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How to build an online presence in Lake Chelan during COVID-19

I am a Chelan Valley business owner and had to take a hard look at my business to figure out how to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being forced to stay at home means that I can earn absolutely nothing from live shows with my events production company. For my marketing and design agency, I have to change my goal from helping businesses grow to helping them survive.

You are going through the same thing and are concerned about how to pivot or, at least, add a layer to your business. You are trying to figure out how to address the current change in human behavior. This article is meant for you and written based on my experience as a digital marketer.

Time is of the essence, so this article is focused on the easiest and fastest ways to start building your Chelan Valley business online. If you already have some basic elements in place, skip to the section that is new to you to make the most of this guide. However, if you are comfortable with where your online presence is at, please share this article with those who are not and can benefit from having info in one place.

What is an online presence?

For this article, the term "online presence" is defined as "visibility on the internet by means of email, a website, multiple websites, directories, forums and/or social media sites." For Chelan Valley businesses with a central brick-and-mortar storefront, having an online presence means to add or augment your current business with an online component to it.

Why is it important?

Simply put, everyone is using the internet to do almost everything during quarantine. People at home are flocking to the internet to work, connect, communicate, learn, shop and even, exercise. Remote working tools like Slack and Zoom are becoming household names. Creators and businesses alike are pivoting to try and reach people who are "stuck" at home. It is a ubiquitous challenge but businesses in our small town are especially in need of finding ways to reach their distant customers. My goal is to provide a solid place to start for my fellow business owners searching for an online blueprint.

Where do you start?

I have curated six things that you can do right now to start building your online presence as a Chelan business. These actions can implemented within a week or sooner, depending on how much time you spend per day.

  1. Get an email address
  2. Use email marketing
  3. Enlist your business on directories
  4. Build your website
  5. Explore e-commerce options
  6. Promote on social media
  7. Answer questions

For the long run, you can take these fundamental tips and build them into more robust and detailed marketing plans. This way, you don't have to discontinue your online strategy when things get back to normal. Rather, you can use it as a bridge to when we have overcome the virus; post-virus, you have added a layer to your business that provides more options to reach people and earn revenue.

1. Get an email address

First things first: You must have an email address! Your email will be used to set up accounts on websites and will be the central point of contact over the internet. If you don't already have one, you can get one for free with Gmail or Yahoo!. We prefer Gmail due to its simple interface and ease of use. It takes just a few minutes to set up.

If you have the budget for it, you can create a custom email address for your business that doesn't have "@gmail.com" at the end. Instead, for example, your email will read "john@chelanbusiness.com". This makes your email identity more professional and will allow you to sign up for business tools that don't accept a free account address. In order to have a custom domain name email, you have to purchase a domain name which you can get for $12 or less per year. I use Google Domains as it is the easiest to use and has a clean, distraction-free interface. With Google Domains, I also use the G Suite product which is $6/user and includes email, Google Drive (file storage), Calendar and more features. GoDaddy is another paid option which can be cheaper.

Whichever email type you use, having an email is a simple, yet fundamental step in establishing your online presence.

2. Use email marketing

Despite some debate around its effectiveness, email marketing is still the best way to reach your prospects and customers. Email marketing is the use of your email account (e.g. Gmail) or an email service provider (ESP) like HubSpot or MailChimp to send emails en masse to your list of contacts. Let's take a look at how you can use email marketing to help your business. We will cover options for both businesses that do and don't have an email list already.

For businesses who have an email list

This is the quickest way to engage with your current leads and/or customers with email addresses. How? Your business must send an email with content that provide value to your leads and customers.

Here are various approaches to sending a message accompanied with sample subject lines for the email (subject lines could also be used as a social media post title):

  • directly address your current situation and how their support is critical to your business (Sample subject line: "[business name] Update: How we can get through these challenging times")
  • provide a discount or special during quarantine (Sample subject line: "Special prices for our members during COVID")
  • share what you are doing to innovate during COVID (Sample subject line: "Times are changing and so are we!")
  • share helpful tips, news or articles (Sample subject line using a winery: "Best wine pairings for your quarantined meals"

You already are connected with your customers (or leads), so it is imperative to craft a message that creates value to them. Some people are willing and able to help (financially) while others are suffering greatly, so you will need to be careful in your approach as to not appear insensitive in your outreach. Nevertheless, your current email list is the quickest way to be present online.

