Church of the Customer Blog« The invisible business | Main | Is a shoplifter a customer? »
January 02, 2008
The invisible business
While most large companies wouldn't dream of being invisible on the web, it's shocking how many small businesses survive without a website.
In moving to Austin, I've been in the market for a new doctor, dentist, dog groomer, lawn service, cleaning service, etc. It's a long list.
Yet in each of those categories, I'd gotten recommendations for businesses and people who are invisible online. They're off the grid. This is in tech-savvy Austin, Texas, which is like a smaller version of Silicon Valley.
To me, that indicates a few things:
1. Tech-shy small businesses won't build a modern-day web presence until their utility providers make it ridiculously easy. Telecoms offer their own web-building tools, but most are clunkier than a pair of clogs from the 1970s. Utility providers should be affiliates for Typepad or Wordpress.
2. Customer evangelism remains the most important sales tool for small businesses. An enthusiastic recommendation is the X factor that likely determines the fate of a small business.
3. Online word of mouth is still an infant, but it's growing up fast. Even with a referral, I -- and armies of others like me -- scour the web for something of a consensus opinion. If I cannot independently research a business on my own, I'm likely to gravitate to one that's visible. Visibility builds trust.
Other blogs that reference The invisible business:
Interesting observations. I think it depends on the profile of the community. In my neighborhood of Boston, we have a highly unusual number of independent businesses. There are a number that have no websites. And they do fine because they depend on a local, walk-by customer base.
WOM and signage is vitally more important for small local businesses (and they don’t manage that all that well either). A digital footprint gives businesses global reach, but for most local businesses, particularly a service provider like a dentist or a plumber, this has virtually no perceived value.
I work in the digital space and see the low response rate for most digital efforts. For banners people are thrilled with a 0.5% response rate. What makes a 0.5% response rate acceptable is scale. And 0.5% of internet active users in two to three zip codes just doesn’t give you the scale that you need to justify the investment, either technologically nor with expertise to pay out.
If the various sales organizations of the dying Yellow Pages could get turned to business website development sales (and the off the shelf sites they offer now didn’t completely stink), they could save themselves from extinction. (Good luck with that.) Seems to me that if I was Google/Yahoo/MSN/FIM/IAC and I wanted to take the lead locally, the first step would be to buy one of the big Yellow page companies and co-op their sales staff…
Local companies will eventually get active in this space; it is just too hard right now. Small businesses struggle enough with managing staff, payroll and day to day business to move to the digital space right now. Give it time. Or some VC funding…
You know Jackie, I'm just one state and a couple of hours above Austin (OKC) and we find a common theme with our clients and with the surrounding businesses in our area. A lot of them are curious about the web, but feel they don't know enough about it to take that leap. Or they don't see the true value in what it costs to setup and maintain a website. That is the battle I fight on a regular basis. Generally it is a slow process, baby steps required. :)
You bring up an excellent point Jackie. Most local businesses don't understand the power of local search, starting a blog, creating a simple web presence, and optimizing that simple web presence so they can show up for searches you mention in your post. I see it all of the time. The amazing part is that some simple changes can yield excellent results.
We've got the same challenges in Albuquerque. In talking to small biz owners about Web strategies, I've been told "I don't have time to 'play' on the computer." And, my personal all-time favorite: "My site doesn't generate much revenue so I don't want to speand much on it."
Key is - as you note - the local search. "Everyone" hops on the Web these days to research before they buy - from retired 85-year-olds to Soccer Moms.
I lived in Austin for a while, and felt the same way. Where are all the businesses? Why aren't they online?- Questions that perplexed me as a marketer on a daily basis.
It would be interesting how many people look for local amenities via search and how many tend to get a personal recommendation. Word of mouth marketing has always been the traditional make or break for these businesses. I would always seek a personal recommendation from a trusted friend or colleague rather than search, for me it would be seen as a last resort.
Of course that's not to say that search doesn't work. We created a campaign for a local dentist. They were highly sceptical that the new fangled Googieweb could help boost their business. As it turned out the ROI was amazing. i think that's the story that needs to be told to small business owners, not how clever or easy local search is more that it can make them money.
One thing I've learned from promoting www.calmagazine.com to local businesses in Sacramento, California is that not all businesses lend themselves to needing a website. One of the most successful autobody shops, for example, which does at least 60 cars per month, does not have a website. And, the owner doesn't see the need for the internet. The same can be said for many restaurants, doctors, dentists, even lawyers. Many don't even have email. And, Sacramento is only a couple of hours from Silicon Valley. Go figure.
Austin, Texas is a great city! Music is cutting edge in Austin and has been for many decades. Even though Austin is a tech savvy town, companies evaluate the cost and how to be recognized on the giant web. I am taking baby steps of learning how to market on the web. You always read about all the companies that for a fee they will put you on the top of the world. But after one year experience I have learned it is the basics and I am back to grass root marketing on the web. http://hotcookies.net
I agree with you 100%. With the low cost of setting up a simple web site there's no reason for a business NOT to have a web presence. A free listing on Google Maps is another necessity that many businesses overlook.
It's just too easy to be on the web for any smart business person to ignore this powerful tool.
I have the same experience here even in Sausalito an Marin County, in the shadow of Silicon Valley and S.F. ... and agree on your three conclusions
Methinks it will take more techie translaters or, more likely, sherpas who do it all for the owners ... easing them into the right use of social media tools... and providing ongoing support - an opportunity for geeks to build an ongoing revenue stream as they invent and build their shiny new thing... or not
I blogged about you recently, fyi
It's frustrating to not be able to find local stuff online easily--especially when you live in a place that has such a reputation for being technologically savvy. Occasionally, we'll take a smaller local client, and it's ridiculously easy to get them positioned really well locally, though there's usually only local-specific search for the kinds of service businesses you were talking about.
