Barring the occasional exception, the writing has been on the wall for offline-only businesses for many years now. The online world plays far too of an integral part in everyday life — and all forms of retail and enterprise — to be overlooked altogether. Even so, some business owners are stubborn in the offline vs. online debate and prefer being self-defeatingly contrarian to moving with the times.
Up until early 2020, many of these business owners were determined to continue operating as they always had. Then along came the COVID-19 outbreak to change everything. In the blink of an eye, non-essential businesses were confronted with a simple dichotomy: operate online, or don’t operate at all.
Moving Your Business Online
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re planning to move your business online soon. Maybe you’ve been in operation for quite some time and you just can’t hold out any longer: if you want your company to thrive (or even just survive) then you need to go online. Or perhaps it’s a new business you’ve been working on as a part-time endeavor, and taking it to the digital landscape is just the next step in its development. Either way, you’re in a tricky position.
So much of a company’s identity can get wrapped up in its local elements. The layout and design of the office. The nature and location of the store (or storefront). The simple practice of conversing with customers and parlaying that into participating in the community. Venture to the internet, and suddenly everything is different: you’re a small fish in a vast ocean, stripped of many of the unique identifiers that have helped you make progress so far.
If you’re going to make the most of this move into the online world, you need to do what you can to preserve that brand identity. So how can you do it? Well, in this post we’re going to look at some core tips for getting it done. Let’s get started.
Retain offline elements through embracing a hybrid model
Despite common framing, it isn’t necessary to choose between operating offline or online. It’s perfectly possible to do both — in fact, it’s increasingly important. They’ve previously been viewed as somehow incompatible, but eCommerce (being a pioneering industry in many ways) was fairly quick to devise smart ways to offer the best of both worlds.
First came the click-and-collect model: place an order online, and collect it from a store (or another drop-off location). The result is improved convenience. The customer gets to secure their purchase without going anywhere but doesn’t need to watch out for delivery. Instead, they can simply pick it up when it’s ready.
Then came the advent of pop-up shops: online sellers taking some of their products with them, setting up tables or booths in public areas or shopping malls, and temporarily taking advantage of in-person communication to make some sales and drum up brand recognition in the process. The development of hybrid-capable point-of-sale systems (Shopify POS is pictured above) made it possible for online sellers to sync their in-person sales with their digital inventories.
The takeaway here is that moving online doesn’t require you to abandon your local identity. By maintaining an offline presence in some reduced form, you can continue to engage with people in your local area — and use that activity as fuel for your broad online content. Even if you operate nationally, supporting your local area is something that most people will appreciate.
Invest in comprehensive and wide-ranging content marketing
The expression of personality and unique brand elements is mission-critical when trying to support and expand a memorable corporate identity, so you need to consider all available avenues — and that means investing heavily in content marketing. Most online activity goes unnoticed because there’s just too much to see. If you want attention, you must be proactive.
That means drawing upon the huge range of viable content types, playing to the strengths of each chosen variety, and using it to demonstrate aspects of your identity. Organic social media conversation is the closest to the in-person interactions of traditional business: being active on platforms like Twitter and Facebook will give you plenty of opportunities to show the humanity behind your business and play to your corporate values.
Video content, meanwhile, brings in the face-to-face aspect: watching people speak (and observing their body language) is something we rely on when gauging how much we trust them, and trust is a difficult thing to earn when you’re conducting business online. You could record a series of video tutorials concerning your target niche — this would allow you to come across as likable and demonstrate your notable expertise.
Then there’s the classic company blog, albeit without the stilted and generic news updates that generate no interest. Offering honest and in-depth insight into the behind-the-scenes operation of your business will do even more to dampen the perception of your company as a nameless and faceless entity. And provided you stick to a comprehensive set of brand guidelines (your content needs memorable hallmarks, of course), you can get as creative as you want.
And if you have the budget to really go hard, take a leaf out of Angry Birds' book and create a movie around your brand. The ultimate "video"!
Fight the temptation to cater to all audiences
One of the most common mistakes business owners make when they move their businesses online is watering them down to the point of incoherence in an effort to cater to everyone. It’s somewhat understandable, admittedly: it’s easy to focus on niche appeal when you’re operating in clearly-defined physical locations, but so much harder to stick to that approach when your pool of prospective customers expands nationally (or even internationally).
The problem is that no business, no matter how generic, can appeal to everyone. Even grocery stores have distinct demographics based on pricing and product ranges. If you want to get noticed online, it’s far easier to impress a small group of people than it is to develop a strategy to take on the industry juggernauts. You’ll never see a company like Coca-Cola take a real creative risk because it could easily drive some customers away. You have relative freedom.
Image Source: PIXNIO
Instead of shying away from your niche activity, then, double down on it. Revel in what makes your company different. Be proud to serve a specific audience. This will allow you to carry on in the same vein and hold on to the origin of the company. Remember who your real competitors are: not those companies doing everything, but those competing for your niche audience.
If you’re not already tracking what those competitors are doing, you should start as a matter of great urgency. Seeing what they’re doing will prove hugely useful. If they all start to embrace a new standard, you’ll have two options: go along with it (if it’s clear that it’s where the industry is going), or go in a fresh direction to make it clear that your business is different. This consistent comparison will help narrow your focus and prevent your creative direction from wandering.
Partner with compatible companies on side projects
Our identities are heavily influenced and highlighted by the people around us. Imagine being settled in a particular place for a long stretch of time, feeling utterly comfortable with the area, then taking the nerve-wracking step of moving into a much bigger town. Very suddenly you’re unmoored: left alone and unsupported in an unfamiliar area. How can you reassert yourself? Resume the role you previously played? The key is networking — and so it is online.
Expressing your identity through content is certainly useful, but having that identity directly acknowledged and publicized by respected companies from overlapping fields can make a huge difference. That’s why you should look to partner with compatible companies on side projects. You could propose an in-depth industry survey, for instance: something that would require interviewing yet more businesses, offering commentary, and generating subsequent resources informed by the findings (guides and tutorials, for instance, or even infographics).
It isn’t outright easy to convince a bigger business to partner with you, but if you can get a solid plan in place (and come across as competent and enthusiastic) then it will likely be easier than you might think. After all, projects like that are great for all participants. Provided the results of a given project are good, your partner will be happy to associate with them — and if they’re not, well, they don’t need to bother mentioning them.
Successfully collaborating with a notable company that shares your values will do three great things:
give you better marketing content than you could have managed in isolation
introduce your brand to a much larger audience
give you ample opportunity to talk about who you are, what you do, and what your goals are
In closing, while there are various ways to develop a business identity online, you don’t need to abandon your existing work. By retaining offline elements, engaging in content marketing, keeping your niche appeal, and building working relationships with various compatible brands, you’ll be able to successfully manage the offline-to-online brand transition.