The sudden onset of COVID-19 around the world forced businesses to kick their digital strategies into high gear in order to survive. “I used to sell most of my jewelry at farmers markets and through pop-up shops,” says Laura Lynn, founder and maker of Rock.Pebble.Metal, a boutique handcrafted jewelry business. “I’ve learned so much through this pandemic. I’ve built my own website, created an Etsy account and started posting my jewelry on Instagram and Facebook.”
Many small business owners and entrepreneurs are telling similar stories to Lynn’s: They all have had to pick up the pace and turn long-term digital strategies into short-term.
“A strong online presence not only gives your potential customers the ability to find and get to know your business, it also allows them to establish trust and build a relationship with you as a brand,” says Yulia Idemenko, assistant vice president and manager of digital marketing at East West Bank.
With so many businesses now flooding the digital space, how can yours stand out from the rest? And what should you have covered to elevate your digital presence? From building websites, to leveraging Google and social media, experts in the digital space share their advice, examples and best practices.
With many website templates available, building and designing an impressive business website is now relatively straightforward. What business owners need to keep in mind, though, is user friendliness and positioning of key information to help potential customers navigate the site with ease.
“I use WordPress and make sure that images of my products are front-and-center on the homepage,” says Lynn. Her site is easy to explore, with minimal pages, short descriptions and large images.
Having a clean, organized and simple website is key to the navigational experience for the user. “Having a website is a necessity in 2020,” says Jonathan Sitbon, editor-in-chief of the Wix Blogs at Wix, a cloud-based website building platform. “But having a website that’s up-to-date is what really makes the difference,” Sitbon adds.
From mobile optimization to SEO considerations, building a website involves building for the best user experience. “So, start with what you want to achieve with your website,” says Sitbon. “Is it to sell products? To create a portfolio to showcase your work? Is it a landing page to promote a marketing campaign?” Only after clearly defining a goal can you cater your website toward a specific audience.
According to research in the Journal of Behaviour & Information Technology, it takes only 50 milliseconds for users to have an impression about a website. With this in mind, it’s crucial to make sure that the layout is consistent and aesthetically pleasing, the domain name is memorable and have the site optimized for mobile. Sitbon advises businesses to keep the domain name and most areas of the website short, simple, professional and evocative.
When creating content, visuals like photos and videos are king. According to Forbes, viewers retain 95 percent of a message when consumed by video, compared to 10 percent when reading it in text. Free, high-quality images can be found on places like Stock Snap, Pexels and Unsplash. With smartphone cameras so sophisticated these days, you can also easily take your own photos with the right setup.
“I have this perfect spot in my kitchen where the lighting is just right and the table color contrasts nicely with my pieces,” says Lynn, who takes her own product photos and uploads them to her website.
Now, more than ever, getting your website featured on the first page of Google in a saturated digital arena is important. Sitbon believes that Google uses more than 200 signals to create the algorithms for website rankings and content quality metrics. “Making changes to your site so that search engines can understand your content better and rank your website higher in search results will help enhance your online presence, increase high-quality, free traffic to your site, attract more potential customers and sales and build brand awareness,” says Idemenko.
“Making changes to your site so that search engines can understand your content better and rank your website higher in search results will help enhance your online presence, increase high-quality, free traffic to your site, attract more potential customers and sales and build brand awareness."
Here are some simple yet important things Sitbon recommends doing for your website to have robust search engine optimization (SEO).
Google has also made quick and helpful changes on their end to help small businesses during these unprecedented times. According to Google for Small Business, the search engine giant helps drive 100 billion visits to business websites every month, creating more than 3 billion direct connections between businesses and their customers. In fact, 4 out of 5 consumers are said to use search engines to find local information, such as store address, business hours and directions.
“If you’re closed, you can even publish a future opening date on Google, and it would display,” says Krystal Taing, director of local strategy at Rio SEO. “So, be sure you’re double-checking the status of your business locations and have special hours, info and messaging on Google for your customers.” Business owners can do all this for free by creating a business profile on Google My Business, which allows owners to upload photos, update store hours or addresses and link to a website.
Google has also made significant changes to its ad policy for retail stores. “On product listings, the recent announcement Google made is that any business can now list products on Google Shopping for free,” says Taing. “This is a pretty cool move on Google’s part, and if you’re a mom-and-pop retailer that maybe isn’t considered essential and can’t operate, this is a great way to still sell your products.”
Existing customers who had been paying to use this service can now list their entire inventories, while new users can now apply to place listings for free via Google’s Merchant Center. Google has also partnered with PayPal in an effort to help businesses accept online payments faster.
Google recently announced the release of version 4.6 of the Google My Business Application Programming Interface (API). According to Google, what this feature does is essentially allow developers to build applications that interact directly with their business location information on the Google My Business server.
“API support is something that’s existed on Google My Business for a while,” says Ryan Weber, director of client success at Rio SEO. “The service ensures that your business shows up when customers search for local businesses on Google Search and Maps.”
Prior to this update, customizing the list of service offerings through the API was difficult. “So, if your category is, say, a carpet cleaner, you can now add or remove other services that you offer, like cleaning upholstery, that Google might not be aware of,” says Weber. “With the 4.6 release, you can submit that information via API, pull your category, see what services are being shown publicly based on Google’s understanding, and then also publish any other services that might not have been there and push updates back to Google.”
Social media continues to be a platform where businesses can express brand culture and connect directly with their consumer base. “On any social media platform, you need to create content that’s really human and engaging,” says Alicia Johnston, senior manager of content and communications at Sprout Social, a social media marketing agency. “People really want to feel connected to a brand these days; in fact, 64 percent of people expect brands to connect with them and 76 percent will shop that brand over a competitor.”
Johnston recommends connecting with audiences in real-time through features like Instagram Live and Facebook Live, where businesses and audiences can have the opportunity to have authentic engagement and conversations. “This is a great way to build positive rapport and capture a loyal audience base that shares your brand values and lifestyle,” she says.
During COVID-19, many businesses had to change their messaging and pause existing campaigns in order to reflect the sentiment that consumers were feeling. “If there’s one thing we know as marketers, it’s that irrelevance is death for your brand," says Johnston. “Also, with so many different voices on social media, you may have the best product in the world, but if you simply look, sound and feel just like everyone else, then there’s nothing to help differentiate you from the rest.”
To avoid being washed out, Johnston recommends identifying and reevaluating key differentiators for your business. “Once you know what your business stands for, you can better target the type of audience that will resonate with your brand,” she says.
For example, if your product is designed for young teenagers or Gen Z consumers, having a presence on TikTok will be much more valuable than staying active on Facebook. “Knowing your audience will give you so much confidence over everything else, like who to invite to become your brand influencer, or what other brands to partner with to expand your digital reach,” Johnston continues.
Data is crucial when figuring out which platforms to engage audiences in. “Data helps validate and reveal critical insights to get a better understanding of your audience,” Johnston says. Accessing data is readily available on social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and business owners can see everything from which post was their most popular, to how much average monthly engagement they’re receiving. For more in-depth data insights, there are paid services such as Sprout Social, Sprinklr and Brandwatch.
“You need to be able to achieve a healthy mix of what’s trending and make that strategically relevant to the brand,” says Zosimo Quibilan, assistant vice president and assistant manager of social media at East West Bank. He and the rest of the social media team carefully curate the type of content that is pushed out on each platform, calculating everything from topic relevance to timing before each post. “Anyone can easily jump onto the viral bandwagon,” he says, “but to be able to dial that in to hit your target audience in a profound way only solidifies the brand’s social media presence.”