For businesses who don't have an email list

Maybe you are a restaurant or bar where most of your patrons come in to your business, buy food and drink, then leave, with no need to provide an email address. Or you could be a small gift store where people shop without any requirement to sign up to a mailing list. It makes sense that you don't have a list of your customers or leads.

Here is an overview you what you can do:

  1. Build a simple website with a form (covered in detail in the Website section)
  2. Add your website to the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce "virtual" page
  3. Create free Facebook and Instagram accounts and ask all your personal friends to "like" and follow your page (covered in detail in the Social media section)
  4. Join local Facebook Groups like Chelan Valley Strong
  5. Share a link to your website on the thread using the same approaches to posts as I shared in the previous section
  6. Create a clear call-to-action for people to sign up to your mailing list (covered in detail in the Website section)

Step 1 and 6 is discussed further in detail later in this article on how to quickly build a website, if you don't already have one. Step 2 is explained further later as well in the Social Media section. In any case, it will take hard work and effort, but it will be the fastest way to reach people and potentially get them to sign up to your email list. Plus, the Facebook Chelan Valley Strong Group is very active and supportive.

Paid vs Free options

HubSpot logo

My recommendation for a paid email marketing solution is HubSpot. I use it for my businesses and clients because it is the most robust solution out there. Not only does it allow you to easily create beautiful emails, it comes with a CRM (Customer relationship management) for free and integrates with other software. There is a bit of a learning curve to it, but, in my opinion, it is the best bang for the buck at the $50/month Marketing Starter level.

For free options, here is a list that provides some insight. However, I haven't used any of the options, so I can't give a review of what works best. I can look over any of these options with you on a consultation call.

3. Enlist your business on directories

Even if you don't have a website, you must register your physical business on online directories because they are prebuilt platforms created and updated by major companies have a broad reach and rank.

Before going into the large directories, the first step at a local level is to add your business to the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce "virtual" page. This is a free tool open to all business in the Chelan Valley, whether you are a chamber member or not. Citizens and businesses alike can find out about your business updates and hours in one central local online directory. 

At a broader level, directories like Google My Business, Facebook Business pages, Yelp and TripAdvisor can rank high, if not on top of many search results pages for local businesses. Let's start with the Google My Business and what you can do to get started.

Google My Business

google my business logo

First, create a listing on Google My Business. The tool is free and allows you to add your business details (e.g. phone number, address) as well as communicate with customers. Your customers can be able to find you on Google Search, Google Maps as well as Google's Local Knowledge Graph Panel, Local Pack results and Local Teaser Pack results (we won't get into the last three in this article; these are various ways Google list your website in search results). In a nutshell, Google My Business is the first step in showing up on Google searches. Think of this as your online "Yellow Pages" listing.

This is where you put all of you contact information and can even add photos and answer questions that visitors can leave directly on a Google listing. If one of your customers is searching for your business by name, your full Google My Business listing will display in the search results on the right hand side (on desktop). This is also where people can leave a review of your website. For COVID-19, Google is prioritizing updates for businesses to update your hours on Google My Business, so if you haven't done so already, do it now!

Facebook Business Page

A Facebook Business page is different from your Facebook personal profile page in that a Facebook Business page is a business or brand (that can have multiple users and admins) and promotes the products and services it provides. On the other hand, your personal page represents is your way of sharing about your personal life and connecting with friends and family. Thus, you should not use your personal Facebook to represent your page. Here are a few other reasons why:

  • Your business page can have an unlimited amount of followers whereas your personal page will max out at 5,000 "friends"
  • Your business page is public and can be found by people outside your friend and family circle
  • Multiple people can manage your business page (so you don't have to share passwords)
  • Facebook users can leave a recommendation for your business

Having said that, you can use your personal profile to promote your Business page, so that you have better visibility. Unfortunately, Facebook has limited the organic reach of Business pages in order to make space on people's timelines for ads and friend updates. You can counteract this by creating original, engaging content on your Facebook page or pay for ads, but we will not explore ads in this article.

