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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. As we all know, the pandemic has accelerated digitization in many aspects of life, pushing businesses and consumers alike to become more comfortable doing things on screens that were once conducted face-to-face. And while virtually all of us crave the safe return of days filled with more in-person interactions, there are some positive shifts from the past year I’d argue we should continue to embrace.
This is particularly true for small businesses, a group that has faced extreme hardship since the onset of COVID-19. While their challenges have been great, their resiliency has proven to be greater, in large part because of ingenuity and willingness to embrace new digital tools and strategies in order to navigate the “new normal.” In fact, according to a recent study by Facebook and Deloitte, 84% of business owners started using or increased their use of digital tools since the outbreak began.
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Driving more sales through e-commerce and reaching customers beyond a business’s local community are some of the most obvious benefits digitalization allows, but there are several others, less celebrated, worth calling attention to. Some may not translate directly into increased profits or revenue, but all result in stronger businesses that are more prepared to take on whatever the future brings. Here are three silver linings the unexpected digital acceleration shift has given small businesses.
When the pandemic hit and beloved small businesses were put at risk, with many forced to close physical locations for months, people often looked to help. The same study referenced above found that 52% of customers switched to a small local business during the pandemic. This wasn’t out of necessity due to the crisis; rather, more than a third reported they chose to make this switch to support their local community.
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Across Messenger and Instagram, we also saw a 40% increase over the last year in daily conversations between people and businesses, demonstrating consumers’ appetite to engage one-on-one with businesses they support. Why is this shift in communication so important? Because direct messaging allows businesses to increase personalization, and recent research from global technology company LivePerson showed that 96% of Americans are more likely to do business with a company that interacts with them in a personalized way.
Take dad-owned baby gear business, Lalo, for example. Founders Michael Wieder and Greg Davidson placed an emphasis on personalized conversations on Messenger, with first-time parents shopping for new strollers and high chairs. These one-on-one consumer-to-business chats allowed Lalo to match parents with the right products for their lifestyle, and resulted in a 300% boom in its business since the pandemic started.
In addition to fostering more conversation — and therefore conversion — another benefit of the acceleration of digital outreach among small businesses has been the increase in entrepreneurs connecting online and helping one another get through this difficult time. For example, in the Jewelers Helping Jewelers Facebook Group, more than 22,000 jewelers regularly discuss challenges and look to help one another. John Tolliver, of Simply Sapphires in Wappingers Falls, New York, reported that, through the group, he’s discussed everything from marketing and shipping to insurance and buying and selling — all the while getting new ideas for his business.
Another example is True Respite Brewing in Rockville, Maryland, which, at the start of stay-at-home orders, launched the delivery and curbside pickup platform, Biermi, so they could continue sales even though their taproom was closed. Soon, Brendan and Bailey O’Leary, owners of True Respite, realized how much craft brewers were hurting not just in their area, but all across the country. They posted about Biermi on a craft brewing professionals Facebook Group, inviting other brewers to use the platform for free so they could continue to sell to customers while bars, taprooms and restaurants were closed. Within a few days, nearly 200 breweries had signed up. By the summer, the platform had surpassed $2.7M in sales among hundreds of vendors from 30-plus states.
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In many ways, this rapid shift to online activity had many small businesses opting to adopt digital tools that had the corollary benefit of greater efficiencies in both business operations and customer service, and that is a benefit that will persist. One of my interests is how advances in automation can change business for the better. Consider Rock Your Month, a subscription box for feminine hygiene products. The business is a side gig for founder JaBett Glenn, a full-time active duty military service member. In Messenger, she uses its automation feature to offer an immediate response to a customer inquiry, with the option of getting a self-serve answer from a preloaded FAQ section. That’s created efficiency for the business that ensures she can respond to inquiries in a timely manner, even if she’s on duty or with her family. Leveraging this tool helped her increase conversion by almost 20% by the end of 2020.
Another vehicle to small businesses to help boost automation and efficiency is ManyChat, a global chatbot automation platform that combines the power of Messenger, SMS and email to help businesses engage and support customers across channels. There’s also Vimeo, which gives small businesses the ability to easily make and share high-impact social marketing videos across multiple platforms in minutes with its Vimeo Create feature.
Certainly, the past year has been extremely difficult, but advances in digitalization and resulting benefits may be a silver lining in this tumultuous time. By embracing digital tools to capitalize on consumer interest, connecting with peers online to learn and network and increasing efficiency, we have a chance to emerge from the pandemic better positioned to thrive in the future.