Just read an interesting study from the real estate industry (from the London St Thomas Real Estate Board). In Canada, 72% of real estate searches begins on line. This is a pretty radical number. It means the whole way the industry does business is changing. In fact, this post just isn't about real estate. This post is about small business in general.
Consumers use the internet for research. Often they will do their "homework" on line comparing what each business offers, before they actually go into an office or store. The message here is, although you may not do actual sales transactions online, you still have to have a website that provides enough information to help a consumer include you in their list of possibilities. They may eliminate you if they can't find you online or if your website doesn't provide them with the information they want.
I was recently planning a 150 km trip to St. Jacob's, Ontario to go furniture shopping. A quick hop online showed me that most of the companies that I wanted to check out didn't have websites. I didn't bother going to those stores because I couldn't be sure that they carried what I wanted, and I didn't want to waste a lot of time. For those companies that did have websites only a few had samples of their product online. Those sites allowed me to figure out which stores carried the type of furniture (contemporary) that I was looking for. That eliminated all but 2 stores. I was able to go to those 2 stores and find what I was looking for efficiently. That 30 minutes online saved me hours of traipsing from store to store.
The same article on real estate also shows that 33% of search engine users believe that the number one rank on the results page is the number one brand for the industry.
Overall small business people are going to have to become more sophisticated in search engine marketing, advertising and website design and promotion if they are going to compete with larger companies. They are going to have to use their key advantage -- small businesses are much closer to their customers and know what they need and want. Now those small businesses just have to translate that knowledge to the new marketing world. It's becoming much easier to create web sites and online shopping sites with new content management software. More about content management software in a later post.