MARKET IN THE DIGITAL AGE
I'm one of the 5.83 million Americans that run a small business. Every day is a complicated balancing act of budgeting, marketing, and actual work. That said, the industry is continually changing and evolving; for instance, 20 years ago you had to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a web developer to have an online presence. Now, you are minutes away from establishing yourself on multiple digital platforms with the click of a mouse.
As a graphic designer, I frequently work with multiple variations of industry professionals ranging from small businesses like myself to corporations with chains all across the world. An example of how the digital age has transformed business is best exemplified in the restaurant industry. Social websites like Yelp, FourSquare, Foursquare, and Facebook have all completely revolutionize the way that restaurants market. Some restaurants chase the five-star reviews on Yelp, while others use Facebook to stay in contact and promote themselves to their customers. Long gone are the days of pulling out the Yellow Pages to look up a restaurant and pray they’ll have something you like once you arrive. Now, customers shuffle through a restaurant's timelines to see photos, reviews, and pricing.
All this technology has brought out incredible competition never before seen across any industry; advertising tools like Google's AdWords, Facebook's ability to select individual users to market to, and Twitter's sponsored tweets that show up in real-time as trends and events unfold. All these allow you as a business owner to connect with your customers in ways you may have never imagined.
While the digital age has provided us with some of the most significant technological advances, there are still physical aspects that you have to regard while running your business. In my time as a designer, I’ve worked across multiple spectrums of the industry ranging from solely digital jobs, to solely print jobs. This has provided me with a unique perspective on business. I can see what works and falls short in nearly real-time as clients begin appointments with me talking about what's working and what's falling short of expectations. I wanted to share some of this information in hopes that you can apply it to your own business and hopefully see similar results. I will break it down into four main categories social presence, social interaction, relevant marketing, and presentation.
As I mentioned at the top of the article, folks in the restaurant industry are forced to bow to social media. A bad review or unsightly photo can push users away for months or even indefinitely. Taking the time to curate beautiful imagery of your products, writing about who you are as a business, and keeping information like business hours, phone numbers, and social media handles updated can be the difference between your company beating out a competitor and a customer walking away. This is your social presence, and it has a trickle down effect on the rest of your business.
My fiancé and I love to try out new restaurants, but the selection process almost always turns into a debate. We often request to go to one of our favorite restaurants; "I don’t know." Once we both agree upon "I don’t know," the conversation devolves into a Google search or a quick scroll through Yelp to see what’s new or what’s nearby. One of the things that keeps us from going to a restaurant (or any business for that matter) is a lack of information. It is outstanding to see how many companies from mom-and-pop shops all the way to national corporations fail to keep information updated or even posted at all.
Recently, my fiancé and I have been feverishly preparing for our wedding and wanted to go to a restaurant supply store in town. As we drove up during usual business hours, we found that all the lights were off and there were no hours posted outside. I did a quick search and found the company had claimed a Facebook page, but there was no information about hours of operation. Soon, it became a game. Every time we drove by we would hope that the company was open. Eventually, we were lucky enough to stop by on a day it was open. They were only open until noon every day. Now, we were persistent and eventually we were lucky enough to come by the right time. But, I can’t help but think how many others had attempted to frequent the business as we had. An experience like ours can leave a bad taste in your customer's mouth causing them to avoid you at all cost by merely moving on to a competitor.
Next, I would like to talk about social interaction. I consider this to be the critical factor in a business's success in the digital age. As a designer, it almost pains me to say this, but no matter how good a company looks, how they act entirely determines the outcome of their company. Ever since moving to San Antonio, I have struggled to find a local car shop that allows me to work on my car in their bay. I have nothing against dealerships or small-time shops like oil change or tire shops; I just like to work on my car whenever possible.
