In light of a changing economy, and the constantly evolving role of technology in consumers’ everyday lives, small businesses and brick and mortar establishments are finding that creating and cultivating an online presence is a vital part of any successful business model. Many of these businesses have been around for years, enjoying periods of growth without ever having considered their digital opportunities, or obligations.  However, the inability to keep up with the needs of a technologically dependent population is threatening to sever the ties between these businesses and the communities they have thrived in.  For this very reason, there’s a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs and small businesses to help each other grow, right at this very moment.

I have had the distinct pleasure of working with an assortment of small businesses, both brick and mortar shops and startups from Michigan, to Atlanta, to West Palm.  I’ve met a lot of really cool, hard-working people who’ve come to realize the American Dream through their businesses, and have decided to bring their products, services and talents to life on the web in order to sustain this dream and make it better.  And, though realizing the need to do so is the first logical and necessary step for small business owners, understanding how and why one should take that step can be a relatively difficult process.

At one point in time, trying to justify having a website to a business owner before the dot-com boom occurred was like pulling teeth. Though the Internet is a far more accepted and highly frequented place nowadays, for those who’ve showed up late to game, trying to grasp the fundamentals of social media, mobile applications and everything in between can be overwhelming to say least.  I’ve found that this scenario has played a key role in deterring many small business owners from getting involved with the management- and in many cases, the creation- of digital identities for their brands.  The good news is that entrepreneurs all over the country are here to help small business owners meet these challenges head on.  The bad news is that there may be a bit of a communication gap.

 The Learning Curve

As I sat fidgeting under the stale glow of fluorescent bulbs in a stuffy conference room somewhere in the Midwest, I eagerly awaited my opportunity to pitch my portion of a proposal.  It was my responsibility to sell this client on a social media plan, which would be part of an overall process that would help elevate his company to the next level.  I was more than ready to give my buzzword-filled spiel about how social media was going to change his brand forever when someone across the table mentioned Twitter.  I felt my chest swell with pride, realizing this was the perfect transition into my part of the presentation. I leaned foreword and opened my mouth, but the only thing that came out was a sound that best resembled a deflated tire flapping on the highway.

Upon simply hearing mention of the name Twitter, the owner of the company went on an extremely long-winded, yet incredibly animated tirade about “Twits”: the morons that “Twitter” to their friends all day and tell them about what color socks they wear. This entire tirade happened before I could get even a single word in.  This guy had no clue what he was talking about- and he was extremely adamant about his misinformation.  He obviously knew everything he needed to know about “Twittering,” and there was no further discussion to be had.  You can guess how well my portion of the presentation, which followed directly after the rant, went.

As rough as it was, that presentation was a pivotal moment for me. Since then, I’ve had countless meetings with people just like Anti-Twitter-Small-Business-Guy.  While it is true that most of these people didn’t have outbursts about social media before I even began my pitch, I nonetheless found that general skepticism and fear surrounding the use of new technology is just plain normal.  Since that first presentation, I have learned a lot about working to help small businesses and brick and mortar companies with marketing, web, or other technology-based solutions.  Here are five things I always keep in my back pocket while doing so:

1. Focus on the benefits of your products or services, not the technology itself

In most scenarios, small business owners- especially if the business is not a tech company- don’t care about what flashy technology you’re using to build their website or app.  It’s not about intelligence; it’s just about speaking their language.  You might sling all sorts of developer-type jargon around when you’re in the office, or engaged in a crazy LAN party with your techy friends, but Anti-Twitter-Small-Business-Guy doesn’t want to hear any of that crap.  He’s concerned about outcomes and how much better off his business will be next quarter, based on the work you’re providing.

2. Results > skepticism

It’s okay if people are a little skeptical about how effective your products or services will be when they first sign on. The remedy for initial skepticism is simply delivering successful results to customers.  For instance, my grandma lost her TV remote control once.  When we couldn’t find it, I said, “Don’t worry G-mama.  I’ll just pick you up a universal remote.”  She didn’t think a “universal remote” even existed- but it most definitely does. I bought and programmed one for her, and now she thanks me every time we watch Matlock.

In case you need a more business-oriented example, I recently worked with a company who, much like my grandmother, has been around for a number of decades.  After assessing the company’s online presence and strategy (or lack thereof), I was very open with the business owner about the importance of content generation and blogging.  I told him how he could use his industry knowledge and experience to establish himself as a thought leader, as well as to boost the overall traffic to his site.  He didn’t really buy it; in fact, he laughed.  But a few months later, when the most visited portions of his website were blog posts, he came to me and asked if we could do more.

3. Annoying questions pay off in the long run

I’ve had clients razz me about the lengthy questionnaire I come to introductory meetings with. But, I don’t mind because I know that if I can get all the information I need from clients during the first few meetings, I won’t have to pester them as much later on while completing my work.  Furthermore, knowing the ins and outs of your client’s business ensures that you can provide them with a solution that’s truly tailored to them. In turn, it’s common to garner better results, both internally and externally.  When an end product is written or designed really well- with those who are going to use it in mind- no one is going to be mad that you asked all the right questions up front to perfect the final product.

 4. Establish a relationship with those who can– and want- to help you

At times, you’re going to be faced with clients who know that their businesses need your help, but they won’t be happy about it.  They’ll be grumpy that they have to fork out cash to bring in “some computer guy,” an outsider, to help them.  When you face this situation, especially with the previous point in mind, it’s best to find someone at the company who actually wants to help you when you have questions or comments.

During a design job I once completed for a restaurant, the owner literally wanted nothing to do with me.  He would let someone else answer my calls and he would make it a point to be absent for meetings.  He was a hardworking man in his late sixties who had immigrated to America and built a successful business with his own blood, sweat, and tears.  He knew that he needed to make sure he was doing all he could to market his business, which meant that he was in need of an optimized website.  But at the end of the day, he didn’t care to be involved with the web creation process whatsoever.  For this reason, I worked with his head chef to get the site ready- a young man who was energetic, happy to help, and motivated by the prospect of increasing the restaurant’s business.  And that we did.

 5. Be honest

Last but not least, I’ve learned to always be honest, no matter who I’m working with.  Small business and brick and mortar business owners are, by and large, honest and hard-working people.  Often, they’re part of a close-knit team or family, and might even be working in a position that their fathers, mothers, or grandparents held before them.  Tradition and respect are big parts of doing business for these individuals, and they don’t take kindly to being taken for a ride.

Furthermore, these business owners have ridden the wave of the economy up and down for years.  They know what it’s like to manage a business in both good and bad times. And, for whatever reason, they’ve decided they want your help.  I’ve found that especially with marketing and tech, there’s very rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. So, I believe it’s my responsibility to sell people things that I truly think will work for them.  For instance, if I meet a couple who runs a business together and they tell me they’ve never used Facebook or Twitter (and have no intention of doing so), I’m not going to charge them to set up social media accounts unless I know they’re going to have someone manage those accounts.  What’s the point in charging people money for something you know they’ll never use?

My goal is ultimately to help the businesses I’m working with grow, no matter what service I’m providing. That means being honest about the things I offer- things that I think will work well for them. And, sometimes it means being honest about things I offer that probably won’t work well for them, based on a specific business model or consumer base. Honesty goes a long way in business and in life- it always has and it always will.

Photography: Aaron Smith