Compete By Being Small

Image Compete By Being Small
By Vanessa Salvia

If you’re considering starting a business, one of the first things you’re going to look at are the established businesses that are already in your niche. If you plan to have an ecommerce website, it can be quite intimidating to consider competing with the dominant players in the online marketplace, such as Amazon.com, Overstock.com and others. Yes, your operation will be tiny in comparison, but there are advantages to being the little fish in the big pond—If you can't compete by being big, compete by being small!

It’s tough to go head-to-head with Amazon, etc. They already control close to 40% of the commerce that occurs on the web. They may have greater selections and lower prices. But buying expensive ad spots, increasing your inventory and slashing your prices to compete with them is a war you’re unlikely to win. As a small ecommerce business owner, your best ammunition is the thing you’ve got that Amazon hasn’t got—use the fact that you are small to your advantage.

Tell your story on your site

People expect that a small business is going to have a small staff. They expect that the owners are probably doing much of the work themselves. So when customers find your site, it has potential to be a sort of invitation to get to know you better. An About Us page is a place where other people can learn about you and your reasons for starting the business that you have.

Let your passion for the product or niche you’re filling be apparent. The About Us page is the place where you have the most control over the impression you personally make when people discover your site. It’s also the place where you can reveal your credibility, make apparent the connections your business has with other people and businesses, and what you can do to make the customers feel comfortable doing business with you. Tell them about yourself, invite them to get to know you better. Tell them what you do to be socially responsible, what kinds of awards and acknowledgements you and your business have received, what you’re hoping to achieve or what you hope people will learn from your site.

How you structure that information is up to you. Tell the story of how you came to start the business. What’s the history behind your business development? Who influenced you and why? Take people on a tour of your business, through photos, videos, testimonials from customers and associates and employee biographies. However you present the information, take a personal approach.

Build on your personae

Once you do that, you can create the impression that you’re really there to help, that your business is mom-and-pop and you’re the good neighbor that could be living right next store to them. Other pages on a website where you can build on your personae are FAQs and other informational pages about your products and services. If all you are offering is products or services to buy, you will have a hard time competing with other sites that offer more for less. Providing potential customers with something of value, like information they can’t get anywhere else, is what’s going to set you apart from the pack and keep customers interested in what you have to offer.

Building personal trust

Since you’re the owner of you business you can offer one thing that no other business can: a personal guarantee. You probably know your customers better than the big super-mega-stores do. You’re the owner of your business—you know the industry inside out, so you can utilize your deep knowledge of the product and allow it to be apparent that you are an expert. Customers are often much happier to buy from someone who is an “expert,” even if their products cost a bit more. Consumers are naturally cautious, especially when buying products online that they can’t see and feel beforehand, and so online consumers are increasingly doing business with companies they trust.

Building trust has to do not only with selling quality products and positioning yourself as an expert. It also has to do with how you treat your customers and how seriously you take the relationship that they are building with you. Assure the customers of their privacy and take it seriously. Neglecting to do so will hinder your efforts to build confidence and trust among your customers.

The basics of building trust are to have a high-quality website free of mistakes and typos, sell customers what you say you will sell them, make shipping and return policies readily available, clearly display your security settings, and be associated with other trustworthy organizations (like Hacker Safe’s ScanAlert) through third-party verification.

Providing individualized service

Small businesses are often in the position of being better able to respond to customer’s needs, more quickly and with greater personal attention to detail. One of the recent Internet success stories was the growth of online shoe seller Zappos from a relative unknown when their company started in 1998 to the biggest online shoe store. Sure, Zappos is no longer considered a small company, but they were small at one time, and they had to reach out and build trust and establish a brand just like you do. They did some things right, and it paid off for them.

Zappos achieved an incredible word-of-mouth marketing boost a couple of years ago because they provided one customer with incredible service on a return. A woman intended to return some shoes to Zappos, but her mother died and naturally she was taking care of other things and didn’t return them within the agreed-upon 15 days. Zappos arranged for UPS to pick up the shoes, then sent the woman flowers after hearing why she hadn’t made the return. The woman, Zaz Lammar, blogged about her experience with Zappos and the story got reposted in the Internet for months. Customer experiences such as this helped build Zappos into the powerhouse they have become.

Zappos says their “core company values” are about extending the greatest possible customer service. It’s less likely that a large operation like Amazon would have, or could have, responded in the same way. That’s the power of being small: greater flexibility, faster response time and personal attention that customers can’t and don’t get from super-mega stores. In July of 2009, it was announced that Amazon purchased Zappos. It will be interesting to observe how the Zappos culture and values change under the new ownership.

Reaching out via social avenues

As a small business owner, you’re also in a position to own your online image much more thoroughly, through monitoring what people are saying about you and your products online, responding to it, and creating opportunities for discussion. Start your own online community through a business blog, forum, Facebook page or Twitter account.

Reaching out via social avenues makes you easy to find, which also helps engender trust, but it is also yet another demand on your time. Tech-savvy consumers today expect a company to have some sort of social presence; this gives them a way of interacting with the brand and the people behind it. In the past days of marketing, a company was usually only accessible through its customer service number. Today, consumers have an unprecedented ability to engage in dialog with other customers and everything else online that other customers are saying about you. Get in there and join the conversation. Have some fun while you’re at it too! Today’s social media is about engaging people with interesting content and useful information.

As the business owner, you have an opportunity through social media to put the personal stamp of approval on everything you do, and a social media outlet is the best way to do it. It can be tough for a busy small business owner to manage the demands of daily business and a social presence. But in today’s world, it means a lot to many people to be able to communicate with the business owner through different social channels.

The typical Internet shopper has evolved in recent years. Recent statistics from Nielsen Online (http://server-uk.imrworldwide.com/pdcimages/Global_Faces_and_Networked_Places-A_Nielsen_Report_on_Social_Networkings_New_Global_Footprint.pdf ) indicate that “two-thirds of the world’s Internet population visit a social network or blogging site, and the sector now accounts for almost 10% of all Internet time.” This extraordinary growth in social networking traffic means that the way consumers interact with other people, the media, and advertising in general is changing too. If they spend more and more of their time on Facebook, for instance, they are seeing more and more Facebook-based ad platforms.

This isn’t to suggest that you should stop whatever you’re already doing and focus only on social media marketing, but use of social networks should be a facet of your overall campaign. Though you may not have the budget of the big name competitors, and in fact, because you don’t have the same resources as your big competitors, your ability to be creative and flexible is your best weapon. If you can understand today’s online consumer and respond to the level of interaction they are looking for, you can be successful, no matter how small you are, or how big you become.
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