Upon my initial move to the area, I did an extensive Google search and asked around to try and find a reliable spot to work on my car. I was overwhelmed by a plethora of results. From high-end shops that provided the latest and greatest tools, to corner shops with bring-your-own equipment policies. After a few oil changes and an overly complicated brake job, I quickly found a winner. A shop that had been around since the 60's. Now, the owner had hadn’t changed anything about the shop since it was founded except the lifts in the bay, the logo, and the soda machine (he was a Pepsi guy, and got tired of Coke every day at lunch). So, why did I pick it over the rest? It wasn’t the flashiest, and there were undoubtedly advantages of going to other locations but, every time I came, the owner made it a point to greet me personally and ask about my vehicle. This was followed up by customized email marketing packed with tips and tricks for my specific car. Best of all? (No, not the Wild Cherry Pepsi, though it is so, so good.) The owner was beyond active on social media. He consistently was sharing, sending, and posting; providing constant contact that let me know he put the utmost care into every aspect of his business.
Social presence is absolutely something that every company needs to take advantage of. Being active and maintaining an authentic relationship with your customers creates a positive lasting impression and keeps you miles ahead of the competition.
Next, I’d like to focus on relevant marketing. We live in a digital world that allows us to be as vague or specific as possible when spending through our advertising budget. Now, both sides of this coin have their advantages. Sometimes the right call for an event or promotion is to get it in front of as many people as possible, while other times products need to market towards a particular age group, sex, or location. This is where relevant marketing absolutely dominates the competition.
As an example, if I’m the head of a print company that mainly focuses on business to business jobs, I can input specific filters that allow me to advertise directly to my target market. I can filter out business owners by income, location, interests, age, and countless other categories. By applying these filters, I can create a perfect faceless customer to use as a template for all my marketing. Someone who meets all of my criteria, yet actually exists. My ad comes across their screen, and I know that this person is the perfect match for my promotion. No more guessing games or wasted impressions on users who could care less about my company or have no use for my services.
Coming from personal experience, my design website is attractive to other graphic designers, but I do not need to pay to advertise to them as they’re not going to take advantage of my services if they can do them themselves. The same rules apply to our fictional print shop. They don’t need to advertise to other printers or print supply companies or even competitors. By filtering out all of these non-matches, their marketing budget stretches immensely farther than it could have on its own. I implore you to study your customers and learn about their needs so that you can efficiently utilize the limitless options that relevant marketing offers to you.
The final aspect of success in the digital age is presentation. Let’s revisit our fictional restaurant. You’re stopping by for the first time and you want to get a lay of the land. You paged through the menu seeing if anything peaks your interest, only to find that you couldn’t find anything. There are dishes that you like and a few options that you want to try, but without any reference imagery or the proper descriptions, you're left in the dark.
This is an excellent example AND a metaphor. The truth is that most businesses fall short on presentation. Now, I know we’re talking about the digital age, but physical and digital presentation affects your company as a whole. Physical aspects, like signage and printed collateral, allow your business to stand out from the crowd and provide relevant information showing you’re here and you’re open for business. Your digital presentation is also a determining factor in a prospective customer's decision-making process. Even the smallest of tweaks to businesses digital presentation can make an outstanding difference. I often find that social pages will be untouched for weeks and even months on end leaving customers to question the accuracy of the information provided.
Doing things like applying brand standards fluidly throughout digital and physical pieces gives you a professional look, no matter the size of your company. You can stop at any McDonald’s around the world, and you will be greeted by their golden arches. This combined with beautiful food imagery (even if these images are Photoshopped beyond belief) brilliant marketing, and an outstanding social presence creates a visual masterpiece. You know what you’re ordering and when you order it, you know where you’re going when you see the arches, you know what promotions are going on before you get there, and if you don’t, all you have to do is look up to be greeted by a menu filled with relevant information. Taking the time to maintain your company’s presentation creates an easy-to-follow path for success.
I’d like to wrap this up with a couple comments. I fully acknowledge that countless businesses achieve success on a daily basis without embracing any of these methods. That said, in my experience companies that take advantage of these practices have seen an incredible bolster in customer interaction and overall success. On a daily basis, I work with companies on both sides of this spectrum and 9 of 10 times, the companies that embrace the digital age beat out the ones who don’t.
In the end, I think that’s how your business succeeds in the digital age. You embrace it and see it not as a chore or as a fad, but a tool that gives your business an advantage.