Get Online To Get Noticed In 2014 North’s Firms Told

Paul McGarrity reveals how small businesses are missing out on opportunities by not being visible online

Most business owners will have looked forward to 2014 with at least one New Year resolution on how to improve their bottom line.

Exploring new ways to grow revenue through more effective marketing is often at the top of the wish-list for small business. And if there is one area that businesses really need to be addressing this year, it’s promoting their business online.

Research from across the globe clearly shows how small businesses generally suffer from a poor online presence. In Northern Ireland the situation is particularly stark. Only last month, research by Hibu revealed that small and medium-sized businesses in Northern Ireland were making themselves “invisible” to consumers by failing to promote their businesses online. The research showed that 53 per cent of businesses in the north did not have a website.

However, the real jaw-dropping revelation was that only a third of Northern Ireland businesses think that their customers actually use the internet to research products and services online. The reality is that 80 per cent of NI people use search engines to research online and it is by far the most popular way for consumers to find everything from local solicitors to health products. There is also a huge number of businesses missing out on opportunities to actually sell online. Last year the Irish government announced the launch of a programme to help small businesses get online. Their research had shown that just 23 per cent of small companies in Ireland engage in e-commerce sales and as a result were losing valuable opportunities including access to larger markets, increased revenue and better market intelligence. Businesses should be in no doubt about the modern media habits of their customers. While many small businesses continue to over invest in traditional forms of advertising including print ads and yellow pages listings, the cold reality is that for a huge number of consumers online sources such as search engines are the main way to research before they book or buy a product or a service.

Just consider the latest figures on online usage. Over 50 per cent of people in UK and Ireland using Facebook, smart phone ownership is now at 64 per cent in UK and a massive 13.5 per cent of all UK purchases are via online. So if you are still investing all your marketing efforts in trying to reach customers via traditional media and have a poor online presence, then your business has a big problem. SMEs often share the same problem that prevent them capitalising on the opportunities online. The first is the need to be visible online. One of the top marketing priorities for small firms should be to assess how they are visible on search engines such as Google for key phrases that are relevant to their business. So if you are a domestic heating oil supplier and you are virtually invisible on Google to people searching for ‘domestic heating oil Belfast’, or ‘cheap home heating oil’ then your business will suffer at the expense of your competitors. The second main reason for SMEs performing poorly online is a non-existent or poor website. Having an effective website that shows your brand in a good light and helps convert website visitors to take an action, such as call you or make a booking online, is now a marketing must.

I know that when I’m researching for a local business such as a restaurant or a plumber, the first place I look is on the internet which I mostly access via my smart phone now. If I come across a website that fails to load properly on my smartphone or makes it hard for me to book online of fails to display their contact details, then I move on to their competitor. Social media remains another missed opportunity for many SMEs. Sites such as Facebook and twitter can be used very effectively to engage customers online. Some small businesses such as NI-based Urban Pup have been successful at promoting their brand to a very relevant audience across the globe by using online story-telling and compelling visuals.

Modern marketing depends on communicating your product or service to help you sell more and, as the research clearly shows, is increasingly dependent on reaching and persuading people online.

* Paul McGarrity is director of Octave Digital, a digital marketing agency helping business to benefit from online marketing