COVID-19 pushed businesses to strengthen their online presence to ensure continuity, but many small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) still lag behind in their digital transformation. In this article, we look at the importance of developing an online strategy and list eight ways to increase digital presence. 

The importance of digital presence for SMEs

It’s a familiar concept these days that if a business does not have a digital presence, it doesn’t exist. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for businesses, including SMEs, to equip themselves with digital tools to overcome the obstacles they faced. Lockdowns and social distancing pushed businesses to rethink their business models and move their operations online to avoid disruptions and maintain continuity. 

In the early months of COVID-19, 70% of SMEs had intensified their use of digital technologies. For many businesses, there is no going back to how things used to be before the pandemic. However, as much as going digital has been a game-changer for many SMEs, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report states that smaller firms are lagging in the transition to digital.

SMEs still need to cement their digital presence, exploiting the potential of new tools. A survey by Cisco showed that 54% of SMEs believed their future growth depended on increasing their footprint online. Implementing an effective online strategy extends beyond developing or optimising your website. This article will detail the importance of digital presence and how SMEs can strengthen theirs.

What is digital presence? 

Digital presence is how your business appears online. The impression that your brand makes can be affected by different factors, such as the company website, social media accounts, paid advertising, email marketing, content, search engine optimisation (SEO) capabilities, and other digital media and platforms.

Ultimately, a fundamental element of digital presence is addressing all the questions about who you are, what your business does, your location, when you are open, and why you do what you do.

Consumers access brands on digital platforms via relevant keyword searches online or via the company’s presence in virtual touchpoints. These touchpoints can be a blog, a social media account, or a paid advertisement on a search engine results page (SERP). Strengthening your company’s online presence can make it easier for customers to interact with your business when wanting to find more information about your brand, products, or services.

Where can SMEs improve their digital business?
  • Website (desktop and mobile versions)
  • Social media accounts
  • Business map listings (Google Maps, Bing Maps, etc.)
  • Online review sites
  • Digital advertisements

What are the benefits of a strong digital presence for SMEs? 

Create visibility for your SME 

A strong digital presence can help businesses be more visible to prospects. Potential clients can access your brand more easily, regardless of whether they already know it or not. With 4.3 billion people using Google and 49% of users turning to Google to discover or search for brands and products, SMEs should leverage SEO and search engine marketing (SEM) capabilities to increase their outreach to internet users and strengthen brand awareness and recognition.

Enhance accessibility

SMEs that have an online presence can increase accessibility for clients and consumers. A growing number of customers use the internet to inform themselves about goods and services. In 2020, 92% of UK-based users between the age of 35 and 44 said they searched online to decide what services to use. 

Being online helps customers browse prices, availability, and services whenever they want. The online information presented by SMEs should help visitors find answers to any questions they may have about your business or, in any case, provide contact information if they need to know more.

Grow your audience

We have mentioned that being online allows your company to be always accessible. It also lets customers come to you outside of office hours and purchase and access your services at any time. Increased accessibility also means reaching out to people who, in other cases, may not be able to access a physical store or even know of its existence.

Another perk is that if these customers are satisfied with your services and decide to share their views on online platforms, your network of potential customers can grow quicker.

Build customer relationships

Websites and social media deliver quantitative and qualitative metrics to help businesses get feedback on their services. Web analytics tools provide insights into customer engagement with your website, and positive reviews can let enterprises know what they are doing right and serve as a tool to showcase a brand reputation and online presence. Negative feedback and data insights are actionable, and businesses can reach out to dissatisfied customers or resolve these issues to help build customer loyalty with strong customer service.

How can SMEs develop their digital presence?

It isn’t easy starting out as a small or medium business. 20% of UK small businesses fail in the first year alone. with the number increasing to 60% over three years. SMEs need to start on the right foot and have carefully structured planning, funding, and marketing strategies. Most importantly, they need to make sure that they have a digital marketing strategy to help them reach out to potential customers.

