The answer seems obvious. The rise of the Internet certainly makes it easier for entrepreneurs to reach a larger audience and increase brand awareness. That is assuming you have access to the Internet to harness the opportunities it presents.

Those who have brought their businesses online and are doing it correctly, are thriving. Entrepreneurs are crowdfunding to raise capital, communicating with customers on social media and placing targeted banners on popular websites to generate leads, and it’s working.

Popular designer Maria McCloy remarks that her business would be dead without social media.

“I think brands and young entrepreneurs who have no digital profile are crazy; it’s free communication to your current and new market.”

A strong social media presence took McCloy from arty markets to the shelves of a retail giant. “When Woolworths contacted me regarding being part of their Style By SA collection, they did so via my Facebook inbox. It was a big deal for me.” Shop space in a mall is too expensive for her small business to manage, so McCloy has plans to create an online store in order to reach international clients.

The digital divide still exists in South Africa, but this isn’t expected to last much longer. The government is partnering with The World Economic Forum on an Internet For All Project, with a focus on increasing internet use in rural areas. In the meantime, South African entrepreneurs without access to the Internet have limited possibilities for growth. Your product could be in high demand beyond South African borders, but if you aren’t online, you’ll never know.

Digital brands including MTN Business are aware of the importance of partnering with SMEs. Hosting competitions like the Mind2Machine and App of the Year Awards fast-tracks brilliant entrepreneurs on their route to success. Partnerships are beneficial for both established brands and small businesses; entrepreneurs are provided with resources they might not otherwise have had access to, while big brands are exposed to new disruptive ideas for further growth.

The digital world is far from perfect though, and there are many ways to get it wrong. The online space is one where a customer complaint can be seen by everyone. It’s one thing to have an online presence, but actually managing constant customer communication is an overwhelming task. Internet users generally do not take the side of companies, and ‘the customer is always right’ becomes a tedious phrase when trolls take advantage of freedom of expression. A quick look at TripAdvisor or Hello Peter reveals how harsh users can be and business owners are expected to be careful when defending themselves online.

Customer complaints alone might suggest that having an online presence is not worth the stress, but not being online does not mean your business isn’t being talked about. If anything, being online allows you to manage potential negativity.

Your business may not be big enough to hire a team of media experts, but building a support network and sharing knowledge is a good start.

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