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SMEs: Use psychology to fight above your weight

If you cast your mind back to your childhood, which for most of us is, unfortunately, long before the arrival of the World Wide Web, then you might be able to remember how your local corner shop was part of the fabric of the community. As eyes moisten and we all get lost in memories of boiled sweets and delivery boys on bikes with baskets, I'm keen to clarify just how recently this was. Before the explosion of Aldi, Asda, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s et al, local shops were built on convenience, but more importantly on trust and a personal relationship with those who worked there.

The same can be said for many other local businesses. Pre-WWW, the reputations of plumbers, decorators, butchers, and other services were earned and sustained by word of mouth, alongside perhaps a two-inch weekly appearance in the local classifieds, or a spot in the local business telephone directory. Today, the advent of social media, and the internet more broadly, means consumers have a wider choice of how they select their goods/services and where they buy from. Just as bricks-and-mortar supermarkets have cannibalised smaller local traders, so too the web is putting more pressure on small businesses to build a web presence and take their services to an online, as well as an offline, audience. If you don't go online, your competitors will and your customers will find them, seems to be the mantra.

As consumers, it seems we love the underdog. And when it comes to small businesses we trust them too, but in a digital world that doesn't mean we'll necessarily buy from them. In a recent UK survey from 123-reg and YouGov, it was revealed that more than two-thirds (71%) of British adults who purchase items online from a business’ website think that a small business’ offline service is more personal than that of a big business. However, over half (59%) felt that big business websites were generally better than those from small businesses.

Hardly surprising, is it? Keith, your local plasterer, is a dab hand with a trowel but website building just isn't his domain – pardon the pun. SMEs often don't have the budget or resources to build and manage a website, with various research suggesting between 50-60% of the UK's five million small businesses still do not have an online presence. The gap is being filled by web builders and template providers, such as 123-reg and WordPress, Wix, GoDaddy and Moonfruit, to name but a few. Building a website using customised templates can be a quick way to get online, but after ticking that box, it's time to face the next challenge – the digitally-savvy consumer.

If we believe the above, consumers trust small brands in the offline world, but turn to the big boys when it comes to delivering the goods online. As digital consumers we're becoming increasingly demanding about what we expect from our online experience. Global research from Populus and Netbiscuits paints a picture of the death of brand loyalty, where online customers will immediately jump ship if they don't get what they want or appreciate the way the website works. In fact, the survey said that 91% of expectant consumers, particularly across the 18-34 age range have turned to a competitor site if they are left wanting from their mobile experience. Over one-third of all respondents said they often or very often head elsewhere if the experience is not what they are looking for.

So, SMEs not only have to think about getting their businesses online, but also meet the increasingly high expectations of their customers. Mobile has opened up many opportunities for businesses to connect with their customers, but it also creates a headache, as organisations must make sure their content works on every device, screen size, and format. We’ve surely all stumbled across a website not optimised for our device, desperately pinching the screen to view text and endlessly scrolling to navigate the page.

For that very reason, personalisation is becoming more than just a buzzword in the web development space, and behavioural scientist Patrick Fagan from BrainChimp believes it is crucial for small businesses trying to close the gap on the big brands online. Pointing to an online experiment he conducted with 123-reg, exploring the psychological influences impacting website visits and sales, he said:

“The experiment shows that SMEs could almost halve lost sales opportunities and double [shoppers’] propensity to return to a site by using information about the visit to show specific content. It also highlighted that personalisation of a site significantly affected people’s trust and empathy with the business which, in turn, directly translated into purchase and behavioural intent.”

Looking at small businesses, the road to personalised websites seems to throw up two key challenges. The first is technical; actually having the capability to create personalised versions of their website for different users. Another issue is the perpetual debate around internet privacy, and the thought that personalised requires customer data and is therefore intrusive.

Addressing the first point, Matt Barry, COO of 123-reg, highlighted the role of his company's web builder service, which he said targets the market of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, who may not even have the time or skills to implement or manage WordPress templates.

He told me, “WordPress powers a large proportion of the internet and is good for those with some technical knowledge but we’re targeting very small businesses, generally 0-10 employees, the plumbers, the carpenters who don’t even know what WordPress is and couldn’t fix a bug if it popped up. They generally have someone else looking after their website, so if they need to make changes that’s not something they can easily do. With our tool, if you know how to update a Word document then you know how to update your website.”

Given the number of small businesses who are yet to jump on the digital train, Barry has a point. His company launched its new website builder with the one-man band in mind, and it includes ready-made templates that are responsive to the visitor’s device and can be personalised. In short that means that a small fashion retailer in Wigan can control what their visitors can see based on their location, the time of day, previous visits to the site and also view the site based on the capabilities of their device. For example, they could shift to a specific ‘Christmas Sale’ template based on the date, or offer coupons if the customer is close to the store and has consented to use their geo-location data.

And consent is key to the privacy issue. 123-reg CEO Patrick Pulvermuller is keen to stress that personalisation does not mean ransacking visitor data and building up an in-depth profile of each customer. He believes the role of a template provider should be to take all of the technical and regulatory hassle away from small businesses, so they can deliver the best possible web experience with the minimum of fuss.

He said, “Our customers should always be law abiding and following the latest regulations and cookie policies, and ultimately their customer data belongs to them, but we need to make sure they are always compliant and doing the right thing because many of these people will not really understand internet law or how cookie policy works. Plumbers should be thinking about plumbing, not compliance, so we can help them with that and bring traffic to their website. If their visitors want to give information to get a better experience then they should always do that consciously and give their consent.”

Trust is a big word in business, especially online, and while we might be a long way from the days of our trusted local shop, it is becoming a lot easier for these businesses to join the digital revolution. Competing with the big boys offline is a big ask for SMEs, but upping their game online helps level the playing field, and if they can add great personalised experiences to the trust and authenticity they already have with customers, then we might just see a corner shop renaissance in the online world.

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Stephen Dunne

Stephen Dunne has been embedded into the enterprise technology sector for the last decade. As a writer, he is interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society and anything remotely sports-tech related. North Yorkshire born and bred, with an accent to prove it.

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