Small biz eyes the promise of online

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles focusing on the changing role of information technology in various sectors. The series looks beyond the push for universal broadband, asking how Internet access and the advances of technology are changing life in Addison County.
MIDDLEBURY — It wasn’t long ago that a small business owner didn’t have to worry about Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, OpenTable, FourSquare, TripAdvisor, or even maintaining a website.
Now, a web presence is rapidly becoming the norm for even the smallest businesses. Andy Mayer, president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, said he sees more and more local businesses pushing to develop online offerings. Key are ones that allow patrons to interact with the business.
“Businesses are definitely catching on to social media,” he said.
Kristi LaFayette, who owns the B One hair, skin and nail salon in Bristol, is one of those local businesses that use Facebook. LaFayette doesn’t have a website, but from the time she opened her doors a year ago, she’s been posting open hours, new offerings, special discounts and do-it-yourself tips for her customers on her Facebook business page.
“I use it as a way to reach out,” she said. For now, that’s LaFayette’s main web presence, in addition to occasionally posting on online bulletin boards. She said she’s using as many free software tools as she can to remind people of her business, since she’s seen too many businesses take on debt while trying to market themselves.
For now, the Facebook page is working for her. But LaFayette said that’s not the end of things. She’s building her business slowly, and eventually she hopes to have her own home on the web — not just one on Facebook.
“Once I get all my ducks in a row, I absolutely do want to start a website,” she said.
On a very different scale, there’s Sam Cutting, owner of Dakin Farm in Ferrisburgh. The business still sells many of its Vermont food products — including maple syrup, cheese and ham — through a mail-order catalog to a national audience, but web sales have boosted the company’s business so much that it recently added a 14,000-square-foot storage, packaging and call center to handle the traffic.
The company’s new website also went live on Nov. 17, and Cutting said the new one was designed to be easier to navigate — and easier than the old one to find on Internet search engines.
Cutting said the website and social media allows his company to build up its story, and its Vermont brand — customers can interact directly with Dakin Farm through Facebook and Twitter, and watch YouTube videos that show where and how the company’s wares are produced.
All this comes at a cost. Cutting remembers Dakin Farm’s first website in 1995, which just had a shopping cart. These days, it’s not cheap to build a complex, secure e-commerce website.
And the most important times for social media presence comes just at those times when everyone is the most busy — during the holiday season. Cutting said it does require significant staff time to keep a high profile online.
But, he said, while Dakin Farm still sends out mail-order catalogs, the Internet plays a more and more significant role in its business.
“The Internet has provided a lot of growth, at a pretty good cost,” said Cutting. “It levels the playing field, so we can compete with national businesses.”
Large, custom website solutions can cost many thousands of dollars, and many small businesses simply can’t afford the high price tag. But the Chamber’s Mayer said there are other options. More people are seeking out ways to build their own websites or hiring people to customize sites on existing website frameworks, which can significantly lower the price.
“The cost of websites has definitely come down,” Mayer said.
In some cases, it’s surprising how cheap websites can be. Google has been holding its own “Vermont Get Online” events around the state, working with Intuit to offer a free website builder and one free year of web hosting. Google employees held two Middlebury sessions to help business owners through the process of creating a simple website on their own.
Lincoln-based Gorilla Web Marketing also offers a software and service package for small businesses. In addition to larger web development and consulting packages, owner Bryan Grundon said it became clear recently that he needed to provide an option geared more toward the simplest web needs of businesses, like a web address, known as a URL.
“For a lot of small businesses, (custom work) was outside of their price range,” he said. “But what a lot of small businesses need is a URL — they just need to get across critical business information: What are your hours, where are you located.”
Since August the company has offered a basic small business package — a simple profile site, email marketing and basic marketing consulting — for free, with the business owner paying only domain name registration and hosting costs. A more advanced site with multiple pages and more capabilities and services steps up to $599 and $899.
Grundon said the availability of the small business packages has brought more local business to his company.
“Demand is coming more and more from Vermont — it’s such a great small business state,” he said.
Some hospitality businesses catering to an out-of-state audience are ahead of the game on their social media presences, pushing their name out on the Internet so that visitors from afar can find them easily on the web or on a smartphone.
But for other local businesses, Mayer said having a social media presence is still optional, especially on the newer and more experimental social media sites. Location-based check-in services like Foursquare or Foodspotting, which allow users to check into a place and upload photographs and tips, don’t yet have a huge presence in the local market.
