Page last updated at 08:33 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

Small firms should 'increase their website presence'

Howard Graham
Business support consultancy Made Simple Group

Person using a computer
The internet allows sellers of niche products to thrive

As someone who has been advising small businesses for more than 25 years, there has never been a better, yet more challenging, time to start or run a small firm.

The contradiction in that statement is deliberate.

Better, because never has the playing field been so level - and challenging, because of the current economic malaise.

Running a small business requires a skill set of extraordinary proportions, and it really is a miracle that so many survive, yet alone prosper.

Many small business owners do not have the complete range of skills required and are forced to learn as they go along. Identifying the "must haves" of a small business often depends on balancing a range of choices.

A recent survey we carried out at Made Simple Group clearly showed that marketing, and specifically improving visibility to generate new business, were key concerns for many.

In the face of this, it is indeed a surprising, if not extraordinary, statistic that fewer than half of all such businesses have a web presence.

Furthermore, of those small entities which are online, it is estimated that a large proportion are failing to promote their businesses properly.

Niche products

A feature of our current economy is that there are just too many suppliers chasing a finite number of customers.

A small firm's website
Website are open for business all hours of the day

Growing your business depends on differentiating your offering into a unique selling proposition (USP), and communicating this USP to your target market. The web is simply the best way of doing that.

The internet has enabled businesses of all sizes to reach markets that were previously unreachable.

It has introduced the concept of the "Long Tail" so that someone online selling niche products or services can still prosper in a way that was never before possible.

Being online enables us to automate simple business processes to make transactions occur seamlessly and to maximise profitability.

It can drive traffic to us of the type we want. No need to randomly advertise in mass media and rely on responses that in themselves are immeasurable.

Now we can target and measure the very people who are searching for what we sell. And of course, it is open 365 days a year, 24/7.

'Missed potential'

Yet, in the face of all of this, we still come back to the stark reality that so many small businesses fail to explore the web to its full potential.

5 notes
An online retail presence can greatly increase turnover

Even more surprising in considering this, is the fact that when it comes to our purchasing decisions, research has shown that more than 75% of all businesses use the internet in some way to make a purchase.

We also know that those who do have business websites are in many cases offering little more than online brochures, and so often, are impossible to find unless someone actually types them in by name.

These websites are often horribly out of date and simply out of touch with what the modern consumer is looking for.

Great small business websites are constantly changing and operate as an integral part of a business's overall strategy. They generate leads, provide measurement tools and in many cases are a crucial part of a small business's revenue stream.

'Small steps'

So why are fewer than 1.3 million of small businesses not even online, and for those that do have a website presence, why are so many poorly presented?

It is a problem that others are acutely aware of. The Start Up Community, a website helping new start up businesses, launched its "Get Online for Business" campaign recently.

It states quite clearly that it wishes to "empower start ups and business owners to overcome a fear of having an online presence and empower them to use the internet to become more powerful and prosperous".

It has identified a number of reasons why the web is not being properly embraced by small businesses, including - costs, skill shortages, understanding, time and relevance.

In fact, its survey suggests that almost 40% of businesses who took part were affected adversely by skill issues and cost considerations.

Of course, at times when money is tight, small businesses may be wary of the investment necessary to take advantage of online opportunities.

Yet, at the same time, the costs of getting online are so much lower than people think and there are many grants available too.

Furthermore, it is a common misconception in business that everything has to be done in one go.

This "all or nothing" approach is not how successful businesses grow. Success is managed one bit at a time, small changes, made every day - these are the changes that competitors do not really notice.

Skill shortage issues and understanding can be developed by simply reading the plethora of information freely available on the web.

Think about how other successful businesses use the web, read widely online, visit forums and get help.

Whatever your business, the web must be a part of your strategy. Ignore it at your peril.

To ask Howard Graham a question about how best to market your small business, use the email form below.

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