Recent research (Department for Innovation and Skills) found that 2 million sole traders and small companies are missing out on business because they have no online presence. Feedback showed that there was an appetite to support small businesses but that consumers find it difficult because of their lack of visibility online.

Small businesses don’t need to spend a fortune on flashy websites and search engine optimisation (SEO) or pay per click (PPC) campaigns. They can do what they’ve always done – build personal relationships with people in their local marketplace and tap into new audiences via word of mouth recommendation and creating a buzz around what they’re really good at.

The online high street

A recent episode of business makeover programme ‘Alex Polizzi: The Fixer’ saw the owners of a pet shop on Wimbledon high street struggling to compete with out of town pet superstores. Polizzi helped them re-brand to demonstrate the benefits of their personal service, independent advice and passion for animals over their corporate rivals. She overhauled everything from the shop window, to the interior layout and even created personalised staff t-shirts, all of which gave them a warm, friendly personality that set them apart from the nearby superstore and offered customers something different.

digital comms

This is exactly what small businesses need to do online. Think of Google search results and your customers’ social media newsfeeds as the online high street on which you’re competing. You don’t necessarily have to be the boldest and the brashest and rank at the top to capture the attention of your target audiences – but you certainly can’t afford to fade into the background. You need to work harder to remind people that you’re there and stay front of mind with them but once you do, if you get the customer relationship right, it will be a valuable and lasting one.

Facts tell, stories sell

While the big brands are enticing customers with Google ads and big online sales, small businesses can stay ‘front of mind’ on the online high street by reminding their customers what makes them so special in a subtler way. Most small businesses we talk to have new things going on all the time that they simply forget to tell people about. They might mention an upcoming event or new product launch to existing customers face to face but what about everyone else? Small local businesses can get away with using social media to promote what they’re doing much more so than big brands because people want to support them and don’t feel that they’re being ‘advertised at’ by a faceless company.

The idea that ‘facts tell, stories tell’ isn’t new, but it’s something that small businesses often forget to take advantage of. Traditional PR has always been about the human interest angle – but journalists always wanted the person in question to be featured or quoted, which is often not possible, particularly if you’re in a line of work where client confidentiality is key. The power to publish their own content online means that small businesses can share stories without releasing the actual identity of their customers (unless they approve it) by using examples and offering tips and advice to others who may be in a similar situation.

Free market research

But online content marketing isn’t just about telling stories – it’s about making your customers feel part of the story and encouraging them to tell others. A great way of doing that is to ask them what they think and share content that encourages them to have a two way conversation with you. Take the pet shop as an example. The staff at ‘Pets at Home’ won’t know their customers by name and have anecdotes to tell about what they’re buying for their furry friends this week. When the superstore introduces new product ranges or runs promotional events, it won’t be in response to feedback from individual customers, but in response to national customer data. For those who want a more personal approach, there’s a real opportunity to offer so much more – and it doesn’t have to cost the earth to find out what your customers want. Even just by evaluating what types of content get the biggest response can help you make sure you’re focusing on where you can get the ‘biggest bang for your buck’.

There is really no excuse for small businesses not to have an engaging and active online presence in 2015. With a bit of support from a content marketing specialist, you can reach much bigger audiences without losing the ‘personal touch’. And you will get a much bigger return on investment than any other form of paid for online or traditional paid for marketing. The online high street is much more vast than the physical one – but, if you get it right, there are many more opportunities to be seen.