Yelp and TripAdvisor

Both of these options are ways to show up in online directories that people are already using heavily. Typically, people are using these sites while traveling and looking for the best reviewed businesses. In other cases, people have one of these apps on their phone and use it to search business products or services. For example, I always use the Yelp app and type in "Printing Services" to find the number fo Chelan Printing & Custom Signs.

With COVID-19, quarantine and social distancing, you won't have visitors use this right now, but by signing up during these times, you set yourself up for visibility when things return back to normal.

4. Build your website

Your website is your online hub. Whether it be email, other business's websites, directories or social media, all roads ultimately lead back to your site. This is where you explain what you do and how you do it.

Benefits of a website

The most important benefit of your website is that it is where people can take action. Taking an action means your visitors can:

  1. Buy your product or service
  2. Contact your business
  3. Sign up to your mailing list
  4. Share/promote your business's info or articles

There are other types of actions, but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on these four as they are the most crucial during these times.

Buy your product or service

If you were selling products or services in your physical store, now is the time to build your online store. There are several options to create an online store that we will cover in the e-commerce options section.

If you already have an online store, you have to consider how to promote it. Here are links to the sections of this guide that you can use to promote your online store:

Contact your business

Your site is your online business card. For those people that can no longer visit your store, they can use your contact information on your website to call, email and submit their information to you for inquiries about your business. Your website should include the following:

  • Contact form(s)
  • Phone number
  • Social media links

I recommend using a contact form as opposed to listing your email address on your site, as you can be susceptible to SPAM. There are other benefits to using a contact form as well.

Sign up to your mailing list

As I described earlier, email is the best way to contact people who have let you know they are interested in your business. By creating a signup or contact form, you give people an easy way to stay connected and learn about what is happening with your business.

Share/promote your business's info or articles

When you delight your customers with your business's product or service, they want to share it with their friends. By adding social links throughout your site, your website works as a marketing tool for your users. If you have a blog, you give yourself a chance to get more visitors to your site, outside of our immediate Chelan Valley location.

Why you should start a blog

During the quarantine, consider starting a blog that relates to your business so that you continue to connect with your customers. For example, if you are a restaurant, you can share recipes inspired from your menu, that people can cook at home. If you are a gift shop, you can write about gift basket ideas for upcoming holidays like Easter. Although creating content like this may have no direct benefit on your immediate financial need, it can do the following:

  • provides value for your visitors
  • establishes you as a credible resource
  • creates an asset that can be shared online
  • converts a visitor into a lead (potential customer)

There are various ways to quickly create content for a blog. Of course, you can write an article like the one you are reading now, but you can also create:

  • checklists (e.g. "essential items to have at home during quarantine")
  • videos (i.e. use your phone or camera and talk about your experience or share helpful tips like this video from Jared Eygabroad)
  • graphics (i.e. take pictures or create simple images with a tool like Canva)
  • shares (i.e. finding content online and share it with your audience)

Once you publish posts on your blog, you can share them via email, social media and, if your post is newsworthy, send them to local newspapers like Lake Chelan Now for syndication. Let's take a look at what options you have to build a website and/or blog.

Website building tools

WordPress logo

My recommendation for quickly building a website is WordPress.com. I have used WordPress for over a decade and appreciate how much work the company puts into their platform and how easy it is to setup. Plus, over a third of the internet is powered by WordPress, so there is plenty of support online for self-help questions along with their customer service team. You can get started for free, but as a business you may need to start at the $25/month level (billed yearly). WordPress also a built in blog tool and has e-commerce options (which we will explore next) that you can get set up with quickly.

Other cheaper options include Squarespace and Wix. I have used both sites and favor Squarespace over Wix. Squarespace has beautiful prebuilt templates, good support and you can get started with a simple website for as much as $12/month (paid annually).

If you feel like you are over your head in putting your site together, feel free to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me.

5. Explore e-commerce options

Typically, e-commerce is a way of selling products and services online. However, we will explore a few options that go beyond turning your website into an online store so that you have various options to generate revenue online.

Online store options

Shopify logo

Building an online store sounds like a daunting task, but thankfully there are platforms that do most of the heavy lifting like shipping options and payment processing. My recommendation for an e-commerce platform is Shopify. The number one reason why this is the best option to use right now is because they have a whopping 90-day free trial to use, specially offered to address the COVID-19 times. There are other good options like WordPress.com and Squarespace, but Shopify is used by over 1 million sites and have a variety of pricing tiers to suit your business after the free trial is over.

