Fewer than half of small businesses in the U.S. have a website. That was the conclusion of a recent study of companies with fewer than 250 employees by market researchers Ipsos MediaCT.
The study concluded that just 42 percent of the nation’s small businesses have that online presence. No big deal, you say? Then consider another statistic that was reported in media coverage of that 42 percent number. It said that 97 percent of consumers will search for local businesses online.
While I suspect that 97 percent number is more than a little high, it does suggest something that should terrify those in the other 58 percent: a business without an online presence essentially doesn’t exist anymore.
“Wait!” you yell. “My company doesn’t do business online! Our customers don’t need to order from us that way, and I have no interest in whether someone living in Botswana can find me through a search engine. So I’m perfectly happy to be in that 58 percent group. I don’t need to waste money on a website.”
Ah, but you’re mistaken, my friend. Your customers may not conduct business with you online, but they do expect to see you there. If that’s a little confusing, you need to consider that one of the most important roles websites play these days is to establish and prove a company’s legitimacy when you’re not around to do it. If a prospective customer can’t find you online, odds are good that he or she will doubt that your organization is legitimate or really wants his or her business.
And if they can’t find you, guess what they’ll do? They’ll look at the results that showed up in the search engine, and probably do business with one of them instead. There’s a name for all those other results. We call them your competitors.
In the dark ages before the web became a way of life, companies established that they were real and viable through other means. The standard glossy four-color “corporate” brochure was one of those means; having the largest ad in your corner of the phone directory was another common approach.
But in an era where the vast majority of consumers — and an even larger proportion of business-to-business prospects — spends much of its days online, those old standards are becoming increasingly meaningless. Today, a company’s online presence is the key to saying, “Yes, we’re real, and we want your business!”
When you choose not to have that online presence, you effectively cut yourself off from a large group of prospects. You may argue that many — perhaps even most — of your specific prospect group doesn’t spend much time online, and you may even be right. But no matter what group you’re targeting, the number of online users continues to grow at a faster pace than any other marketing channel in history. If a majority of your prospects isn’t already online, one will be next year or the year after.
Prospects aren’t the only group you miss when you choose not to be online. You might be surprised at how often your current customers check to see if you have a website. Why? They need some small piece of information. Maybe it’s whether you’re open on Saturday mornings. Maybe it’s whether you stock part #A624B-white. Or maybe it’s a quick question about a service you offer.
Know what happens when they can’t find that quick answer from your website because you don’t have one? They’ll find it somewhere else, and odds are good that “somewhere else” will be a competitor’s site. Since they’re already there, maybe they’ll just buy what they need. Or maybe they’ll say, “Hmm … I never tried this company, but they look good. I’ll send them my next order and see how it goes.”
Like it or not, the web has made us even more of a society that’s focused on instant gratification. We get frustrated when search engines don’t produce the perfect answer right away. We get annoyed when a company’s website doesn’t tell us exactly what we want to know at this moment. We aren’t willing to wait until Monday morning to call a company with a question, because we should be able to find out immediately!
It’s changed the way most of us handle daily business tasks. Consider what I do when I’m choosing a restaurant for a nice family dinner. I’ll think of a couple restaurants we haven’t visited, and then I’ll try to take a look at their menus to make sure they’ll have something everyone in the family will like. If a restaurant has a website and a menu, they’re in the running. If they don’t, I strike them from consideration.
I have no interest in placing an order before I leave or making a reservation online – I just want more information before I make a decision. And that’s exactly what people do when they’re considering a purchase, whether it’s choosing where to celebrate a birthday or buying a $50,000 piece of manufacturing equipment. Whoever makes it easier to get to that information dramatically increases their chance of making that sale.
It’s true in any number of industries. Retailers without an online presence are quickly losing market share to web-based competitors. Banks that lack strong online systems are losing customers to out-of-town institutions that have invested in sophisticated web-banking interfaces. Cities and towns are losing out on the opportunity to gain new employers (without even knowing they were being considered) because another municipality had better information on its website.
If you already have a website, the other consideration is making sure it’s kept up to date. Having information that’s clearly outdated (such as a table listing “2008 Pricing”) is just as bad as having no website at all. A customer or prospect who visits the site quickly realizes that they can’t trust the information. So they move on to another site that has data they can trust. And guess where they’ll choose to do business?
If your business doesn’t have an online presence, you need to get one. Now. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, it doesn’t need to be expensive — but if you’re not online today, you stand a much better chance of being out of business tomorrow.