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Internet Workshops Highlight Digital Divide For Businesses
The digital world was supposed to create level playing fields and enable all businesses to compete more openly. The feedback from an ongoing programme of internet marketing workshops suggests that the online world is no different, after all.
However, if you're sitting there thinking "I remember that, but it didn't happen for me", don't worry! That simply puts you and your business in the same boat as everyone else. Despite all the changes that the internet has brought to business over the past ten years, the growth of smaller businesses at the expense of their bigger brethren hasn't generally happened - why?
The answer may lie in the feedback that comes from an ongoing series of internet marketing workshops that are held across the North East by MBL Solutions and Web Kinetics, two leading regional agencies in the field.
"The notion that the internet would tip the balance towards the small business was very pervasive until a couple of years ago" says Andy Atkins, MD of Web Kinetics. "It was built largely upon the belief that, in a world where websites were cheap to build, search engine rankings dictated customer flow and price transparency undermined brand premiums; a rapidly-adapting and low-cost small player could grow very rapidly".
"In fact, for a time it looked as if this might happen", Andy continues. "It's not too long ago that plenty of online businesses were successfully 'chipping away' at their bigger competitors, especially in consumer goods and services. You could see significant changes in how people bought electricals, furniture, even insurance."
And this is apparently reflected in the experiences of the organisations that attend the workshops, according to Oliver Stephens, MD of marketing group MBL Solutions.
"There has been a change. Virtually all the workshop attendees these days have operated websites for some time and are often on their second or third versions. As a result, they're no longer wondering whether to be online and how to do it - they're wondering why their well-designed website isn't competing with the 'big boys' in their sector' and they want to fix it."
"Of course, that takes us to the heart of the problem. Just as in the pre-internet days, effective marketing is often the distinguishing feature of the winners in any sector. The idea that an emerging technology, however profound, would completely change the rules of business has been proved wrong".
So what exactly has happened, if that initial promise has not been fulfilled? Surely some things must have changed?
"They have changed, just not that much." Andy comments. "It's true thatsome markets have powerful new intermediaries such as Moneysupermarket in finance, whilst other markets have seen entrants from big players in other sectors - look at the major supermarkets in online electrical goods. However, the brands they sell are still the same ones".
He suggests that John Lewis is a more typical example of the way in which the internet has affected businesses.
"The real story isn't about the internet empowering smaller players, it's about how it takes big players more time to respond to a such a significant shift - and how their resources and marketing experience eventually win through.
Three to five years ago, John Lewis was struggling to come to terms with the impact of the internet. It had a poor website, poor search engine presence, weak logistics and weak integration between the online and store operations. Not surprisingly, a number of websites from small, focused businesses were growing rapidly by taking business from John Lewis and other 'traditional' quality retailers.
Today, the picture is very different. It took them a while to get there, but John Lewis, along with many other high street names, now has a brilliant website, great online marketing and strong integration with its store operations.
And the small players who did so well for a while? With few exceptions, they're either still small - or not around!"
But if this is what we've learnt, then shouldn't smaller players in a market just accept that the internet is a tactical selling tool, rather than a major business opportunity?
"Of course they should attend", says Oliver. "In the same way that good businesses have always looked to increase their knowledge and improve their performance."
"What Andy's example illustrates is that there is still no 'silver bullet' that brings success. Whether it's offline or online, the winners are those that build a strong proposition and then communicate it effectively to the right audience", he continues. "It's just marketing, and smaller businesses that get it right become bigger businesses."
Andy concluded by adding, "We've lots of clients that are a testament to the idea that the online world does bring opportunities to grow - just don't expect it to transform you overnight!".
To find out more about taking a common-sense approach to online business, you can contact either MBL Solutions or Web Kinetics for an informal conversation or to book a workshop session.
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