tax base. They add character to your neighborhood. They may provide unique merchandise or services. They help drive foot traffic, which makes a town nice to live in. After all, who wants to walk down a deserted block when going for coffee? It’s much more fun when others are also walking around – providing needed life and energy to your neighborhood. Plus, it’s convenient — you don’t have to go far – saving energy/gas and your own precious time.
If you are a small business owner who might be at risk, here are 10 things you can do right now that are essentially free and don’t require a deep knowledge of technology:
Super easy: little or no education required
1. Listen and Learn
Are you listening? Do you have Google alerts set up for your business? Do you read the reviews of your business on Yelp, CitySquares.com, Sidewalk.com or the dozens of other sites that gather customer reviews? Has some disgruntled customer blogged about you recently? What are people saying about your business? About you? If it’s not good, then you’ll need to figure out a way to get your fans to speak up, help you out and correct any misperceptions in the marketplace. If no one is saying anything about you, then this is a clear indicator that you need to get more exposure!
2. Get Publicity
Got something to talk about? Call the local papers and see if they will do a story about you. Also, subscribe to Help a Reporter Out (HARO) http://www.helpareporter.com/ and scan the daily emails for interviews that pertain to your business or to your personal interests or lifestyle. You might just end up getting profiled in an article, which could lead to a lot of other publicity opportunities. Do #3 and put out a press release.
3. Have a Party
Parties may not be 100% free, but what better way to get in touch with your customers than to throw a party? If you have a gift shop, invite your customers over one night for wine and cheese. If you have a restaurant, hold a happy hour and offer free apps and drinks. Make a presentation and tell them about your buying philosophy and the history of your business. Hold a question and answer session. Circulate and get to know them. Give everyone who stops by 10% or 20% their purchase. Tell them about your new blog, Twitter account and Facebook page!
4. Research Your What Your Customers Want
What better way to help your business than to get your customers to tell you what they want or need. Whether you post a survey online or print one out on a sheet of paper, it will serve you well. At the very least, ask your customers a few questions when they stop by or call you. With the exception of unwanted telephone surveys, people generally love sharing their opinions and will feel good about being asked.
What to ask? What do you like best about my store? What do you like least? What other products or services would you like to see me offer? If I did this [insert your idea], would you shop here more often? Do you tell your friends about my store, why or why not? Etc.
5. Join a Meetup or other Networking Group
Anyone can benefit from in-person networking. There are probably dozens of networking groups in your area – either through professional associations, local groups, LinkedIn groups, or Meetup.com. Scour these groups, make a few calls or send out a few emails and determine which ones might be worthwhile for you.
Not too difficult, but get educated first
6. Start a Blog
Anyone can start a blog. If you haven’t blogged before then make sure you understand blogging before you start. Spend some time beforehand reading others’ blogs, articles about blogging and familiarize yourself with the tools that are available. Before you commit to any blogging platform, get familiar with the terms of service and the capabilities of each. Some platforms offer more flexibility than others.
What to write about: Write about being local, what it means to you to be part of the community. Talk about how you started the business, post pictures from the past, talk about your plans for the future, showcase your merchandise, etc. Talk about the activities that your business is involved with – organizations you belong to etc. Link to other businesses and local groups in your posts to help drive additional traffic. Over time you will develop a following and more people will get to know you.
7. Get on Twitter
At a most basic level, Twitter is a conversation. As a technology it’s considered microblogging. In other words, like a blog post but shorter. In fact, each “tweet” is only 140 characters — which forces you to be succinct. The ”tweets” that you post can be seen by the public. The more people who ‘follow’ your tweets, the more potential you have to spread your message.
There are many ways to use Twitter. You can become part of a larger conversation with people “like you” who have the same interests, you can use it purely as a broadcast tool to talk about your business or promote your web site, you can use it for listening and gaining knowledge, or use it to establish yourself as an authority on a particular subject matter, or some combination.
For local businesses, once you have an account, start by conducting geographic based searches and following the people in your area – many of them will follow you back. Find everyone you know personally and follow them as well. Provide the URL to your blog or your main web site in your Twitter account.
What to talk about: Being too promotional on Twitter is annoying to your followers. So start by adding value and gaining trust. For example broadcast out helpful tips and other facts related to your industry or business. If you have a restaurant, post recipes to your blog and then announce or post a link to these recipes on Twitter. Talk with people – not at them. Show interest in their activities, and they’ll be interested in yours. Be helpful — post links to interesting articles. Engage people in philosophical discussion. If you have a very focused audience, then you can even blast out your specials and promotions. For example, if you have a dry cleaning business – how easy would it be to post the following: Get three sweaters cleaned for the price of two, or now that spring is here – don’t forget to bring in your winter coat for a cleaning. Mention this post and get 20% off.
8. Create a Facebook Account
Join Facebook and get your network going. First, join at the personal level. Get a feel for what Facebook is all about and start making friends. Once you are comfortable, create a group or fan page for your business and blast out an email to your friends to have them join your page. Offer discounts and tell them about your newest merchandise. Get people talking about your store or business. Answer questions and make authentic connections.
Tip: As with blogging or almost anything you might do, get online and learn about it before jumping in blindly. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and blog posts about how to use Twitter and Facebook wisely.
9. Broadcast Your High Tech Efforts the Low Tech Way!
Once you’ve done the tactics above, tell everyone who comes into your store about your new blog and Facebook and Twitter accounts. If you’re reluctant to print up new business cards right away, then just hand out a sheet of paper – even a half sheet, with the URLs for your new Internet accounts. Ask everyone who stops in if they blog, have a Twitter account, or Facebook account. Get their screen names and email addresses and add them to your friends/followers lists.
10. Barter Your Products and Services to Get Marketing Support
If this all seems a bit overwhelming, you might need some help. You may already know some people who can show you some of these solutions – like Facebook, Twitter or how to set up a Google alert. Enlist the help of your employees. After all, it’s in their best interests to keep the business as vibrant as possible. They may be able to help you generate content for your online activities or they might help broadcast your message. At the very least, they might be able to show you how to get on Facebook
If you don’t have anyone to turn to but you can’t afford to pay someone out of pocket to help you with your marketing, perhaps you can barter your services for marketing support. Trade drying cleaning, free food, housewares or books, plumbing services, painting, or car repair for marketing. Why not? There is no shortage of social media and marketing consultants. There are probably a few in your town who would be happy to barter.
Remember, these solutions don’t necessarily generate huge revenues over night. But with a little work, you could see an uptick in sales. And, at the very least, you will have created a strong base of supporters and be very well positioned for when the market bounces back and people start buying again.