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The skills shortage that could curb the power of the internet for SMEs

Xero recently conducted research of more than 1,000 New Zealand small and medium enterprises ( SMEs) that revealed how they hope to grow in 2018. Xero New Zealand country manager Craig Hudson discusses the findings.

One of the common themes arising was how 58 percent of SMEs intend to up their marketing spend this year and how many of them are pinning their hopes heavily on the power of the internet to market their goods and services.

Online marketing is a minefield, so how do SMEs be smarter about their approach to online marketing? It’s certainly easier said than done when most SME owners readily admit they aren’t experts and there is a skill shortage - with one in seven SMEs saying they’ve had difficulty recruiting people with the right experience to help. 

Furthermore, with 35 percent of businesses saying they have the same goal of upskilling in online marketing, the competition for tech-savvy staff can only get worse. So what can be done and how should SMEs focus their efforts in what can be a vast world of online marketing?

First of all, let’s go back to basics before diving into the unknown.

Have a business plan

With 67 percent of SMEs telling us they want to grow their business in 2018 and half saying they want to increase revenue by more than five percent, it is staggering to find out that only one in three SMEs have a written business plan.

So, with no business plan, what are SMEs trying to achieve through online marketing? According to the findings, 58 percent want to achieve growth through marketing - but with no business plan, what does this even mean?

SMEs should think creatively about ways to achieve growth, and a written business plan should be a good start. The plan will help outline where a business’ customers are and where potential new customer opportunities may be.

Online accounting software can also be a SME’s best friend and is accessible from any device with an internet connection, including a mobile phone or tablet. The software’s connectivity to the bank means banking data is up-to-date, in real-time, so businesses and their advisors can both have a clear view of how the business is doing, no matter where they are.

Working with an advisor - for example, an accountant or bookkeeper - to do all of this would be beneficial. By working together and seeing the best areas of performance in the business and identifying areas for growth.

An online shop

Having your own website is essential, and it’s best to think of it as today’s version of being in the phone book. The website will most likely be one of the first interactions with the brand so the experience customers have from the business’ website is important, given this first impression will help make their choice. The business website should clearly communicate the brand and what the business offers.

The rise of online marketplaces means retail businesses should consider some advantages of using these instead of creating their own website.

In some situations, bricks and mortar are no longer prerequisites for running a successful business. As Amazon reached Australasia the barriers to entry are reduced even further for entrepreneurs wanting to enter the retail industry. This is what Alibaba also did selling into Asia.  It’s possible to set up an online store in a marketplace in minutes.

Apps such as A2X makes it easy to account accurately for their Amazon marketplace sales, and automatically post these to online accounting software, Xero. Meaning no manual data entry - saving time and ensuring accuracy.

Those looking to build their own online store can use apps like Bigcommerce to build their store, and automatically track and update inventory.

The power of social media

Because of the raft of choice on the web, most SMEs will likely need to spend money on search engine optimisation and efforts on social media so customers can find them amongst the billion or so websites globally. 

Social media can help you target customers so they can find your business. Knowing what social media platforms are used by your customers, where your potential customers are and what social media channels they use, all help to find the best way to reach existing and new customers. It also allows SMEs to share their brand personality, however, it requires a commitment to keeping it up-to-date through generating original content.

Social media posts relevant to the customer can inspire them to contact you and inquire about your goods or services.  It’s also a useful tool to run promotions as this can encourage sharing of the post or content to new audiences and customers.

Search engine marketing

Without investing hard-earned dollars, there are a few ways to organically improve the search engine optimisation of a website.

Firstly, content is king so if a website has the right mix, you’re a step ahead. Think about the words and phrases people would use when searching for your products or brand and build these into your website content.

A tip to keep relevant is posting unique content on a website or blogs, this improves the Google ranking and means the website, and your business will appear higher up in Google searches so it’s easier to find amongst competitors.

Work with an expert

With skills shortages identified by SMEs, there are other options.

Firstly, SMEs don’t necessarily have to employ their own marketing expert. There are many agencies and freelancers that specialise in online marketing that will be best placed to assist. Also, work with your advisor to confirm your business growth goals and objectives so you can identify the right avenues to pursue and a reasonable budget to spend for the desired outcome.

Before going off to spend money on online marketing to achieve your growth ambitions, business should check the basics first.

Hiring a digital marketer can help your business if you know where you’re going and want to go, but setting up a solid foundation and clear direction, such as a written business plan is a great starting point. Then if online marketing is your answer, get some expert advice from your financial advisor.

The power of the internet is only effective if SMEs have specific goals and know how they are going to target new and existing customers.

Craig Hudson is Xero New Zealand's country manager.
This story first appeared at StopPress.

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