As small businesses scramble to right themselves in the ever-shifting COVID-19 world, many are in search of resources to help them thrive. The logistics of pivoting a traditionally in-person business to an online platform might seem overwhelming at first blush. However, businesses can go through a logical process to make such pivots.
“When a business thinks about moving online, their first thought is to start selling online,” says Phil Jones, a sales consultant and author of Exactly What to Say. “Instead, they should first think about how they can do a better job of using online tools to serve their existing customers and communities.”
The logical process below, along with thoughts from experts across the small-business landscape, will help your business chart an intentional path for your online pivot—one that puts your customers and community at the heart of every step you take.
Where to Begin: Social Media
If you’ve been lax about your business’s social media accounts, now’s the time to amp up your investment in this underutilized online business asset. “For many businesses, social media accounts have been little more than an online directory listing,” says Jones. Businesses using their social media accounts as their first lines of connection with customers, however, are seeing tangible advantages.
Jones notes that accountancy and legal companies can now start to deliver timely and professional advice via Facebook Live broadcasts and video lessons on YouTube. Independent shop owners can photograph their goods for Pinterest and Instagram, creating new channels for their homebound customers to connect through.
“The reason these platforms are so important is that your customers are already using them,” says Jones. “Many other tools require you to win someone’s attention and bring them somewhere new and, in today’s market, I would look to bring your message to the people and not the people to your message.”
Rikki Rogers, vice president of marketing at Curbio, a real estate company that lets homeowners flip their own homes using their turnkey presale renovations, notes that real estate agents are also using the power of social media to stay engaged. “Right now, [real estate agents] have a little extra time to focus on their marketing efforts. We’re seeing agents push out high-quality content on their websites and social media pages,” says Rogers. “Specifically, they’re sharing updates on their services during the global pandemic, giving advice on how to prep their homes for market and developing lighthearted content, like design trends or luxurious homes, to stay top of mind for consumers who may not be able to move forward with a purchase or sale right now.”
Molly Carmel, founder of The Beacon Programs, was also inspired by the COVID-19 crisis to use social media to reach her clients who valued the in-person support aspects that her company provides for food addictions. She created “Close the Kitchen,” a nightly gathering on Facebook at 8:30 p.m. ET, a time at which many people struggle with binge eating. She offers tips, words of support and a place where Beacon’s clients can connect with each other. “At this point, there are a bunch of regulars who have had their kitchen closed at 8:30 for 25 nights in a row,” says Carmel. “Although it was not even on my wish list, this ritual has significantly increased our engagement and our viewership and has helped us to gain an incredibly loyal following.”
Next Steps: Initiate Your Online Pivot
Once you have your social media accounts firing on all cylinders, Jones offers three steps small businesses can take to bring their businesses online with a clear direction and intention:
- Decide how an online offering is better for your customers. “For your online offering to be worth it to you, it must be worth it to your customers,” says Jones. Decide with confidence why your online solution delivers the same or even an increased value proposition to an in-person visit, especially in light of current market conditions. For example, a local restaurant might be better-served by posting daily curbside pickup specials on Instagram that customers can order by phone than by investing the time in building out a new online ordering system.
- Develop a minimum effective dose for your new communications strategy. Jones advises businesses to consider how they’ll communicate their online offerings to their customers. Think about the frequency of communications, on which channels (social media, text, email, etc.), and how your physical location will serve as a tool to direct your customers online. As Jones says, “A closed sign on your door is far less effective than a sign that reads ‘Visit our website at [domain name].com to learn how we can still provide you services online.’”
- Open consistent communication channels with existing customers and contacts. Encourage your customers to follow you on social media. If you haven’t been collecting email addresses, now’s the time to start. Be sure to gain permission from your audience to communicate over text or email to stay in compliance with marketing regulations. Email marketing services like MailChimp, Constant Contact and GetResponse can help you build your email list by the book, and all have extensive tutorials to quickly get you up to speed.
Leveraging Tech: Putting IT to Work for Your Business
After you’ve gone through Jones’ three-step process above, you’ll likely need a website or the capability to add an online shop to your existing web presence. Below are some simple-to-implement online tools to put tech on your side as you pivot your business online.
Build or Upgrade Your Website
- Shopify. Touted as a robust solution for e-commerce-fueled businesses, Shopify can help small businesses with everything from securing a domain name to getting an online store up and running. The company even offers fulfillment services, payment processing and easy integration with social media sites to expand your online sales.
- Squarespace. With a savvy collection of sleek website templates and add-ons like blogs and online stores, Squarespace makes it simple to build a clean and engaging website. Its robust tool set includes analytics, SEO strategies to help you get found online and integration with a wide variety of social media sites, fulfillment services, and email marketing tools to help you reach your customers where they are: whether at home or on mobile devices.
