A topic that often arises during our work with small towns and villages is the challenge of rural business development. In more populous areas, new consumer-based businesses often have the benefit of built-in foot and automobile traffic to gain exposure and - unless the business is truly unique - a built-in network of similar businesses that have established processes such as business start-up support, shared advertising, and employee training. So how can businesses in rural communities with smaller, less robust economies compete with their counterparts in dense urban areas?
Two words: the internet.
Unless you’ve been hiding under this giant rock that you ordered on Amazon, you know that the retail industry continues to undergo major shifts as demographics and consumer preferences change (more on emerging trends in the retail industry here). Ecommerce continues to grow as a portion of retail sales and traditional retailers are struggling with ways to attract their customers. This is opening up possibilities for smaller businesses in remote areas to compete for customers across the country or even the globe by tapping into existing digital networks.
We recently recommended this tactic in the Tourism Impact Study and Strategic Plan for Washington County, NY. Understanding that small business owners barely have time to breathe, let alone concentrate on major digital advertising endeavors, the goal of the strategy was to help teach businesses in the county to channel their digital marketing efforts where they will get the biggest return on investment. Instead of investing time and money into building their own online network of followers from scratch using social media platforms, in about 20 minutes a business owner can upload their information to an existing network with hundreds of thousands of users such as Trip Advisor or Google. This generates not only free advertising for their business, but also builds a stronger digital presence for the establishments around them. To roll out this strategy to the business community, we traveled to the towns of Whitehall, NY and Cambridge, NY and held Chamber of Commerce advocacy meetings where we introduced the Digital Directory strategy, using the handout pictured below.
The Pitch: The internet isn’t just for the youngsters anymore, people aged 10 to 90 are online. Your current and potential customers are using the internet, make sure they can find you. We explained that businesses that are able to capture the interest of niche markets are poised to out-perform their competitors. This is true for businesses offering a physical good, services, or an experience.
The Call to Action: Invest 20 minutes and get your business online!
Real world application
Tapping into existing networks is a great strategy for helping businesses take the first step in getting online and this type of Digital Directory handout is a valuable tool for any Chamber of Commerce or EDO serving a business community that is falling behind in developing their collective digital presence.
However, just distributing a handout isn't enough, the businesses must be willing to use the information. What if some business owners are still unsure of how or where to upload their information? To overcome this challenge, the local EDO could hold a community workshop inviting local college or high school students who are interested in business development to guide business owners through the online set up. We've also seen communities set up "Digital Marketing Office Hours" where business owners can swing by to work one-on-one with a student intern. This is an opportunity to expose students to real world business development, while also advancing the prospects of local businesses.
A closing thought...
There is a caveat to encouraging businesses to build their digital presence: a sufficient internet connection. Trying to upload information to Google or Bing at dial up speeds is exasperating and sure to deter even the most motivated business. Attempting to run a business without adequate broadband coverage is equally as frustrating, and limiting to business growth. Broadband internet is not a luxury for a business, it is a necessity to compete in a global market. The awareness for the need for major improvements to broadband coverage in rural areas has heightened in recent years, leading to programs like New York’s Broadband for All project or Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, as well as building interest in USDA’s Telemedicine grants, Farm Bill Broadband Loans, Telecommunication Infrastructure loan guarantees and the Community Connect grants.