Here is an overview of Shopify's basic plan:

  • Unlimited products
  • 2 staff accounts
  • 24/7 support
  • Discount codes for your customers
  • Print shipping labels
  • Online payments using Shopify payments will cost you 2.9% + 30¢ per charge

With the next tier, you can enable gift cards and professional reports.

For businesses that don't have products to sell online

What if you are a restaurant or bar and don't have any goods to offer to online shoppers? Here is a list of things that you can potentially sell (please note that some options may take a considerable amount of upfront work and investment):

  • Sell gift cards
  • Create and sell merchandise (e.g. The Vogue tee-shirts, stickers by Vada)
  • Create a coupon book for use later when things get back to normal
  • Start a membership or support site where you can create offers to paid subscribers (e.g. Rotten Apple's Patreon site)

What is Patreon?

Besides the direct method of selling your products or services online, you can create a membership site using Patreon. Think of this as a private club for your business. Patreon was originally formed as a platform for creators to get financial support from their fans in order to augment their often limited income generated from online content. However, as a business, I encourage you to get creative and use Patreon to offer special benefits whether you are a creative professional or not. You can create tiers, with one low cost tier option that simply is a way of customers to show financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic. I understand there is no quick way to come up with a creative strategy, but if you have some downtime, investing time into brainstorming some unconventional creative options may surprise you!

6. Promote on social media

You have your website and your products, so now it is time to promote it using social media, namely Facebook and Instagram. If you don't have both of these accounts, create them now! Why? My experience from running a local business in Lake Chelan is that these are the two online platforms where our locals are most active. Plus, you have free access to announce updates through the Chelan Valley Strong Group, especially made to support each other during the pandemic.

Create social media accounts for your business

Go to Facebook and Instagram (must have a smartphone) and create accounts there. There are other major social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn, but, from my experience, people in the Chelan Valley are most active on Facebook and Instagram.

Here are the different ways you can promote your businesses on these social media sites:

People are spending 20% more time on social media, so this is where you need to speak to your customers. In addition, people are wanting to share and support your local business with the understanding that we are all suffering financially right now.

7. Answer questions

People are asking questions online and they need help, more than ever. Your business possesses expertise in a certain topic and industry, so sharing your knowledge with people will be an effective way to remind people that you are still around and possibly introduce others who weren't aware of you before.

Facebook

Facebook users are active with comments, shares, but most importantly, questions. Type in questions that you may have or visit Facebook Groups that you are a part of to see if you have an answer for people. You can join a Facebook Group as a Business, so you can respond directly to people as a business!

Also, if someone asks you a question on Facebook Messenger, respond back in a timely manner. Doing so from your Business page can earn you a brightly green colored "Very responsive to messages" badge. This badge earns credibility and shows that you are on top of your business.

Quora

Quora is a site where people ask questions on almost any and every topic. Sign up for Quora and type in a question you may know the answer to. If you do, answer away and let the person know who you are and what business you represent at the end of your answer.

Email and phone

If your customers are emailing and calling you, make sure to respond back! Similar, to Facebook Messenger, your response time is very important. There is a sense of urgency right now and if you have help someone find an answer quickly, then you are providing value to someone in need.

One last thing—even if you don't have an answer but know someone who may know,  refer the person asking the question to that person or business with the answer. Now is the time to connect people together as much as possible. This may not be a direct financial benefit, but the important thing here is that your business is continuing to be helpful and supportive, which is the foundation on how we get through this together.

Summary

Here is a rundown of what we covered:

  1. Get an email address
  2. Use email marketing
  3. Enlist your business on directories
  4. Build your website
  5. Explore e-commerce options
  6. Promote on social media
  7. Answer questions

This article was written specifically for Lake Chelan business owners as a resource to help themselves with tools that I have used or plan to use myself during the quarantine. As a business owner, my goal is to share what I can with my community to help others, so I hope this article was able to provide value for you. If you would like to dive deeper into any of the topics covered here today, schedule a free call with me and I will do my best to help in our initial conversation. After our call, if you would like me to help you execute any of the online presence topics, I am happy to explore cost effective service plans based on the budget you have available. Thank you so much for reading!