By Natalia Cano

Thu Hoai Nguyen is a ninth-generation entrepreneur with one goal: to preserve Vietnam’s culinary culture. A connoisseur of traditional Chung cakes – a traditional and irreplaceable cake of Vietnamese people made with sticky rice, Thu Hoai spent years perfecting the recipe before launching an online store to sell them in 2017. Li le did she know then that going digital would become her lifeline when COVID-19 hit.

During the crisis, Thu Hoai’s business kept food on the table but left her determined to do more than just get by. That’s when she decided to revamp the company’s website – allowing customers to place direct orders – and started connecting with customers on digital platforms. She also digitised operations for remote working, all of which helped her business not just stay afloat, but increase sales by 20%.

On 27 June, the United Nations honoured the resilience of small business owners like Thu Hoai on World Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) Day – a day more important than ever with small businesses in Asia Pacific, making up 97% of all enterprises and employing half of our workforce.

For most MSMEs, growing digitally has been key to their endurance. In fact, one in three digital merchants shared that they wouldn’t have survived the pandemic without going online. Many, however, are just at the beginning of their transformation journey – one that is far from easy with limited resources and budgets. As I sat down with Thu Hoai to learn how she minimised disruption and maximised oppo unities, a handful of strategies stood out to me that more MSMEs can gain from today.

These are just four to apply immediately for growth:

1. Use data to know your customers

If you’re reading this as a small business owner, you’re probably thinking you don’t have the tools nor the funds to really understand what your customers like. Well, I am happy to tell you there are other ways to learn what’s impo ant to them.

The Internet holds a wealth of information and tools like Google Trends are designed to help you access insights that ma er most to you. It works by helping you see what people are searching for online, and how those searches change over time, by season, and by geographic location, so you can get relevant insights into what your customers are researching online and how factors such as the seasons are impacting them.

You can even compare two search topics simultaneously to find out which is more popular with users. Say you own a small owner shop and Mother’s Day is approaching. You want to know which of your bundles to prioritise promoting online. By using comparison features, you can weigh search interest for the topics “owner delivery” and “gift baskets”, and use the results to decide which promotion to run.

There is also a host of free online tools that you can use to set up custom ale s for your business – like tracking your company name, recent blog post, or product titles – to know when people are talking about your brand and what they are saying.

2.Invest in your online presence

A business is twice as likely to be considered reputable when complete information about them comes up online3. This means making sure that the right address, phone number, operating hours and website show up any time someone searches for the business. This seems obvious, and yet many businesses today have an incomplete online presence.

Beyond the basics, it’s also impo ant to keep listings current and fresh with promotions, special offers, and especially photos, which yields some 42% more requests for directions4. Today, many people also share stories, leave reviews, and reach out to small businesses using their phones. This is a major oppo unity to engage potential customers and spur interest.

My advice to small business owners is to always respond to reviews, pick up the phone, and answer messages. It’s also wo h noting that a study in the US showed that nearly half of consumers surveyed expected responses within four hours5.

3. Keep digital ads local to get the best bang for your buck

Keeping adve ising local and targeted is the best way to maximize your marketing budget, especially because more people are using search engines to find service providers near them today.

So how does it work? Many local ads give you the flexibility of setting a budget based on the number of new customers you want each week and pay only for leads. And, if your schedule lls up or you go on vacation, it’s easy to pause your ads.

Good local services ads usually come with an account dashboard which allows you to manage all leads and keep customer contacts organized. You can also get helpful repo s that show how many bookings you’re ge ing, so you know how well your advertising is working.

4. Set up your business for remote-working success

While remote working has been popularised by big organizations, small businesses stand to gain more. But similar to the ads situation, the biggest barrier for small business owners has traditionally been cost.

Today, however, you don’t need expensive productivity solutions to support operations. Many in market provide an affordable basic plan, and this usually comes in a suite that offers collaborative programs plus sufficient storage to get you started.

Using the flower shop example again, a productivity suite would provide business email accounts for all employees, a drive to store files like invoices and floral arrangement references, and access to essential office apps  like spreadsheets to track orders. A good solution would also allow the florist and team to access all these on their mobile or any other devices, any time, anywhere.

Time and again, MSME owners have proven they have the grit and dexterity to adapt and advance, with just a li le help. These tips are nowhere near exhaustive, but I hope are just enough for incremental growth to happen today.

Natalia is Head of Brand & Reputation Marketing, Google APAC

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