At a time during the pandemic when brick-and-mortar companies were closed or inaccessible, consumers increasingly shifted to digital. They embraced online buying and became acclimated to curbside pickups. They ordered dinner from their smartphones and tried on clothes in a virtual dressing room. By all indications, this digital shift is only going to become more tightly woven into consumers’ lives. And that matters for entrepreneurs, who need to figure out how to capitalize on this transition, adapt their existing online strategies, and grow their businesses.
At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival 360, Meta hosted a virtual panel discussion about how entrepreneurs are getting creative about technology to elevate their brands. It featured Carolyn Coyne, director of small business and programs at Meta; Renee Ventrice, co-owner of Cork & Keg Tours; and Dawn LaFontaine, founder of Cat in the Box. The trio discussed the importance of digital for creating better connections with customers, tips on content creation, and how immersive technology is the key to future business growth. Here are four takeaways from their conversation.
1. Use social technologies to connect with customers.
During the pandemic, social media was the only way many business owners could interact with their customers, so they used the platforms to reveal their personalities and gain customer feedback. And those that managed those interactions well saw the benefits. “We know that from the surveys we’ve taken that a digital-first approach can significantly impact customer relationships [and] revenue,” Meta’s Coyne said. “Approximately 69% of SMBs reported that use of digital tools has had at least one positive impact on their business operations, such as an increase in sales or customer base.”
Ventrice, whose winery tours were suspended during the pandemic, started singing karaoke on Facebook Live, hosting virtual wine tastings, and providing helpful information to her followers, such as which restaurants were offering curbside pickups and family meals. “Listening to our clients definitely has been a huge, huge benefit,” said Ventrice, who attributes 75% of her business sales to Facebook and Instagram.
Thanks to digital interactions with customers, LaFontaine used feedback about her gingerbread-style playhouse for cats to completely redesign the product. “This is a way to get that immediate qualitative feedback directly from the horse’s mouth,” she said.
2. Storytelling brings your brand to life.
To differentiate your business from the sea of competitors online, it’s important that your customers know the person (or people) behind the brand. “When I make a post about it being my wedding anniversary and loving working with my husband, who’s also been my partner for 27 years, people love that,” Ventrice explained.
Using social media platforms such as Facebook Groups to position yourself as a trusted expert can help build community and deepen your relationships with customers. Telling your story to customers online can also capture the attention of the media, who may then share your story with their large audiences.
“Those stories are just the linchpin to bringing your brand to life, to driving affinity, which then ultimately gets you more exposure and then takes people down that funnel to actually purchasing,” Coyne said.
3. Focus on creating content.
While many entrepreneurs understand the value of social media, coming up with creative posts over and over again can be an overwhelming and time-consuming task. Coyne shared five tips for entrepreneurs:
- Create different content for each platform. For example, use Facebook to share information and build your community, and use Instagram Stories and Live to share behind-the-scenes visuals.
- Go mobile. Use your smartphone to capture pictures and videos that showcase your life as an entrepreneur. That could include showing your kids, your product development, and anything else that reveals your unique perspective.
- Make your customers and employees famous. Spotlight your team and the glowing reviews from customers who have enjoyed your product or service.
- Go beyond social media ad campaigns. Create a seamless experience from when customers see your post or ad, to when they click your website link, and ultimately make a purchase. And don’t forget to take advantage of hashtags, like #DeserveToBeFound and #BuyBlack, to help your posts get in front of more prospects.
- Use apps that simplify content creation. Explore the variety of apps, such as Adobe Spark and Canva, that provide templates for you to create professional quality photos, videos, and marketing materials.
4. Immersive technology is the future.
The next level of digital engagement is through immersive technology that allows customers to more fully experience brands in a virtual space. Entrepreneurs can now provide opportunities for customers to interact with their brand in more meaningful ways. For instance, Ventrice is thinking about experimenting with virtual chef tables where her company delivers ingredients and wine to customers who prepare the meals during an online cooking class as a way to use social tech to connect when that may not be possible in person.
As technology continues to evolve, Coyne said, entrepreneurs will be able to take advantage of even more sophisticated virtual environments in the metaverse: “The idea behind the metaverse is how do we make the virtual experiences that we’re already tiptoeing into richer, more emotional, and more seamless? That’s what it’s all about.”