With coronavirus shutdowns lasting months and causing many brick-and-mortar small businesses to close their doors, many have been left looking for different ways to stay afloat. Restaurants that never did delivery or take out before are signing up with food delivery services like Doordash and Uber Eats for the first time. Shops that were completely IRL have turned to sites like Shopify and Wix to create online versions of their storefronts. Others have turned to Etsy and have started making handmade masks and other goods that are in need during this pandemic. The trend of small businesses moving online has been happening for years but coronavirus has accelerated it just like it has the trends of working from home and telemedicine. In the online realm, small businesses can learn a lot from influencers. There are three main things I think that small businesses can borrow from the influencer playbook: diversify your income streams, own your brand, and content is king. This will be a live blog post that I will continue to update as my thinking and research expands.
Diversify Income Streams
Influencers typically build up large loyal followings that they then monetize through various channels like YouTube ad revenue, Instagram sponsored posts, merchandise sales, and patreon subscriptions. These diversified income sources allow them to better ride out down periods in any one source. There are a few good examples of fitness companies adopting this influencer strategy and finding new ways to monetize the loyal followings that they have also built. Barrys Bootcamp, a popular boutique studio gym with studios around the world, first started offering free Instagram live classes when they were forced to close their gyms, then they started selling bands and other workouts equipment for those classes and they have recently transitioned their website to enable you to purchase online classes which are delivered through password-protected Zoom links. Spartan Race, which puts on a series of obstacle course races, has also ramped up their merchandising efforts and hosted the world's largest virtual race last month. The race itself was free to participate in but included an option to pay to "upgrade" that included coveted finisher medals and t-shirts. A diversified small business income strategy can include merchandising, gift cards, food delivery, etc.
Own your brand
Influencers know the importance of owning their brand and being free from the control of middle-men like publishers. This enables them to have a direct relationship with their followers/customers. The tools are already out there for this mass disintermediation. After creating a popular series of videos for Buzzfeed, The Try Guys, a group of four guys who live up to their name by trying various things, left Buzzfeed and ventured off to create their own production company. When liberal news site ThinkProgress shut down, writer Lindsay Gibbs created her own paid newsletter Power Plays on Substack which now has more than 1,000 subscribers paying up to $72 a year. Small businesses can learn from this and also try to maintain their independence from middle-men as they transition online. Becoming a third-party seller on Amazon seems great at first given the huge platform benefits but you are also opening up your business to easy commoditization. In the long term, it will be difficult to compete with Amazon itself when they control the platform, the logistics, and all your data. Creating an independent site through the numerous site building tools that provide e-commerce functionality gives businesses increased control and enables them to build up digital assets for the long term.
Content is king
In this new covid-world, people are eager for content and influencers stuck at home have been whipping up lots of it to meet this demand. Some influencers have turned to Cameo, a platform that allows celebrities of all levels to be paid for producing personal videos for their fans. It has allowed people like Instagram comedian Evan Breen to make more than $2,500 at once by filming over 100 short videos for fans. Being domain experts in their area, small businesses can also capitalize on this hunger for content. Recently, I started auditing a virtual class from the School of Poetic Computation in New York. The school was completely artist run and used to having small intimate in-person classes in their Manhattan space where they could teach students how to use coding and design in artistic ways. When COVID-19 cases started rising in the city, they proactively made the decision to cancel their spring session and public events. They quickly setup a GoFundMe with the hopes of raising $15,000 to cover two months of rent and operations to hold them over while they figured things out. Shortly after, they developed online courses and expand their reach by allowing people to audit their classes for just $125 compared to $1,200 for the full course. Other small businesses can learn from this story and start producing their own content and monetizing them with online classes on Teachable, scheduled zoom webinars through zmurl, or any of the other platforms available.
These are undeniably tough times for small businesses but there are some signs of hope in how small businesses are adapting and are continuing to adapt by borrowing strategies from influencers and others. Some of these adaptations will be short lived but I think many are here to stay or at least will stay around in different forms.