Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many of the ways small businesses interact with customers — people are spending less time browsing in stores, for example, while a decrease in foot traffic has made a dent in walk-ins at salons and restaurants.
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But while traditional in-person opportunities for customer interaction decreased over the last year, the internet has enabled small businesses to bridge the gap by pivoting to e-commerce.
L.A. Optimized, a program developed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, was designed to help small businesses in the city weather the pandemic by bolstering their online presence and e-commerce capabilities.
I spoke with Roberto Martinez, Garcetti’s 2021 entrepreneur-in-residence, who is overseeing L.A. Optimized. We discussed the program, how small businesses can get involved, and overall best practices for small-business owners hoping to grow their online presence.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is it important for small businesses to have a clear online strategy?
Prior to 2020, many small businesses were operating as local mom-and-pop shops. As long as they got walk-in traffic, there was no need to have an online presence.
But market trends have been pointing toward the need for e-commerce modification and optimization for small businesses, and COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantine orders ended up exacerbating that need. Now there’s a push to help small businesses sell online.
How does L.A. Optimized work with small businesses?
We’ll create online strategies for small businesses or we’ll help optimize a business’ existing online strategy.
We also create an audit for the business owner where we recommend what they can do to improve their e-commerce presence. These are tailored to the specific business owner — a lawyer and a baker are going to have different goals for their online strategy. For example, a lawyer might want prospective customers to be able to set up a phone call with their office, while a baker could want customers to submit orders online.
To this end, we’ll additionally create a website for small businesses, with their specific industry and goals in mind. This is especially important for businesses that have had to temporarily close during the pandemic — even if your doors are shut, you can still sell your products or services online.
We also provide creative assets to help small businesses humanize their products and services to potential customers. The city has partnered with organizations including Otis College of Art and Design, California Institute of the Arts and the Art Institute to develop creative assets for the businesses.
How can small businesses sign up for help from L.A. Optimized?
Here’s the sign-up link. We’re accepting applications on a rolling basis, and, as of late last week, there are about 400 slots left. But regardless of how many people eventually apply, we’ll still run free programming and pop-up services for those interested.
Everyone’s going to get some value by being part of this program. Even if you don’t live in L.A., you’ll be able to join the webinars. It’s a completely free service that we’re providing to small businesses.
Say you have 15 minutes to speak with a small-business owner hoping to grow their online presence. What is your advice to them?
The first thing they should think about is setting up business listings — your Google My Business, your Yelp, your Facebook business page and your Instagram business page. It doesn’t cost small businesses anything to set those up.
Think about your customer’s journey. How will they find you? For example, if your customers skew younger, you’ll want to make sure you’re on social sites that skew younger, such as Instagram. If you’re serving an older demographic, they may find you through Facebook.
When creating a website, think about your goals as well as the customer’s experience. So, say you’re hoping to encourage customers to place orders over the phone. In that case, when creating your website, you need to make it as easy as possible for your customer to call you. If your goal is to educate your customer about your service, you should make it as easy as possible for customers to download case studies or read testimonials about your business.
There are different platforms you can use to create a website; for example, WordPress, Wix, Squarespace and Shopify. They are big players in the marketplace and can serve businesses selling both products and services.
It’s also important to humanize your online presence. You want consumers to be able to see your passion for your business, and you can do this through an appealing logo, imagery and copy.
Does every small business need a website?
Your website is your storefront. So you should ask yourself: As a small-business owner, do I want a storefront? Is there value in a storefront? Most small-business owners would say yes.
The whole world is online, so without a website, you’re missing a huge opportunity to communicate your value to the world. It can be helpful to do a quick analysis of your competitors — do they have websites? If so, then you should consider creating one too.
That being said, there are micro-enterprises that might not be mature enough to merit investment in a website at their stage of growth — maybe the entrepreneur behind them doesn’t have aspirations of starting a full-fledged business. In that case, I would not advise the entrepreneur to spend thousands of dollars in developing a website if it’s not going to be something that they are fully committed to.
Overall, though, websites are worthwhile investments. They develop customer relationships, especially if a customer can say, “Hey, you’ve been around since 2016, I saw you online.” And getting a website up and running helps with your search engine optimization. So it’s always a good idea to err on the side of having an online presence.
You mentioned search engine optimization. Why is it important for small businesses?
Search engines are like a massive library collecting the whole world’s information. And your website is a book in that library, being cataloged depending on what the subject matter is. Search engine optimization is all about how you can inform the search engine as best you can about your book’s subject matter.
Customers search by typing keywords and key phrases into a search engine. The search engine then looks for websites that match those keywords and key phrases, while also taking into consideration things like where a customer is located, how easy a website is to use on a mobile device and whether past customers were satisfied with the information they found on the website.
Great search engine optimization results in potential clients finding you on the first page of their search results, which increases traffic to your site.
You need to consider how you can create the best online presence for your customer. If you adequately provide answers to their questions on your website, then the customer is going to stay on your website longer and keep going back.
Details matter. For example, you should keep your call to action “above the fold” of your website — toward the top. All these little things add up to a search engine recognizing your website has value for customers.
When creating a website, what should small businesses know about privacy concerns?
Privacy considerations are huge, especially in California, and small-business owners could face a lawsuit if they don’t comply with the state’s rules. Most customer-relationship management systems are going to have a privacy piece built in, but if you create one from scratch, then it’s up to you to notify the customer that you will be tracking their data.
I highly recommend small businesses use some type of tracking so you know where traffic and sales are coming from. But at the same time, remember that it’s incumbent on the small-business owner to educate your prospective customer about how they will be tracked and how information such as their email will be used.
Are there any other free resources you’d like to point small-business owners to?
The Small Business Administration and its network of Small Business Development Centers are great resources. These organizations use your tax dollars to help entrepreneurs and small businesses. They’re there to help you along your business journey and answer your questions at no cost to you.
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One more thing
Security camera company Dahua, which is based in China and has a growing U.S. presence, indicated its facial recognition software can sort people by race and send “real-time warnings” to authorities when it identifies people as members of the Uighur ethnic group, my colleague Johana Bhuiyan reported. (The U.S. government officially declared that China’s campaign against the largely Muslim ethnic Uighur minority is genocide.)
One of Dahua’s U.S. customers is, reportedly, Amazon.
The day after The Times published Bhuiyan’s article, two U.S. senators — Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — sent a letter asking Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos what Amazon knew about Dahua before striking a deal with the company. Read the full story.
Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at californ[email protected], and we may include it in a future newsletter.