Getting Birmingham Businesses online

(pic Dr Craig)

This is part crowdsourcing, part just setting my stall out.

One of the aspects of my new job that I’m wrestling with is the notion that no matter what kind of business you are you need to have an online presence. In Digital Birmingham we have a target for increasing the amount of businesses trading online but ‘trading’ needn’t necessarily imply buying or selling online. It might mean getting customers interested enough to talk to you about a contract over a rival. It might mean increasing your business contacts by using any number of social media networking tools. It might simply mean getting yourself listed in online directories enough times so that you come up high in google when a new customer is fishing around. 

But how do you develop a strategy to get Birmingham businesses online? Here’s my take on it as a series of questions that I’d welcome responses on:

What are we measuring?
Pete Ashton has a specific target in mind for Custard Factory clients. He wants 50% of them blogging by next year and at the moment 18 of them are. Anything with content that can be subscribed to counts. So Pete has a baseline to work on, it’s measurable and specific. What’s the appropriate measure for the city as a whole? There are some EU benchmarks which are worth considering and tell us lots about the national picture for e-commerce (UK is 2nd in the EU for enterprises selling goods online) but they only cover part of the story.
So my first question is really: What’s the measurable? Is it an E-commerce one or a ‘subscribable content’ one or something else? 

Why should Dean the Builder care?
Dean is knocking a hole in the wall of my living room on Friday (it’s okay, I asked him to). He comes recommended by a neighbour. But Dean is just a phone number and a cheery smile – he’s legit and everything but works alone or in a small team and picks up work based on personal contacts. He’s got tons of work so what’s being online got to do with Dean? There’s plenty of places you can see a generic rationale for getting businesses online but little tailored to specific sectors. Dean is reasonably priced, in fact I think I’m getting a bargain for the work he’s doing. He doesn’t need to advertise for more work but I wonder if there’s a place online where he could pitch for higher value work? Same effort, more reward should maybe be his goal.
So the real question here is: Do we need a sector-specific approach or a wider there’s-something-for-everyone approach?

How do we make change happen?
I like the Social Media Surgery approach. Get some keen people in a room and give away your knowledge for the greater good. Is that scaleable across the city? Seems a tough task if it is. Are there enough online experts to go around? Perhaps instead there’s a staged approach to take. Business leaders could start to use the tools themselves and hope that others follow. Perhaps identify and support a specific business on its digital media journey (no I’m not asking Dean, he’s got a hole to create). I’m unsure a ‘let’s-do-workshops’ approach will work at this scale. It’s a ‘heart-and-minds’ thing isn’t it?
So: what are the specific actions we need to take? On the ground working with businesses or a big fat PR campaign? 

Who’s on board?
Which businesses in the city are already doing this stuff? The media/creative industries ones certainly are and they should really be demonstrating to others the benefits of working online. I suspect the business sector as a whole is still very firmly of the belief that websites are brochures. At best they can show off stock. Perhaps you might sell stuff through it. But online as a way to build customer networks, social media as a tool to position yourself as the supplier of choice, as a way to continue the conversation started at the golf course – that thinking seems a way off yet. But there are useful corporate examples out there and maybe a public/private coalition could help drive this forward.
Which brings me to: Who is the ‘we’ that need to make change happen? Digital Birmingham + Chamber of Commerce? + Universities? + Tech firms? + a network of leading bloggers/social media types?

Any thoughts on all this are welcome.

11 thoughts on “Getting Birmingham Businesses online

  1. Necessity is the mother of invention.

    Those who don’t need to do more business aren’t going to try anything new.

    Those who want to do more business are either doing something about it, or they aren’t (possible forum required to kick complacent companies into shape?).

    Ok, now we’re only left with businesses who want more business and want suggestions about what they can try. Given their motivation, I would suggest advertising in places they are themselves looking/working/networking. Initial ideas: Chamber of Commerce & Trade, non-line social networks (Rotary, Round Table etc).

  2. I like your ‘why should Dean the builder care’ question and I think that gets to the heart of the question. If the businesses you are talking about are interested in promoting their business or enhancing their profile online they should focus on their customers / audiences / target markets. If Dean the builder can meet his business objectives by relying on word of mouth then he may not need to be online just for the sake of it. E-commerce and an online presence is no good if doesn’t reach the target customer so, I guess it does depend on the business sector and probably on the size of the business too but mostly on their market knowledge. And as for convincing them to do it, case studies are always a good way to illustrate a point.

  3. I agree the heart of the point is communicating why the should care — lots of the communication around both business (particularly communication coming from official bodies) and the internet is awash with pointless and impenetrable jargon. Real focused help from real people will likely have the most success.

    “Word of mouth” is moving online — and the process is accelerating. Just within my limited (200 odd) group of twitter friends I’ve noticed questions asking for recommendations for car-body workshops, plumbers, even fancy dress shops in the last couple of days.

    How about if small businesses could monitor “word of mouth” really easily, and learn to take part and shape the impression their work creates. It’s possible, it might not just yet be worth the one-man-band focussing energy on it — but I’d guess it won’t be too many years until it is.

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  6. I’m a bit worried Dean is going to become your Joe the plumber, but you clearly answer the question about general or specific yourself. I think it’s not even that we need a sector-by-sector approach, but that you (the collective Digital Birmingham you) need to develop ways of understanding being online (and being digital), just as we need to understand operating offline. You need to develop methodologies through which people can ask questions about their ways of making a living and identify ways of doing it better, cheaper (or with better rewards), or with less effort. Then its showing some inspiring examples to get people excited; and finally making the skills (and possibly the technology) available.

    It is a hearts and minds thing, but also a that’s cool, I could do that, sort of thing.

    What’s going in the hole once it’s there? We need to be told.

  7. Thanks for the input Tim – very useful.

    In the hole is nothing – it’s a hole between what was the lounge and was the (rarely used) dining room. Dean returns on Saturday to do a bit of painting/finishing off.

  8. The specificity of ‘Dean’ and his sector is really important here I think for conceptualising the issues for someone who is likely to be a soletrader/SME engaged in the kind of work to which digital activity is likely to be (or appears to be) supplementary to the ‘real’ work they do and its nature (hot, sweaty, dirty, three sugars per cup). That is, as opposed to those of us in ‘deskjobs’ or in activities around which such activity – purposeful or accidental – is integral or inescapable.

    Here, a useful initiative might be to go into a class of apprentices, exploring what they do with their media and how/if it is integral to how they conceptualise their future working practices. Likewise, with the chain of training/career peers thereafter.

    Following the specific case ‘backwards’, as it were. would, I think open up some real opportunities here.

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