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Six reasons why SMEs are so slow to embrace the digital world

Craig Reardon /

There are few of us in the digital industry that haven’t made the same mistake – that of overestimating the willingness of SMEs to embrace the digital world.

For those of us that had worked in the traditional media, the benefits the internet could provide smaller business for a comparatively small investment appeared to be the promised land.

For here was a medium that not only provide affordable information about your business to any prospect anywhere in the world 24/7 (website), but would actually have a mechanism that would automatically seek out prospects who were in the market for your product and deliver it to you completely free of charge (search engines).

If either of those didn’t provide you with new business, you could buy advertising that for once was as close to performance-based as you could get (pay-per-click advertising), didn’t require long-term commitments and could be changed at any time.

Failing that, you could send a personalised message out to as many prospects as you had details for simultaneously and, amazingly, free of charge (email marketing).

And the holy grail, if you had your website and web marketing set up correctly, you could make the entire transaction from enquiry right through to sale without a single manual intervention such as a phone call or even an exchange of emails, all from your living room if you liked, with the money in the bank.

I mean, what wasn’t to love. Or at least like?

These capabilities were the kind of thing most smaller business operators could previously only dream about in an expensive and relatively unaccountable marketing world.

So why the reticence?

Why then, some 18 years after the web has reached ‘critical mass’, do we still read reports that nearly half of Australian small businesses are without a website and what, from all accounts, appears to be less than 5% registered with what I recently described as ‘social media manna from Heaven’ – business network LinkedIn?

Because I’ve worked with thousands of smaller business on their digital strategies for this same 18 years, I’ve heard most reasons why they haven’t knocked down our doors to jump into this brave new world.

Here are the six most compelling.

1. We’re just not that computer literate

Those of us who have worked in larger business or who use computers on a daily basis would be shocked to discover the lack of basic computer literacy amongst our SMEs. The reality of the situation is that any business that isn’t performed via a computer – and when you look at the makeup of smaller business, that is the majority, computers and its inherent online communication is something that is carried out by administrators and assistants.

What this means is that for many business owners and managers, computers are a medium that they don’t use on a daily basis. And if they do, it’s certainly not for the day-to-day communication and entertainment purposes that younger people do.

This means they are not capable or confident about making decisions concerning technology – even if they are critical to the success of the business.

Those of you reading this blog on your trusty email or website will find these views hard to fathom, but I can assure you it’s true. Otherwise I wouldn’t have spent time today transcribing the handwritten document a client provided me as ‘copy’ for their new website, or spent time trying to convince a local business operator of the merits of computers, let alone websites, etc.

2. We don’t have time to maintain anything

The digital world revolves around the provision of fresh, regular and keyword-laden content. And this is precisely something smaller business are both unaccustomed to and unprepared for.

If business websites and their requirement for regular updates on products and services aren’t foreign and difficult enough, the notion of regular tweeting and posting on social networks is enough to send the average smaller business operator into a state of apoplexy. It’s just not of their world.

3. Just another marketing fad

Small business operators have heard the lot: from the additional queries their upsized Yellow Pages ad will create to the captive market delivered by advertising on toilet doors. And every other promotional technique known to ‘man’.

So when they get contacted, incessantly as it turns out, about a bold new electronic frontier that will revolutionise the very way they do business, you can really excuse them from thinking that they’d heard it all before before slamming the door closed or the phone down.

Starry-eyed entrepreneurs approach the world-weary smaller business operator as if they had something they couldn’t live without. Even if this was the case, they would be unlucky to get past the well-briefed receptionist.

4. Admin tool not communications medium

Even if they have embraced computer technology within their organisations, many are still struggling to accept the computer as anything but a tool of administrative trade, rather than the communications mainstay it has become.

And even then it may be a tool operated by an underling. In a recent comment on this blog, web development boss Ron Stark told the story of a car dealer with an email problem.

“A client called me in to check on some email problems. While sitting at his computer I noticed almost 200 unopened emails with the subject line “Enquiry from website…”. They included service requests, trade-in enquiries, requests for quotes for second-hand cars, requests for new car information and so on. When asked why the emails hadn’t been opened, he replied “I’m the sales manager. I’m here to sell cars, not open emails!”

5. Complexity of website creation

Again, for those who have been involved in more traditional marketing and promotions, the website development process was not, in its most basic sense, dissimilar to producing a multi-page full colour brochure.

It was after all the ‘copy’, photography, graphics and perhaps some links and other techie components all pulled together using technology.

But even this level of complexity is well beyond the experience of most smaller business operators. Few smaller businesses produce full colour brochures like this. Having worked with print prior to the web, I’d suggest that maybe 10% of business with 10 staff or less would have created something this complex, instead working with simple flyers, advertisements or direct mail pieces.

So the leap to a multi-page website in a medium they have no experience with is going to test all but the most marketing-savvy smaller business operator.

6. A bad first-up experience

Among the people clamouring for their first up website business is often a well-meaning friend or family member. But as dab a hand as they may be with Dreamweaver or FrontPage, putting together a truly professional website takes more skill than most acquaintances ordinarily have.

What often results is a pretty ordinary website that does nothing to generate new business and, in fact, may even repel it. Instead of putting this down to the inexperience of the well-meaning helper, many unsuspecting smaller business operators throw the baby out with the bathwater and are very reticent to have another crack – no matter how professional others may be.

Humorous as some of these situations may appear, it’s no laughing matter. These issues are real and prevalent in a market that has become literally overwhelmed with the pace of digital marketing development.

But small business operators need to work extra hard to try to come to grips with these developments or risk being left behind by more web-savvy competitors.

In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.

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Craig Reardon

Craig has been assisting and educating Australian smaller businesses with their marketing and website requirements since 2002 via his business The E Team.

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