Digital platform options can be overwhelming for small business, experts agree

ecommerce

The County of Leeds and Grenville’s economic development office is launching another round of funding to help small businesses get back on their feet post-COVID. 

The Digital Main Street program comprises one provincial and one federal stream of funding, both geared toward helping businesses adopt and use technology effectively.

“In this post-COVID era, more than ever, future growth is going to be strongly related to digital presence,” explained Shelbi McFarlane, business development officer with United Counties of Leeds and Grenville.

However, small businesses can still find the process overwhelming. One difficulty is that many owners can’t afford to hire a web developer or a marketing expert.

Shannon Morrison, owner and physiotherapist at Skyward Active Health Centre in Mallorytown, took part in two streams of the Digital Main Street program in the middle of COVID and said they were immensely useful.

“It was a great way to be able to redo my website without spending money that a small business like myself doesn’t usually have to spend,” she noted.

Initially, Morrison availed herself of the Future Proof program offered by the Digital Main Street Squad to help her revamp her website.

“They helped me move my website onto Shopify and showed me how to edit and redesign it so I had complete control, but they were there to help every step of the way,” said Morrison.

Once the website was complete, Morrison met with a panel of experts in marketing, branding and digital technology who evaluated her website and gave her tips and templates.

“The only difficulty was that I couldn’t figure out how to use some of the templates and, once the two weeks I was allotted were up, I couldn’t reach any of the panel members for clarification,” said Morrison.

She admits she didn’t reach out to the Leeds and Grenville economic development office for clarification either.

“Shannon participated in a fourth Digital Main Street program that is no longer being offered, which is why there was such an abrupt end to her time with that group,” clarified McFarlane. “However, she could have — and still can — reach out to our office to help implement some of those templates and other takeaways from that program.”

While cost is one barrier for small businesses, another common hurdle is the sheer number of digital platforms and how to use them for effective digital marketing.

“I find that people are just overwhelmed,” said Sherry Crummy, owner of Crummy Media Solutions. “They don’t know where to put their money or what digital platforms they should be using. Then there’s the (pressure) of creating digital content consistently.”

Crummy has helped numerous businesses in Eastern Ontario with their digital challenges and she says that the first thing she tells her clients to do is create a marketing plan that includes the target audience and a budget.  

“A lot of clients simply don’t have a plan, so I take them back to talk about goals. Then, unless they’re super new to business, they had to have done some advertising the previous year, so we’ll look at what they spent last year to create their budget,” said Crummy.

While the digital world may seem overwhelming, especially as new platforms emerge and change constantly, and creating content can take time, breaking it all down into manageable bites is the best way to get into the rhythm, explains Crummy. 

“We are one of four groups in Eastern Ontario to receive Digital Main Street funding and provide a digital squad program for Westport, Rideau Lakes, Merrickville-Wolford, Elizabethtown Kitley, Athens and Front of Yonge,” said McFarlane. 

The provincial grant program allows brick-and-mortar businesses to apply for $2,500 to help with online marketing, website upgrades and software or hardware upgrades. Businesses that received funding in previous years can apply again to expand their digital footprint.

“The funding we received also allowed us to re-hire a digital squad staff member who can provide one-on-one mentoring and assistance with powering up social media presence, boosting a business’ digital marketing or setting up e-commerce,'' explained McFarlane.

The federal Canadian Digital Adoption Program invites businesses to apply for $2,400 to help with costs related to adopting digital technologies and expands eligibility to home-based businesses, as long as they have at least one employee besides the owner.

“They’re very similar programs with slight differences in the eligibility criteria,” said McFarlane.

Previous streams of the program have been highly successful.

“I found that I learned so much from all the people that worked with me and now I have a better platform with which to reach people,” said Morrison.

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