Many different sectors and industries felt the economic strain in 2020, but small businesses, regardless of their wares, location or ethos, had to take the full force of the storm. As lockdown measures began across the world, many brick-and-mortar stores lost their connection to their audience, robbing them of the vast majority of their income. Unlike with major chains like Walmart or Sobeys, having an online presence is not guaranteed with your local bakery or bike shop.
As 2020 threw more and more curveballs at all of us, small businesses across Canada, the U.S. and beyond had to decide whether or not to make the leap into the unknown and into e-commerce. But once there, it’s not an instant guaranteed success. You need to reconnect with your audience, figure out the logistics that come with online sales, and stand out from the thousands of other businesses online. And so the question becomes: How do you adapt and survive online as a small business?
To say that “getting to grips with online is vital” is an understatement. 2020 showed us that having different channels is essential and can often be what keeps revenue coming in when the unexpected happens. One report found that by mid-April of last year, 22% of small businesses in Canada had seen their revenue drop to $0 due to lockdown and shoppers being more cautious in going into physical stores. In a matter of weeks, days, and in some cases, just hours, businesses found themselves cut off from their customer base and facing an unknown future. And for those that did not have an online presence, this brought with it a devastating impact.
This, in turn, led to a massive surge in stores moving online. Online sales rocketed, reaching record levels, while e-commerce platforms like Shopify saw unprecedented growth. The platform saw a 71% increase in new stores from the first quarter to the second quarter of 2020. But none of these moves guarantee success or reconnection with an audience. One step that does, however, is communication.
In a recent report by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), just over half of the people surveyed believed that they will need to rely on digital communication more to stay connected to customers. With most people carrying around smartphones that can easily navigate the internet at a moment’s notice, it is easier than ever to purchase something online when out of the home or away from a laptop or computer, as well as easier than ever to get in contact with a store. Being able to capitalize on this is pretty important, to put it lightly. Replying quickly and being able to provide helpful information to would-be customers is a great starting block to ensuring not just a good name for your store but a returning customer base. And the best way to make sure that your business is ready for this is by embracing digital communication.
When you hear “digital communication,” you probably think of Instagram or Facebook. These are great places to have a social media presence but should not be the only places your brand is online. When trying to communicate with customers, limiting yourself to a certain platform limits who can connect with you. Social media is evolving constantly. While prevalent before, 2020 saw TikTok hit 76 million downloads, its smart short video format lending to increasing popularity — and with this, a fantastic new way for businesses to connect to customers. As 2021 progresses, TikTok is surely going to be a major player in not just helping businesses build a connection with audiences, but in advertising as a whole. The willingness to experiment and try new ways to reach out to customers is often what separates those who find success online and those who do not.
Digital communication is not just social media, despite the seeming omnipresence of it in modern-day life. 2021 will be full of different new and resurging business strategies and tactics. One that already seems tipped to make a return is email marketing. In Canada, email marketing has fallen from favor when it comes to chosen tactics, largely in part to the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, a set of guidelines that regulates what businesses can send in emails to customers. Mixed with the phenomenal growth of social media, email marketing has taken somewhat of a backseat compared to newer strategies. However, this year it might just mark a resurgence.
Compared to other tactics, it is very cost-effective and provides a great return on investment. In a time when some small businesses find themselves with limited funds to work with, email marketing can provide a useful and cheaper solution. However, its biggest advantage is the personal connection it can provide with the audience. With social media, it is easy to get a message out there — though, due to the algorithm of whichever social media site you use, it can so easily be buried beneath a mountain of other posts, tweets and videos of cats. Add to this that everyone can see the conversation you hold with the customer. While for some this is no problem, not everyone is as comfortable. For anyone with social anxiety, they can often find commenting or leaving a review a complete nightmare. With email marketing, the publicity is taken out, in return for a more private, one-on-one conversation, a form that some customers appreciate more than the open amphitheater that is social media.
For small businesses to succeed online in 2021, they are going to need to be willing to adapt and embrace technology. In doing so, it can allow for stores to engage with their audience regardless of distance, while also allowing for a dedicated and loyal customer base.