3 Online Tools to Drive Traffic to Your Local Business

Wednesday Aug 3rd 2011 by Jennifer Schiff
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How Foursquare, Milo and Yelp can help local retailers (and service businesses) attract new customers, create repeat business and increase sales.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by BIA/Kelsey and ConStat, nearly all consumers (97 percent) now use online media -- an average of 7.9 different sources -- when researching products and services in their local area. Jack Abraham, the founder of Milo and director of Local for eBay, believes this fact has costly consequences for retailers and service businesses that don’t pay attention to and act on this huge trend.

"So if a local store is not part of that [online search] experience or is not discoverable during that research phase, they risk being left out -- and losing that business to other retailers who are present when the customer is deciding what to buy and where to buy it online," said Abraham.

But with so many online tools to choose from, how do you know which Web-to-local services are truly worth the investment (even if it’s only your time)? Start by formulating a Web-to-local strategy, and ask yourself the following questions when evaluating your options:

  • Is my main goal to acquire new customers or to retain existing customers? (Ideally, you want to do both, but which is more important right now?)
  • Who is my target customer -- and which sites or services do they use?
  • What’s the cost (both from a time and money perspective)? Do I have to spend a lot of time on this? Is it a laborious process?
  • What are the benefits of using a particular service? Will using it put me in front of 100, 1,000, or tens of thousands of nearby, potential customers? And are these customers going to be one-time bargain hunters or the kind of people who will become loyal brand advocates?

"Probably the best way to look at it is as a simple cost-benefit analysis," said Abraham.

For example, daily deal sites such as LivingSocial and Groupon seem very attractive to small businesses, with their potential to generate a large amount of business/sales in a very short period of time. However, they tend to attract discount-minded bargain hunters who are unlikely to become repeat customers.

Moreover, they often wind up costing businesses money. That’s because in addition to offering steep discounts, which cut into their margins, businesses have to pay the daily-deal sites a fee or percentage upfront, before a single sale has been made. That said, if you’ve crunched the numbers and are reasonably sure you can turn a small profit, using a LivingSocial or Groupon might be a worthwhile investment.

Again, it’s all about that all-important cost-benefit analysis -- and knowing who and where to find your target customers.

3 Web-to-Local Services

Small business owners who want to take a less-risky, less-expensive approach to attracting new business and retaining customers can choose from many other helpful Web-to-local services out there. And three of the most popular are Foursquare, Milo (now a part of eBay’s Local) and Yelp.

Foursquare

Erin Gleason, PR manager for Foursquare, believes this Web-to-local service offers value for businesses of all stripes. "Every type of business -- national chains, mom-and-pop shops and anything in between -- can use Foursquare to attract new customers and reward and retain loyal customers," she said.

Foursquare’s Merchant Platform lets business owners offer discounts or freebies (called Specials) to people who come to their retail stores. The Platform is free, and Foursquare lets business owners choose from a variety of Specials, depending on whether they want to acquire new customers (in which case they might use a Flash or Newbie Special) or to retain existing customers (using a Loyalty or Mayor Special).

In addition, Foursquare is constantly adding new tools and partners. For example, the service recently partnered with LivingSocial, Gilt City, Zozi, BuyWithMe and AT&T Interactive, giving small businesses even more opportunities to connect with Foursquare’s 10 million-plus users.

Milo

Milo, a leading local shopping engine, which was recently acquired by eBay, is yet another powerful online tool to steer customers to your local retail business. Milo does this by showing consumers what stores in their neighborhood have in stock and how much it costs. This saves them time (and money), and it helps local businesses increase foot traffic.

And while comparison shopping is popular with bargain hunters, Milo founder -- and now director of Local for eBay -- Jack Abraham argues that individuals who go to a store because of Milo are more likely to purchase something when they get there and become repeat customers.

Using Milo -- specifically Milo Fetch, the free downloadable software for business owners -- "takes around two minutes to set up," said Abraham. "Just double-click on it, load it, and it integrates with your existing inventory and point-of-sale system. So you can get product data out onto the Internet -- and be present when customers are deciding what to buy and where."

Moreover, now that Milo is part of eBay, retailers who use Milo Fetch are automatically included in more than 2.3 billion product searches a quarter (the number of product searches performed on eBay last quarter) -- and will show up in the mobile applications of the software.

To further increase the chance of getting a sale, retailers can also offer coupons and promotions through Milo. However, unlike daily deal services, Milo Fetch is free -- "and it doesn’t cut into your margin," said Abraham. And the retailer is in control of how long a deal is available, as opposed to one day only.

Want to read more about how Milo Fetch Beta can help local small businesses get their products in front of online customers? Read Milo Bridges Gap between Online Shoppers and Local Retail.

Yelp

Yelp, as the company likes to say, is "word of mouth… amplified." The service connects millions of people (more than 53 million in June 2011 alone) with businesses serving their local neighborhoods -- or neighborhoods they are planning to visit. With a free Yelp Business account, small business owners can set up a business page with a detailed description, photos and timely information.

They can also see what visitors are saying about them and communicate with them both publicly and privately. And they can track how many people have viewed their business page.

Yelp also provides business owners with a free widget to embed on their main website. The widget lets people know that the business is listed on Yelp. "If someone clicks on the widget, it will take them directly to that business’s listing on Yelp, where they can view additional content, photos, reviews and any Yelp Deals the business may be running," explained Darnell Holloway, manager of local business outreach at Yelp.

More Web-to-Local Pointers

"Developing a Web-to-local strategy begins in the offline world…by creating a great customer experience," said Holloway. Within minutes of walking in your door, customers need to get a sense of your brand and your merchandise. They need to know whether you value them, which is typically demonstrated through great customer service by offering assistance and answering customer questions.

"If they have a truly great experience, new customers may turn into regular customers -- and may also become advocates of their business," he added.

Holloway also stressed the importance of having an attractive, user-friendly, search-engine-optimized (SEO) website "with great content and integrated with [the business’s] presence on social media platforms," another important component of any Web-to-local strategy.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to Small Business Computing and runs a marketing communications firm focused on helping small and mid-sized businesses.

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