There's no reason businesses shouldn't treat it like paying for a Yellow Pages ad. A little four or five page site would do wonders and be inexpensive. That would be worth far more than the cost when a user is looking for them and can't find the company site but can find blog entries from disgruntled employees. :-)
Holler if you need any recommendations for any other local stuff--I'm one of the elusive native Austinites and know many secret things. Happy New Year!
Nothing drives me crazier than wanting to find a recommended business to give them my money and to come up empty. I'm not looking for sophistication either - just a restaurant's menu or a business' hours of operation and contact information.
I am to the point that I will use another business that DOES pop up in an online search over one that has been recommended to me, but requires offline work for me to hunt them down. But, I'm lazy like that.
First, welcome to Austin. After you've found that gardner and groomer, you're going to love it here.
The lack of an online presence is a function of economics and culture. Small, service businesses, like gardners and housekeepers (who in Texas are often Mexican immigrants), may not even have a computer, much less any awareness of the value of online marketing. Many don't have the resources (money, time or skills) to execute an online presence. And I caution you about physicians in Austin who market online -- they are likely to be charging Marin County prices, far more than their peers, so again economics and local marketing go hand-in-hand. There are a lot of online resources -- lists and forum -- to help you find the help you need. I found my doctor here four years ago by searching for Harvard Medical School-trained physicians in Austin.
Finally, since I've moved all over the world for years and know what you're going through, let me know if I can help with some WOM referrals of people who may not be online but do great work at a reasonable price.
While this plug is not intentional I thought it might be a good idea to ask readers.
I work for an online company that offers users for free to create their own site. Do you have any suggestions on how to spread the word to such small businesses that now they can create a site without any prior knowledge of building sites. All the user needs to know is how to type; we have taken care of the rest.
Well, we also need to consider that many small businesses couldn't handle the volume of clients the web might bring. I run a dressmaker referral site for the very reason that so many of my fellow dressmakers and alteration specialists were invisible on the web, due to the cost of advertising, and the amount of time they would need to dedicate to that effort. Often, the local dogwalker, portrait artist, birthday party planner is micropreneurial, and there is only so much advertising that is worthwhile. And they often do not trust big companies to "promote" them. In my case, I have established trust with other dressmakers because I know so many of them personally. I would like to see more referral sites online, though.
Rhea, I think it's the businesses that don't have physical storefronts who lose out more without a website.
Chris Welxler, I disagree that a website is mostly for a global reach. Anyone who researches a local company in their area and finds no website maybe losing out on a sale.
Chris Wilson, at least the baby steps keeps consultants in business : )
Mary, Funny how people wouldn't think twice of paying for entry in the Yellow Pages, but not the pages of the World Wide Web.
Stewart, I think that a referral coupled by a easily found information laden website can seal the deal many times.
Sara and Sydney, thanks for the offer on recommendations. We may take you up on that!
Virginia, I'm with you. If I get two referrals for the same business, I go with the one with a website over the one that doesn't.
Irina, I might start with the Chamber of Commerce and offer a seminar on web marketing for small businesses.
I wrote an article about this very subject at the end of last month. It's something that not every small business owner thinks about, but right now somewhere over 50% of customers begin their research on the web, even if it's something as simple as wondering what hours you're open. In not having a website these smaller businesses are asking for loyalty that isn't there. People want answers without having to be hassled and without having to hassle you, so put the answers out there and they'll be in touch!
I think a lot of SMBs worry that their site won't be good enough to compete. Simple sites are best for starters: Be a 24-hour ambassador, give full contact info, and encourage the next step. That's already a competitive edge over other locals! Keep the site simple, well-designed, and well-executed, and remember whether it's DIY or contracted this is the cheapest 24-hour-a-day employee ever.
The comments on this post were really great at pointing out the very mixed feelings of the business community at the local level toward "going digital."
Check out the Maximum Customer Experience Blog!
I think you have a very valid point. I own my own real estate staging company (style and stage homes to make them more presentable & attractive for sale) and I often heard that blah stager and blah stager don't have websites at all and they are doing very well. When I hear that, I used to think "oh, then why am I blogging and running a website?" But then again, what does "well" mean? Staging couple homes per months or staging homes several times a week? I find that the stager that is in the older generations (I am in my late 20s, which is a rare thing in my industry. Most stagers are in their late 30s and up to 60s) tend not to have a website or just don't believe in the power of it. But frankly myself growing up in a very internet savvy time, I even look up take out restaurants on internet before I order, I can't even imagine not having a website, especially I am in the service industry that doesn't have a storefront. How are customers going to find you if they don't know you exist?!
Not to mention it's almost FREE! It's much cheaper to run a website that is up 24/7 then a store front where you have to pay people to run it and pay for utilities and cleaning fees.
Here we are a year later and this article still rings so very true.
In some recent communication with others in my industry, I was surprised that they not only didn’t have websites but they wouldn’t even take the time to list their services online.
This really blew me away, with so many free places to list your professional services it is amazing this is not being exploited more.
You can create a Facebook account for your business or use MySpace just to name a couple.
This, I think goes back to the whole Free idea, “If it’s free, it’s easy and it has less value” which, with the web is just not the case.
If you are a small business Owner and do not dedicate at least 5 hours a week trying to answer questions on forums, create advertisements about your business, invest in advertising in the top directories in your industry, writing an article or doing anything that promotes your business you are really losing out.
You are not just losing out on the free publicity but the community involvement and interaction with those in your industry. This is a significant lose if it could ever be calculated.
Best to All,