By Vodafone UK

It is well-known that small businesses are a vital part of the UK economy, making up 99 per cent of all UK businesses. But what is not as commonly known is there are a plethora of affordable and free tools available to small businesses which could enable them to cross the digital divide that stands between them and larger, more tech advanced, competitors.

This lack of knowledge became apparent at the series of digital skills workshops for small businesses which Vodafone UK recently hosted in London and Leeds. The workshops, conducted in partnership with Freeformers, a digital transformation company, provided numerous SMEs with vital but practical digital skills to help them increase their revenue and be more competitive amongst larger players with bigger budgets.

The workshops also highlighted that big differences can be made with small changes as well as providing some practical tips to help SMEs do more with their digital and online presence. In fact approximately a third of SMEs in the UK  do not have an online presence at all, meaning they are potentially missing out on sales opportunities and the chance to better compete.

Many small businesses therefore risk falling behind the digital curve since they lack the means (ie an online platform) and the digital skills they need to reach more customers, deliver responsive customer service, recruit the right talent and grow their business.

However these obstacles can be overcome with small but impactful changes combined with minor investments in technology tools that will enable small businesses to ride the digital wave, reaping the benefits of connecting business with digital technology.

To mark Small Business Advice Week, participants and trainers at the event have pulled together a selection of ‘top tips’ below to help other SMEs drive their own digital transformation.

Tip 1 – Take advantage of the level playing field

Despite almost 96 per cent of consumers now actively using the internet to search for products and services, almost two million UK SMEs don’t have an online presence. That’s a staggering disconnect,” says Jonathan Kini, Head of Small & SME Business, Vodafone UK.

Screens (PD)The internet has created a level playing field for smaller businesses to compete with larger enterprises; anyone who has Googled a known brand will have likely found a range of smaller challenger brands pop up too. Small businesses absolutely need to take advantage of that, and they may be astonished at how easy, and cheap it is to set a business up digitally.

"You can set up a website for next to nothing and then use a quick Google search to find the bit of code you need to modify the site to better attract potential customers. You no longer have to be fluent in HTML or CSS to have control of your digital offering.

With significant web traffic coming from mobile devices, it is also important to optimise the format and content of your website for tablets and smartphones, not just desktop computers.  A recent study on mobile technology found the 25 per cent of SMEs which use mobile services most intensively have revenues that grow up to twice as fast as their peers and create jobs up to eight times faster.

Customers "use of online and social media channels to learn more about businesses and their products and services is only going to increase. So if businesses aren’t online and optimized for different devices, they may find themselves invisible as the digital revolution continues.

Tip 2 – Start embracing social media, it’s easier and quicker than you think!

Liz Paton, Co-Founder of Tarnished studios says “I, like many others I know, have always struggled to find the time or drive to update social channels as often as I should. But it isn’t anywhere near as complicated and time intensive as I thought.

In the Freeformers and Vodafone workshop, I set up a pay-per-click campaign on Facebook in about ten minutes. Seeing the analytics first hand really opened my eyes to the opportunities and return on investment this kind of advertising provides. Free online tools also make managing social media a whole lot easier. My own top tip for twitter users would be to check out RiteTag; a brilliant free tool that rates and recommends hash tags with an easy traffic light system.  You can combine this with Buffer or Hootsuite to set your posts in advance and save yourself a lot of time.”

Tip 3 – Hone your digital listening skills

Freeformers expert Don Driori adds to Liz’s point: “It’s tempting to only use social media to shout about your achievements but that would be missing a key point of these channels. Don’t forget to listen too.

Follow and research both the business and the person you’re interested in engaging with. You’ll quickly get a better grasp of what their priorities are, what the work culture of that organisation is like and how you could extend an invitation to help them. Don’t forget to retweet or share their achievements, comments or blog posts too. It will get you noticed, builds trust and will help you secure that all-important meeting.

Tip 4 – Empower collaboration

As well as improving customer service and helping to reach more customers, mobile and digital technologies enable more connected workforces. With a mobile device, secure network, messaging apps and access to information and cloud based collaboration and project management tools, employees can work productively and together anytime, anywhere.

At Freeformers we use software called Asana to improve our workflow and help colleagues keep projects up-to-date in one central location. It shows the latest tasks and different stages of progress through updates visible to all. It’s truly transformative. Another useful digital tool is Slack, an instant messaging system to streamline internal communications. We swear by it,” says Dan Drori, Commercial Director, Freeformers.

The prospect of keeping-up with technology to be competitive and customers’ expectations of businesses being ‘always on’ to respond to enquiries and deliver service can seem daunting for SMEs. But the accessibility to the online marketplace through ubiquitous connectivity and digital technology tools creates a huge opportunity for small businesses to increase their visibility, reach more customers, recruit today’s tech savvy millennials and drive more business.

Small but impactful things like creating a simple, clean website; using free tools to drive conversations on social channels; running affordable, targeted online advertising campaigns; and implementing effective collaboration tools can make a big difference to how effectively small businesses compete in the digital marketplace, now and in the future.

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