The fact that the web is playing an increasingly important role in the way modern small businesses engage with their customers is nothing new; indeed, many small businesses started in the last 10 years probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for the internet.
Less well known, however, is the way in which well-established and traditionally technology-averse businesses are embracing the channel.
Take for example the classic car business. Until fairly recently, people looking for these cars would scour the classified ads at the back of specialist magazines, join car clubs or seek out local specialists.
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While these more traditional channels still have their part to play, technology – and social media in particular – is stealing a march on them, because it works in real time and engages customers in a way that simply wasn't possible before.
One such business is CUP Classic Cars, part of our BT Business Mentors (a network of like-minded businesses that help other companies across the UK).
Owner Richard Phillips has been using a technology-focused approach to attract new customers – spotting that the demographic of classic car owners is getting younger and that the internet is a real-time channel that has to be linked with what's going on in the real world.
An example that Richard shared with me is that he saw the launch of the Bond movie Skyfall as the ideal opportunity to help drive awareness of one of CUPs flagship cars, the Aston Martin, viaTwitter.
He was lucky enough to attend the local premiere of the film and, when he noticed they had a replica of the silver Bond DB5, took a picture and tweeted it from his phone.
The response was phenomenal: even before the film had ended, the photograph had been retweeted and generated comment from all over the world, also being linked and hash-tagged in wider conversations about the Bond launch.
Being part of that helped drive awareness of CUP and linked it to discussions about the brand. This experience demonstrated the benefits of driving debates around the validity of classic car status across social media channels, to the point where CUP now actually sells cars via Facebook.
Power of the Web
Another BT Business Mentor operating in a very traditional space is Bradley Mcloughlin of nationwide Braant Accounting. Coming from an online background originally building a business selling customers' auction items via eBay, Bradley instinctively understood the power of the web and applied it to his new venture.
Braant Accounting works in a perhaps more conservative industry, providing bookkeeping and accounting services to businesses.
As well as traditional onsite services, it also uses its specialist software and online resources to manage its clients' accounting needs remotely, in order to ensure they meet their regulatory requirements, whilst reducing costs – both financially and in terms of their time.
This is no longer just the preserve of smaller businesses either, with Braant's clients ranging up to multi-million pound international businesses.
The signs are clear: businesses, even those operating in traditional sectors, are already waking up to the power of the internet to engage with, rather than broadcast to, their customers. The days of putting up a website and leaving it in the hope of getting traffic and sales-leads are over.
Social media networks may come and go the way of other internet fads, but it is the genuine understanding of how they are used to communicate that will remain, and those who possess that understanding will become the classic brands of the future.
- Danny Longbottom is managing director UK SME for BT Business, Responsible for the SME market in the UK.