Article first appeared in ET Rise on 7 October, 2017
Today, our mornings are not just about a morning run or a cup of coffee. They are about the smart devices kept under our pillows that we pick up before getting out of bed, and then voila, the day starts there. These smart devices and their increasing affordability has encouraged millions of small businesses to leverage this platform to enhance their business.
Businesses globally are recognizing the need to go multichannel. Well-informed, digitally savvy customers expect personalized, consistent and seamless interaction no matter how they approach the business, and companies are learning to be flexible and omnipresent to meet these expectations. Moreover, businesses failing to adopt multichannel strategies find themselves struggling to attract new customers and retain existing ones. The retail experience has changed disruptively as customers now turn to their phones, tablets and laptops for their shopping needs.
For small and medium businesses (SMBs) in India, adopting an online and mobile strategy for growth is no longer just a good opportunity, it is an imperative.
Having overtaken the US as the world's second largest smartphone market with over 300 million smartphone users (as of December 2016), India's galloping internet penetration and an increasing younger population are making it clear where businesses will find their next wave of customers.
The shortest distance to the Indian customer
It is not just the urban young in India who prefer mobile phones as the means of looking for products, services or even information. Farmers, small traders and even homemakers in tier II and III towns and rural areas are learning to use their mobile phones as gateways to convenience and knowledge.
According to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm IMRB International, 77 percent of urban Indians and 92 percent of rural Indians consider mobile phones as their primary means to access the internet.
What's also interesting is that while internet penetration in urban India grew at a rate of 7 percent between October 2016 and June 2017, rural areas saw a rise in internet connectivity at the rate of 22 percent in the same period.
What SMBs need to bear in mind when considering an online strategy is that for most non-urban Indians, smartphones are a way to leapfrog over the expenses of a computer to connect to the internet. This makes the use of smartphones to access the internet a long term trend that will only see greater traction in the years to come.
The road to multichannel
For SMBs already daunted by the thought of setting up a website and the resulting overheads and effort, the concept of going multichannel may seem even more farfetched. This is an unfortunate misconception about online channels and often keeps businesses from realizing their full potential.
Full-service platforms today offer hosting and website creation tools, enabling entrepreneurs to launch their online business presence literally in hours, at minimal costs and with no administrative or technical hassles involved.
The technology is advanced enough for the sites to be pre-configured for mobiles as well as desktops SMBs do not have to do anything extra to have a mobile-channel enabled business presence either.
Launching an online and mobile presence for the business is, however, only the first step. SMBs also need to master the art of marketing on these channels, which often involves understanding a little more of their target audience's internet usage habits.
For example, the non-English speaking Indian population uses the internet largely to access multimedia and local language content. So for a business catering to such an audience, short demo videos or animation ads might be a great way to reach out to prospective customers. The use of messaging apps like WhatsApp has also become very common to send out promotional material in local languages, either in text or multimedia formats.
Mobile presence is not just about having your mobile website in place.
It is a medium to increase sales through push notifications, offering special discounts to customers and promoting the business to highly-targeted audiences. Moreover, smartphones are carried everywhere and thus the chances of small businesses expanding the reach of promotion exceed tremendously.
Another strength of online and mobile channels is the ability to offer strong customer support service at very low costs. With transparency and accessibility being the first two building blocks of consumer trust, making it easy for your customers to reach out to you using SMS, email or messenger apps can make a significant difference in conversions.
The percentage of Indian SMBs with at least an online presence is fairly low today at around 32%. However, Internet access in India is growing at a scorching 51% per annum, with a great chance that a majority of the new adopters will be smartphone users. Will SMBs' adoption of multichannel manage to keep pace?