Small business owners: Don’t build your digital castle on someone else’s land

by Avery Swartz,
Published in The Globe and Mail, October 15, 2018
Click to read on The Globe and Mail's website

In an effort to woo more small and medium businesses to set up shop on Amazon, the e-commerce giant recently launched Amazon Storefronts. Available in the United States only (for now at least), Storefronts allows SMBs to sell their products on Amazon within a special section highlighting their business story with photos and videos.

Storefronts is like Amazon Handmade and Amazon Launchpad, which feature handmade goods and products from startups.

This past summer, Instagram commissioned research on how Canadian small businesses are growing their brands on the social media platform. The research reported that 51 per cent of SMBs questioned agree that their business is stronger today because of Instagram. It’s even higher among the under-35 cohort (65 per cent) and younger businesses (less than five years) at 57 per cent. Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, are holding a series of events across Canada and the United States called Boost Your Business. Targeted at business owners, the events promise to teach business owners how to achieve success on Facebook and Instagram.

It certainly sounds like these platforms want to see small and medium businesses succeed, and they’re rolling out resources to help. For cash- and time-strapped SMBs, it can be tempting to put all of your digital marketing efforts into third-party tools. Being on these platforms can definitely broaden your business’s exposure online. But they shouldn’t be the core of your business’s digital presence.

Don’t build your (digital) castle on someone else’s land. Why? Because your business’s goals won’t always align with the goals of the platform. You’re not in control and the platform can change with big consequences.

In early 2018, Facebook made big changes to the news feed algorithm to prioritize content from friends and family. That meant a drastic cut to the amount of content seen from business pages on the platform. I know a few small business owners who decided to not even build their own website, instead they put all of their digital marketing efforts into Facebook. They spent years growing their following on the platform, only to see their business’s Facebook presence get cut at the knees.

Almost overnight, the visibility of their posts on Facebook all but disappeared. The only way a small business can reliably be seen on Facebook now is to “boost” posts (pay money to increase the likelihood that their posts are viewed).

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t have a business presence on Facebook or Instagram. The research shows, and I agree, that SMBs can leverage the platforms for business growth. And when Amazon Storefronts becomes available to Canadian retailers, definitely apply to have your store featured. It could be a great channel for new customers to discover your business.

There’s an order you should follow, though, and the sequence is important. First, build a strong foundation for your business online in places that you can control, like your website and your contact list. Once you have that base, you can branch out and experiment with third-party platforms.

That way, if Amazon decides to shut down Storefronts, or if business accounts on Instagram go the way of business accounts on Facebook (they are the same company after all) you won’t feel the pain. You’ll still have your own storefront, through your own website, which you control. If you’ve invested time and effort into building your own contact list, you can still reach people, even if the medium you use to contact them changes.

As the internet matures, platforms change and come and go. Online promotion and digital marketing can feel like the race of the tortoise and the hare. There is fast growth available by hitching your wagon to a new star. But it can burn out fast, burning you in the process.

The only growth that’s sustainable in the long run is to organically develop your relationships with your customers. The tried-and-true method of building your own digital presence, that you can control, always wins in the end.