Despite residing in one of the most plugged-in nations in the world, it is shocking to see how many small businesses in Canada are not using the Internet to promote their products and increase sales. A recent report by showed that fewer than half of the country's s two million small businesses have a website. And even fewer leverage free social media sites to reach their customers.
That flies in the face of a recent experience I had while travelling to St Lucia for March break. I met with Thomas Peter – or Captain Tom, as he is known on the island – who is the managing director of .
Mr. Peter founded a small charter boat company in 1998, which has grown to a fleet of five boats providing everything from deep-sea fishing to sunset dinner cruises to whale- and dolphin-watching excursions. For my family, the boat trip is always the highlight of the vacation.
Exodus really took off in the last year, after Mr. Peter decided it was time to step it up. In the 12 prior years, the company had grown to three boats, but in less than a year, he has almost doubled the size of his company, adding a new 36-foot sport fishing boat and a new speedboat to the fleet.
That's in spite of a tough economy, dramatic increases in fuel costs and rebuilding after a hurricane that devastated the island a few years earlier. It's not an easy feat for any small business, never mind one located on a small island in the Caribbean.
Just as important, he turned up the dial on social media. He completely revamped his website, providing prospective customers with the opportunity to book charters before arriving on the island. He also set up a to build a fan base, and provided guests with a place to share their photos and videos, managed daily by a community manager who actively engages with customers and posts updates on new developments within the company.
You could argue that social media and the corporate website contributed only a small part to the company's growth over the past year. After all, Exodus has always been one of the most-admired charter-boat companies on the island.
As the managing director, Mr. Peter is relentless in delivering a customer experience that stands out from competitors. He focuses on the small details and the boats are always pristine, well-stocked and staffed by personable, customer-service-oriented captains. In fact, one of his employees, Captain Del, was for the "Faces of St. Lucia," an annual award contest given to someone who embodies the values important to St. Lucia's tourism industry.
But I would argue that his investment in social media is what propelled the company. One of out five searches is related to local content. When people are travelling to a vacation destination or heading back to an island they have visited for years, social media has an impact.
Facebook is the place where we share our vacation stories and photos; what better way to learn what to do on a trip than to see other guests talking about their big catch or an amazing sunset. I know that my son's mahi-mahi catch generated comments from my network around the world.
Canadian small businesses need to wake up to the value of social media and the importance of having a well-designed and engaging corporate website. It is not expensive or difficult. Once it is set up, especially on Facebook, the community takes it from there. The photos, videos and postings by happy customers are the best public relations that a company can hope for.
If a small-business owner in St Lucia can realize the potential, a million small businesses in Canada can also start to move in the same direction.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mia Pearson is the co-founder of . She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.
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