Key in taking on a social media account is understanding the goals — whether it’s just getting a business name out there, or making the cash register ring. In a March 2010 survey of more than 2,000 marketers, research firm Marketing Sherpa found that 96 percent said that social media was either “very effective” or “somewhat effective” in increasing awareness of a brand or product, and many said social media platforms work well for increasing public relations and upping website traffic. But only 65 percent said it was very or somewhat effective at increasing sales revenue.
And some are skeptical that social media is right for some kinds of businesses. Australian business school professor Mark Ritson recently pointed to a case where Pepsi in 2010 created a new marketing strategy that moved 50 percent of its branding budget away from traditional advertising channels and into social media, and as a result, he said, actually lost 5 percent of its market share.
But there are those who are willing to test the waters.
Sarah Franco, who manages the social media accounts for 51 Main at the Bridge in Middlebury, said she keeps up a web presence not only on Twitter and Facebook, but also on Foursquare. She’s noticed a jump in local participation since she began following check-ins at the restaurant a year ago.
The business also runs a deal that rewards the user with a free dessert with dinner every third check-in. Since September, said Franco, 21 people have redeemed the deal, which works out to 63 separate visits to the restaurant.
“It’s a fun way to reward people for their loyalty,” she said.
51 Main is ahead of the technology curve compared to many other small businesses in the state — in Franco’s role as special projects coordinator at Middlebury College she is also tasked with managing some of the college’s other social media outreach, as well as exploring new opportunities to interact with the more web-savvy of the college’s student population.
But she said it’s not just students interacting with 51 Main on its social media accounts. In fact, she said that while she sees more students interacting with the restaurant on Twitter, many of those who comment or like the restaurant’s Facebook posts are members of the wider community.
But Mayer said wooing customers online isn’t quite as simple as popping up a website or a Facebook page. He said businesses in the hospitality industry worry increasingly about their reputations on review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
Franco said reviews on those sites don’t govern decisions at 51 Main. But she does keep tabs on comments people post, and she makes sure to pass any negative comments along to restaurant management.
Dan Brown, owner of the Swift House Inn and Jessica’s Restaurant in Middlebury, said TripAdvisor is a source of stress for him and many other innkeepers.
“There’s a kind of love/hate relationship with (sites like) TripAdvisor,” Brown said. “You live in fear of what’s going to come out on it, but it’s a huge way for people to find lodging.”
Brown said these days, nearly every innkeeper has to face the task of maintaining a presence on these web sites, paying attention to new sites that pop up and responding to negative reviews.
“You really need to spend about an hour a day monitoring your online presence,” he said.
That, he said, is time that a small staff just doesn’t always have — especially when a web presence means checking review sites, updating blogs, posting to Twitter and Facebook and keeping up with developing technologies.
But Brown is also building out his own websites. He launched a separate website for Jessica’s Restaurant just a few months ago, setting up an online reservation account with OpenTable. Now, guests can book reservations directly through the site, but they can also discover the restaurant on opentable.com. Brown said a lot of people are finding the restaurant that way, especially since Jessica’s is the only restaurant on OpenTable in the Middlebury area right now.
The most important thing in marketing the inn, he said, is meeting people where they are. While the older crowd is still traveling the most, more young people — the ones for whom technology is the first option — are traveling and seeking out reservations online.
And an Internet connection for guests is virtually a universal demand, said Brown.
Fleur and Russell Laslocky, who run Fair Hill Bed and Breakfast in Middlebury, had several guests cancel reservations when they found out there was no Internet.
“For us, that was fairly new,” said Fleur Laslocky. “There were not too many people before whose visit was predicated on Internet access.”
Now, the Laslockys provide guests with mobile wireless access through Verizon, since their East Munger Street home is not reached by any other Internet.
She said it’s been a new draw for their guests, and Brown said he gets calls from guests to make sure they have Internet — even though the Swift House Inn website advertises it prominently.
“(Technology) has really changed the dynamics of innkeeping,” said Brown.
At this point, Brown said he gets between 10 and 15 percent of restaurant reservations online now, and about 25 percent of inn reservations online.
He said businesses can’t let the web presence get in the way of human presence, though.
“Even with all these technologies, the most important thing is the person who answers the phone,” Brown said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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