Consequently, not only do businesses need to be present on search engines, but they also need to work on ensuring that they have a positive presence and that they provide consistent and necessary information for potential customers.

How can small and medium enterprises develop their digital presence without having the resources larger enterprises may have? Here are eight steps.

1. Build your website

Having a company website seems like a basic step. However, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 75% of small enterprises in the UK still did not have a website. Another survey showed that 34% of UK businesses thought their website was unimportant before the pandemic , but that they now value its importance. 

Business websites needn’t be overly expensive or grandiose. SMEs should build websites that are easy to navigate and provide useful, accurate information, such as up-to-date contact details. Updating websites regularly is a necessity too, as SMEs could be losing up to 54% of online revenue if they fail to do so.

2. Deploy a user-friendly, responsive design

SMEs need to make sure that their websites are user-friendly. 94% of users say easy navigation is the most important website feature, so websites should be designed to ensure that users can easily find the information they want on different devices. Websites should also be optimised for mobile. With 58% of Google searches happening on mobile phones, it is critical for user experience and searchability to have a mobile-friendly website

3. Do not shy away from SEO

SEO should be factored into every step of creating and publishing a website. From deciding a domain name, site structure, landing pages, and menu navigation, to finally managing the site once it is up, it is crucial to work on SEO to nurture website traffic via search engines. Continuously improving and updating your website can also help improve its search engine ranking. Businesses can use software to support their SEO strategies. Using keywords relevant to your product or service in your content can boost your position on SERPs and increase the number of website visitors.

4. Turn to SEM if your brand needs it

Search engine marketing (SEM) involves the use of pay-per-click (PPC) ads displayed in search results or displayed on websites, which can target prospects depending on their location, demographics, or their phase of the sales funnel. Paid ads can also increase brand awareness and boost website traffic.

5. List your business in an online directory

Business listings, such as Google My Business and Bing Places for Business can display an SME’s contact information and direct customers to a website when searching online. Businesses can add their name, address, website URL, hours of operation, and relevant business information to a directory. These directories give consumers the chance to easily access contact details. This can help SMEs appear in search results and on mapping services, such as Google Maps and Bing Maps. 

6. Build a solid social media presence

78% of consumers want their brands to use social media to connect. Social networks provide new opportunities to achieve visibility with potential customers and can encourage dialogue and feedback with users. However, businesses should find the social media platforms their target audience use, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, and start posting and engaging on those channels. Monitoring what is said about the organisation and its products, and responding to comments, can help build a positive online presence. Businesses can leverage these platforms and manage social media campaigns to create a brand narrative across multiple channels, and should consider incorporating social media marketing in their brand’s strategy.  

7. Pay attention to online reviews

Customer reviews can be valuable for users to find information about a brand. They can also be a cost-effective way to boost online presence. 87% of consumers say that they read online reviews before making a purchase , so featuring and monitoring reviews on a website or encouraging customers to review your services on search engines, such as Google, marketplaces, such as Amazon, or social media such as Facebook, can help develop trust towards your brand.

Even by responding to negative reviews, brands can show they are professional and that they want to take care of their clients. Companies can monitor and collect reviews and leverage this customer feedback to improve their business. 

8. Monitor online activity

One of the benefits of digital activity is that it can be easily monitored. Website and social media activity can be measured with analytics software that can help evaluate the effectiveness of an SME’s online presence. Online activities can provide access to vast amounts of data that can help SMEs better understand their customers and the viability of their marketing campaigns, to know what works and what doesn’t. 

SMEs need to embrace the shift to digital

SMEs learned at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic about the risks of relying excessively on physical space. Many businesses were quick to capitalise on the shift to digital to maintain business continuity. Even now, as lockdown restrictions have ended in the UK, SMEs should build on the technology investments they have made during the pandemic to ensure they remain competitive in an increasingly digital environment.

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