Small Business Advice

Is your business falling prey to the digital gap?

Oliver Jones

Small businesses are failing to capitalise on the explosion in online spending.

Small businesses are failing to capitalise on the explosion in online spending, according to the Office for National Statistics.

New stats show that though card spend online continues to grow – a whopping £154 billion last year – only 9.7% of sales by micro businesses are online. By contrast, big businesses take 56% of their sales through online channels.

That 40% difference in the proportion of online vs offline sales is becoming known as the “digital gap”. And as the digital gap grows, it gets harder for small businesses to compete with larger corporations, as digitisation leaves them in a shrinking offline market.

It’s cheaper to sell online.

Online sales mean lower overheads, as you don’t need to employ extra customer facing-staff, or employ extra staff to keep selling 24-7. And an online marketplace means you can reach customers without having to buy retail premises in the city centre.

But following the pattern of the internet as a whole, we’ve found that the advantages of online have concentrated in the hands of a few conglomerates, as a handful of retailers, media platforms and news sites dominate the web.

Small businesses need to perform better online.

None of this lets business owners off the hook. Many small businesses’ online offerings aren’t just disappointing – they’re non-existent. 25% of micro businesses don’t have a website and 40% aren’t using social media. In a sector already struggling to cope with big-chain competition, it’s an unforgivable omission.

Small firms don’t have the same kind of resources to invest in social media managers and web developers, so they’re always going to be at some disadvantage compared to larger companies. But compared to the disadvantage in offline sales methods – say, in ordering print ads, or door-to-door salesmanship - the difference is miniscule.

Cost of online set-up? Roughly £0.

The social media sites are all free. A website can be built in 60 minutes using free online tools. There are free platforms for social media management and email marketing. And if you’re more experienced, there’s the Google Agency Toolkit, which gathers a few different analytic and SEO-boosting tools which will help you optimise what you’ve set up.

All these platforms offer free-to-use versions that come with intuitive tutorials. Set-up requires no resources other than a laptop and an internet connection. The sooner small business owners start building their online presence, the sooner they can start closing that digital gap.

So where do I start?

Here’s a run-through of the most popular tools for setting up online:

Google My Business – Google’s free listing will help people find your business, and takes less than a minute to set up.

Wordpress – A staggeringly popular content management platform, Wordpress lets you build anything from hobby blogs to full blown business websites. Somewhere in the region of 75 million websites run through Wordpress.

Mailchimp – The most popular email marketing service, and one of the easiest to use. They’ve recently beefed up their free service with automated email campaigns.

Hootsuite – An intuitive social media manager that lets you schedule posts and monitor multiple social media channels at once.