- Wix. Like both Shopify and Squarespace, Wix offers small businesses the ability to launch a business in minutes. You can reserve a domain name or use your existing one, create an online store, capture email addresses for your marketing efforts and even create a logo using its online logo maker. Wix even has a tool called WIX ADI that will build a website for you after you answer a few questions.
Add an Online Store/Delivery/Pickup to Your Existing Website
- Square. Widely known for its payment processing services, Square lets businesses add an online store to their existing website with ease. For businesses looking to add curbside delivery or pickup services, Square is waiving monthly fees for local delivery through June 30, 2020.
- Shopify. Shopify has created a guide to help its customers’ businesses expand to curbside pickup and local delivery options.
- DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates, Uber Eats. If you need to add local delivery to your business, these nationwide platforms can help you get up and running in a matter of days. The onboarding process varies between platforms and might be slowed with the increased order volume. Be patient as you begin the process.
Use Videos to Connect
- Zoom. With low-cost solutions for small businesses, in-person service providers can offer classes, webinars and group sessions to get the services and information their clients need most delivered with speed and a personal, almost-in-person touch. Be sure to review safe “zooming” guidelines to help keep your meetings secure.
- Instagram Live. Teach classes, take customers behind the scenes or just share a personal moment from your brand’s Instagram page.
- Facebook Live. If you have a devoted Facebook audience, you can use Facebook Live to reach them with ease. Answer live questions from your audience, set themes for broadcasts or create a daily check-in that keeps your customers connected.
Online learning platforms like Inspire360 are working with their customers to help shuttered physical locations, especially fitness studios, bring services directly to customers.
Jason Davis, CEO of Inspire360, advises the company’s fitness clients to quickly identify their star instructors and work with them to modify workouts so that no at-home equipment is needed. “There is a frenzy underway to transition in-person workouts online, and clubs are using tools like Zoom in an effort to retain members’ attention and revenue,” says Davis.
Pivot With Impact: Examples to Inspire
As you look for inspiration for your own online business shift, it never hurts to have more examples to emulate, especially from businesses that are pivoting and doing well within their local communities.
SnackNation began as a service that delivered snacks to workplaces but found its business model quickly interrupted by nonessential business closures. The company quickly pivoted its high-touch, person-to-person snack delivery service and now offers “Work-From-Home Wellness Boxes.” Its member companies can now send healthy, tasty snacks to all of their employees, maintaining—and even boosting—employee morale during a tough time and extending their corporate culture.
“Our pivot was a matter of tracking in real time what our core customers were experiencing, and then asking the question, ‘What challenges are they facing right now that we can solve?’” says Sean Kelly, the company’s CEO and cofounder. Now, for every box sold, SnackNation donates one meal to families in need, in partnership with Feeding America, and it is also donating 500,000 snacks to food banks. SnackNation members also can opt to have their in-office snacks donated to local food banks.
In the wake of government mandates to cancel or postpone events, The SnapBar, a photo booth rental company, experienced what felt like an overnight apocalypse. The company lost three months of revenue within a week and saw sales for future events plummet. Yet with smiles as part of its corporate DNA, the team crafted the concept for Keep Your City Smiling in just days: a gift box initiative that features goods from local businesses.
“We launched the idea in four days and began sourcing from vendors in the Seattle area first, as that’s where we’re based,” says Sam Eitzen, The SnapBar’s CEO. “The first company we contacted was thrilled, and the sentiment from others as we reached out to artists, candlemakers and coffee roasters was all extremely positive. Some vendors have almost been in tears receiving cash for 300 of their products that weren’t otherwise moving.”
These local-centric boxes are flying out the door of their online store, keeping local businesses afloat in the midst of a near-complete shutdown. “In the first two and a half weeks since we’ve launched, we’ve received almost 1,000 orders from individuals and companies buying for their remote teams,” says Eitzen. “While our margins aren’t that great, they’re enough to keep our team working (which was the goal) while paying wholesale prices to other small businesses who desperately need the revenue.”
A Final Reminder: You Don’t Have to Do This Alone
As you focus on your customers’ current needs and build an online business strategy to deliver on the ones most pressing, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to make this pivot alone. Taking a page from The SnapBar’s playbook, Jones advises that businesses collaborate with other local businesses and consider how they can support one another.
“It makes more sense for local shoppers to experience the online efforts of a group of local retailers who can share with and support one another than for each business to try to play bigger without the infrastructure,” says Jones. “Small businesses are small in isolation but giant when gathered together.”