By Deborah M. Todd Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Small businesses hoping to make waves in the Internet economy are sending out leaky canoes in a race against powerboats, according to a recent report.
The Score Association, a Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit organization of small business counselors and mentors supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, released figures last week showing only 51 percent of small businesses have websites, despite the fact that 97 percent of consumers search for products and services online.
Of the small businesses that did have websites, 82 percent were not using social media, 70 percent provided no call-for-action to encourage spending, 93.3 percent were not compatible with mobile devices, and 27 percent didn't even include a phone number to reach the business.
The disconnect between small firms and the growing number of consumers who vet bricks-and-mortar businesses based on their online presence could be keeping entrepreneurs from millions of customers, said Bridget Weston Pollack, Score vice president of marketing.
"It varies by industry, but the number of people in the United States who shop online is around 75 million. If a company or a small business doesn't have an online presence, they are missing a huge percentage of the population that could be shopping at their store," she said.
Mrs. Pollack said the results weren't all that surprising.
"In general, at Score, what we find most are small business owners seeking help with their online presence simply because they feel like they don't have time. They're working 24 hours a day. There aren't 27 hours, and they don't feel like they have the time to commit to building their websites," she said.
Business obligations aside, some entrepreneurs shy away from Internet commerce and technology in general because they lack Web savvy and are content to stick to the craft or service that allowed them to set up shop in the first place, said Sarah Mayer, co-founder of East Liberty-based small business consulting firm UpTo Know Good.
"We'll get people who established their business 30 to 40 years ago, and not only do they not have websites, many of them are not taking credit cards," she said.
Established last year as a spinoff of East Liberty creative marketing agency Shift Collaborative, UpTo has taken its services to small businesses in McKees Rocks, Millvale, Wilkinsburg, Mount Washington, Mount Oliver and Charleroi through a series of temporary pop-up locations.
The firm, which recently moved into a permanent spot at co-working space The Beauty Shoppe @Cube, will officially begin taking new clients in February.
While clients come to UpTo seeking help with everything from company logos to comprehensive marketing strategies, those seeking digital services consultations generally have websites that aren't responsive and interactive, that lack email or phone numbers, and are slim on content.
Ms. Mayer said the firm's recommendations range from suggestions that the business use WordPress and other Web development services to create easy-to-manage sites, to setting up Facebook pages or taking advantage of Google Analytics to learn what types of content attracts customers.
For those with little to no Web experience, Ms. Mayer recommends hiring outside help to manage day-to-day operations online.
Noting that UpTo and its freelancers have created more than 100 products, including websites, for clients, Ms. Mayer said a lot of advice given on the digital services side was more of a lesson in marketing than one in technology.
"I'll sit down with them and, say, take a picture of the store before it opens, take one in the middle of the day with customers to show progression, and post it on your social media page," she said.
"Once you highlight how easy the changes are, it's not long before they come around."
The Score survey also found that 91 percent of consumers who have a positive experience on a small company's website end up visiting the business.