The Road to Recovery: A Look at the Digital Future of Small Business 

With MSME Day just past us, we’re celebrating small businesses, the people who run them, and looking at the strategies they’re using to rebound from the impact of COVID-19.

“They come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight,” wrote John Steinbeck of the migration of American farmers and small business owners at the height of the Great Depression as they marched down America’s now-historic Route 66, out of the dust bowl and towards California in search of opportunity.

The road became a myth. A monument. Not only to the plight of small business owners in the 1930s but also to their resilience in the years that came after. As America emerged from the depression, family-owned diners, bowling alleys, mom and pops, and heavy industry sprung up along the highway and gave life to the country’s once struggling heartland. Route 66 came to epitomize the thriving state of small businesses in middle America.

Bonus: Get the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

Dorthea Lange, Free Way. 1937 / Public Domain

Even after it lost its designation in 1985, tourists continued to make Route 66 a place of pilgrimage. Ten miles outside Rolla, Missouri, many of them would pull over and have a drink in the St. James Winery taproom, where Josh Stacy, owner of Public House Brewing, would treat them to some of the best craft beer east of the Rockies. “Come in, do your tasting, stock up on your wine, and move en route.” That was the ritual.

But in mid-March, as the world went into lockdown, the crowds stopped coming and the highway cleared of traffic. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the global economy took its deepest dive since the very depression that defined the road on which Public House now stands.

Stacy and his staff were left to contend with history. And they’re doing it by trading in bricks and mortar for a digital future.

“We turned on and created a curbside and delivery service within three days. We had to implement the technology and the infrastructure on the back end to be able to track and collect all that and do the online ordering . . . it was pretty aggressive.”

Like many small businesses around the world, Public House has moved to digital as a means to not only survive, but to put themselves on a path to long-term growth.

“It kind of pushed everything forward, you know, maybe five years . . . we knew that the digital world and our ecommerce business and all these things that we were kind of muddling around with [would be important] . . . but it really did force our hand to move into that world.”

We spoke to Public House Brewing to find out how they’re rebounding, discuss lessons they’ve learned, and share advice on strategies you can apply to your own business.

How to plan for a rebound: lessons from the heartland

Double down on your online reputation

Small businesses like Public House Brewing are the lifeblood of their communities. Maintaining those relationships has been a top priority.

“This is where they all come out to play,” said Stacy. “This is where they come to hike and camp and fish and all of that . . . we have a really strong connection with our area and with our community.”

In a recent Harris poll, over 60% of business owners said that they believe the community cares about their business. The same poll found that, during the lockdown, 26% of consumers in the United States purchased something from a small business as a sign of support.

With most community purchases now being made online, there has been added pressure on businesses to stay responsive to their most loyal customers.

Stacy and his team have felt the surge. “It has overloaded our little customer service department of one. They’re just overwhelmed.”

The solution? Centralize and simplify the way you manage your customer services online.

“We’re looking at a more robust customer service platform that can bring our telephone and our email and all that stuff into one so we can bring it in and have that one person not feel overwhelmed every single day.”

Bonus: Get the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

Get the free guide right now!

Hootsuite apps that help

  • Manage your Google My Business presence along with your social media activity in Hootsuite. Whether a customer asks a question or leaves a review, you’ll have one place to monitor, engage, and strengthen relationships. Plus, you can stay connected with your customers—and attract new ones—by posting company updates right from your dashboard.
  • Connect Zendesk Pro to your Hootsuite dashboard to monitor and manage your social media channels and support tickets simply and efficiently. Manage, create, edit, and share tickets from one location, and see them through to resolution.

Meet your customers where they are

Your website is your engine. Your social channels are your wheels. Make sure they’re running in tandem to get in front of your customers.

Like most businesses, Stacy and the Public House crew saw a surge in online engagement and purchases as social distancing measures kept customers at home.

“They’re like, well, I don’t have to come out,” he said. “I don’t have to drive all the way to Missouri from Texas and I can still get my wine . . . it has changed tremendously and I think that there’s going to be a lot more activity than there ever has been. It was already pretty crazy but is in full effect now.”

Their experience isn’t new. Even before the pandemic, digital was surging. Our Digital 2020 report shows that just over the last year, monthly active users of all major social platforms increased over 8.7%. People spending more time at home has only accelerated the trend.

What’s more, 1 in 3 US businesses doesn’t have a website. And with new social commerce integrations like Facebook Shops, many won’t need one.

From discovery to purchasing to support, customers can go through the entire buyers’ cycle across Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram as they go about their daily doomscrolling.

It’s time for small business owners to build their social muscles and reach their customers where they are.

Hootsuite apps that help
  • With Hootsuite Syndicator, you can view RSS feeds and Google Alerts in your Hootsuite dashboard and share them to your social channels. Send posts to other services like Pocket, Evernote, email, and more. Get useful filtering, monitoring, and tracking tools—and track which stories you’ve shared.
  • Panoramiq Insights adds powerful Instagram analytics to your Hootsuite dashboard. Analyze account activity and follower demographics, as well as the effectiveness of your posts and stories—all in Hootsuite.

Build reach and depth

UK-based analyst and author Simon Kemp, who has advised global companies including Unilever and Google, spoke to us about how small businesses can diversify social channels strategically to reach more people on social.

“The thing I always recommend for small businesses,” says Kemp, “is to focus your efforts by picking two platforms. One for reach, one for depth. Depth includes building relationships, delighting customers, creating more of that experience for customers.”

The takeaway: Focus your resources and do well on a few social platforms before spreading your resources too thin. Stacy at Public House Brewing reiterated this sentiment.

“Twitter or Instagram . . . I think that kind of one of the things that we’re trying to put together right now is understanding. Cadence and timing and tone and all of that . . . you don’t have to use them all. In fact, it’s better for us right now to just focus on a couple.”

Hootsuite apps that help
  • Brandwatch lets you monitor 95 million online sources to see what people are saying about your business—and take action. This integration gives you a single social interface to track and analyze mentions and market activity so you can make fast, informed, and strategic decisions.
  • Use Canva for Hootsuite to create engaging visual content directly from your Hootsuite dashboard. View recently created designs as a Hootsuite content source, add previously created designs into Hootsuite from your Canva folders, and easily attach designs to the Hootsuite Composer to share across your social networks and delight your customers.

Recovery on Route 66

Almost a century after the worst economic collapse in American history, small business owners along Route 66 are facing unprecedented circumstances once again. A sharp economic downturn has pushed them to reimagine their futures and adapt their strategies almost overnight.

“I wasn’t planning for the pandemic back in, like, 2010, it just kind of happened,” said Stacy, dripping with sarcasm. “You’ve got to roll with the punches. But, honestly, I think that we’ve done a really good job, the team adjusted very quickly to the new world and the new roles. And that just shows me that we’re going to be fine.”

By adding new tools to its digital toolbelt and focusing on strategy, Public House has embraced the history of the highway it sits on.

“It’s part of the entrepreneurial spirit. We’re always challenging ourselves and trying to find the next thing. How can we improve and how can we make it better? That’s kind of what got us here.”

It’s clear that the spirit of Route 66 is alive and well. And its future is digital.

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