SCORE

How do consumers find small businesses — and how can you make sure that more of them find yours? A recent study by Vistaprint has some answers that can help you improve your marketing efforts.

First, the good news: Despite many other options for where to shop, including online, 33 percent of survey respondents shop at a small business at least once a week, and 75 percent visit a small business at least once a month. That's higher than the percentage of people who shop online once a month (69 percent).

What’s the top way consumers find small businesses?

It’s a tie between word-of-mouth and online. If you don't have a website and/or a strong online presence, there's an opportunity here for you to increase the number of customers who learn about your business simply by developing your online footprint.

Your online presence has several components.

  • Website: According to the study, about half of U.S. small businesses don't have a website at all. If you're one of them, think how much you could boost your business simply by launching a website. Of course, it's not quite that simple: The survey found that having a poorly designed website is worse than not having one at all. Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents say they’re unlikely to patronize a small business that has a badly designed website. Among Millennials, this figure was even higher; just 5 percent of this age group would do businesses with a company with a poorly designed website.
     
  • Social media: Overall, 60 percent of survey respondents believe a small business needs a social media presence, and 25 percent rate this as “very important.” As you might expect, social media matters a lot for Millennials when deciding what businesses to patronize. One out of four Millennial consumers starts with social media — rather than a general internet search or visiting a particular company's website — when researching small businesses.  (In comparison, just 7.5 percent of Baby Boomers do this.)
     
  • Online reviews: A whopping 75 percent of respondents say researching online reviews is “somewhat” or “very” important before they visit a business. Overall, 50 percent of respondents say that negative reviews are the number-one factor that would keep them from visiting a particular business.

Armed with this information, how can you improve your business’s “discoverability” factor? Here's your four-step plan.

  1. Get a business website. If you don't already have a website, what are you waiting for? Setting up a business website is simple and easy these days. There are many services that offer all-in-one packages, including domain registration, website hosting and design, and even help with online marketing, such as SEO (search engine optimization) and getting listed on local search directories. If you're not technically inclined, getting the experts to help is a smart move.
     
  2. Improve your existing website. If your business website is more than a few years old, chances are it could use some updating. For one thing, is it mobile-friendly? Most customers looking for businesses use their mobile phones even when they’re at home, and if they can’t navigate your website easily on their phones, they’ll just click over to the competition. You can also consider adding features such as a click-to-call button, so customers can contact you easily or online chat and can get help with any questions they may have. Regularly monitoring your website for broken links and outdated information will help ensure it keeps driving customers to your business.
     
  3. Get active on social media. You don't have to be on every social network out there, but you should have a presence on those that matter to your target customers. A little market research will uncover whether that’s Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or somewhere else. Post consistently, be responsive to customers’ comments and share useful information, and you’ll gradually build a following.
     
  4. Monitor your online reviews. Regularly check your online reviews to catch any negative ones and take action. Reach out to customers with complaints and take the issue off-line to resolve it; then make sure you share the result on the review site so other potential customers know you handled it. Encourage happy customers to review you, so you can build up a foundation of positive reviews.

Today, the internet is just as important as word-of-mouth in building your business — and that trend is only going to increase. Take steps now to make the right moves that will attract customers to your business both now and in the future.

Need help with any aspect of this strategy? Reach out to the mentors at SCORE. Visit www.score.org to get free advice 24/7.