To say this has been a tough year for small businesses is obviously a huge understatement. COVID-19 restrictions have had a profound impact on small business owners, forcing many of them to close their doors. It’s been even tougher for small businesses like mine, often referred to as “micro-businesses,” or those owned and operated by a single individual. According to a recent survey from Facebook and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 21 percent of micro-businesses were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time of the survey compared to 14 percent of SMBs with one to nine employees and 13 percent of SMBs with 10 or more employees.

I have fortunately been one of the lucky ones. My business, Posh Candle Co., sells candles exclusively online with catchy phrases and statements that encourage a positive mindset and spark laughter. Given that so many small businesses have had to move online during the pandemic, some even for the first time, I felt like my experience could offer some helpful tips on how to connect online with your loyal customers — and find new ones, despite the current situation. This will be especially important during the holidays as people aren’t able to shop in person and will be looking for gifts online. One of the easiest and most affordable ways a small business can create an online presence today is through online messaging using simple conversation.

Strike Up a Conversation

Conversation has always been at the heart of shopping with a small business. Everyone has a story of a favorite local business where the owner knows them and provides trusted and personal recommendations and service. Of course, even before COVID-19, this experience was becoming less common as more and more people turned to the internet to do their shopping. However, that experience can often seem impersonal and frustrating if you can’t ask questions about a product and get trusted and timely answers.

Online messaging is a simple way to connect in real time with your customers and provide them with personalized service and answers. It’s also something people are used to doing with friends and family, so it has an inherently familiar feel. And people prefer it. According to a study by Facebook IQ, 61 percent of people said that messaging is the easiest and most convenient way to contact a business, and 65 percent of people surveyed across generations said they would be more likely to shop with a business they can contact via chat. It’s not hard to see why. Online messaging eliminates things like waiting on hold on the phone or having to wait for a response from an email or a filled-out web form.

Free, Powerful Tools

Small businesses might not have the resources to compete with e-commerce giants, however, they do have some very powerful and free technology at their fingertips to get online quickly and start talking to customers. Posh Candle Co. uses Messenger from Facebook to reach its customers, and for the purpose of this article I’ll be using that channel as an example, but I encourage you to do your research.

Getting started with Messenger is easy. If you have a Facebook page, you have a Messenger account and can start chatting with customers immediately. Here are some of the simple to use but powerful tools that it comes with:

  • Automation: Messenger allows you to set up simple automation controls so that your business will always immediately respond to a customer’s question, even if you’re not around. This is especially useful for commonly asked questions like store hours or directions.
  • Chat Directly From Your Website: Messenger offers Chat-Plugin, which allows customers to connect with you right from your website, even if they don’t have a Facebook account or Messenger. Once a customer clicks on the link, it opens a conversation directly with your business.
  • Reach New Customers: Click-to-Messenger Ads are ads that run on Facebook, and when a customer clicks on them it starts a conversation with your business. These ads do cost money, but can be very cost effective if run during a brief, peak period of time like the holiday shopping season.
  • Business Inbox: This feature lets you easily switch between your personal inbox and your business inbox so you never miss a message from a customer. This is great if you’re always on the go like me, but still want to make sure to offer your customers fast and personalized service.

This is just a snapshot of how something like online messaging can help your business easily and quickly get online and start talking to its customers this holiday season. What else can you do to prepare for the holiday rush? I’ve also found it helpful to make a push to collect more online customer reviews now so that when people are doing their online holiday shopping they can see the positive feedback. Also, especially this year, make sure you have plenty of inventory stocked up and have back-up suppliers so you can avoid delays in getting your customers their items.

Most of all, have a plan going into the season and, like I said, do your research. Good luck and happy holidays!