Lyn Evans owner, Stan Shotkus, uses Alignable to network with other merchants
Attracting new customers and getting those customers to make repeat purchases is a challenge that's become increasingly difficult for small businesses that serve a local customer base. "In the old days, you swept your steps, put a sign in the window, ran an ad in the newspaper, and you were off and running," says Stan Shotkus, owner of Lyn Evans, a contemporary women's boutique with 7 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut. "But that's not how things operate anymore."
Today's local businesses have to work a lot harder at marketing than they used to. Advertising in local print and broadcast media is no longer the primary means to attract customers. While those tools still reach some people, they miss all the people who now use computers, tablets and smart phones to research, locate, and often purchase the products and services they used to shop for close to home.
To combat the ebb of business away from downtown areas and local villages, savvy merchants like Shotkus have learned they need to be proactive not only about digital marketing but also about working with other local businesses to turn the tide and bring more customers to local merchants' establishments. But both tasks can be difficult, says Shotkus. "A lot of small business owners aren't sure what they should be doing. They're often reluctant to try new things, and don't have any time" says Shotkus.
All those challenges combine to make helping local businesses attract customers a herculean task - a task now being tackled by startup social media network, Alignable. Cofounded by Eric Groves, formerly a founding executive at Constant Contact, and Venkat Krishnamurthy, a technologist and serial entrepreneur, Alignable focuses on revolutionizing how local businesses connect with their customers and get their customers back again to drive repeat revenue.
While there are many other social networks in which small business owners can - and do-- participate, most are used by small businesses to communicate with their customers and to promote their products and special offers to consumers.
Alignable communities in the US
What Alignable does differently is offer local businesses a free, easy-to-use platform where they can connect with other local businesses to share knowledge and help build each others' customer base. Business owners who join Alignable become members of a local community group on Alignable. These local communities consist of businesses within about 5 miles of their own. That radius was chosen, according to Groves because, "In talking to local businesses we found that what is important is really the 5 mile radius around them where 80% of customers are coming from and where there are a lot of other local businesses."
Alignable members can communicate individually or through a community news feed with other members in their community and post to a community calendar of events. They can also form their own private groups made up individuals from any location. The combination of newsfeeds and private groups offer local business owners a helpful way to communicate and collaborate to build business.
Stan Shotkus and the merchant group his LynEvans store belong to in Concord, MA use Alignable to plan multi-merchant promotions for Concord. When the merchant group was planning their "Fall In Concord" event, for instance, they used their private group on Alignable to collaborate, develop ideas, discuss what to offer and to set up meetings. Once the plans were firmed up, the members of the private group talked the event up on the Alignable community group to build excitement and get people into town during the event.
In addition to facilitating communication among merchants, Alignable is can be a big time-saver, too. It can be set up to send scheduled posts to your Facebook and Twitter accounts and to your own website, too, and it integrates with two email providers (Constant Contact and Mail Chimp). "That's of tremendous value," says Shotkus, "because instead of having to go to each of those outlets multiple times to send out promotions and reminders, I can schedule everything once in advance on Alignable."
Promoting community-wide events is just one of the many ways Alignable helps local businesses. Individual business can use it to get acquainted with each other and then get together in person to plan joint promotions or mailings. "You build relationships on Alignable by posting and commenting on other people's posts," says Groves, "And then it's an easy next stop to meet them face to face. The social network breaks down the barrier and makes it super easy to call and say I'd like to stop by."
Groves and Krishnamurthy started planning Alignable in March, 2012, and then tested their concept with a handful of communities in Massachusetts. In January, 2014, they opened access to the service across the country, and by September, 2014 already had 3,000 communities established in the network. So far the growth has taken place much like the growth of the local businesses they cater to does - by word of mouth.
And as the network grows, so too, do the ways that small businesses find to use it. Chambers of Commerce and other community groups have begun to use it to facilitate communications, get word out about their own organizations, and increase their membership. Nationwide industry groups are being formed by some members, too, allowing for instance a cupcake store in one part of the country share tips and hints with cupcake stores in other noncompeting areas of the country.
With all the tools Alignable makes available to local businesses to help them succeed, local business owners should find Alignable an effective network for communications and networking. As Stan Shotkus puts it, "Alignable is the right concept at the right time.
Editor's note: Businesses can sign up for the free Alignable service at http://www.alignable.com.
© 2014 Attard Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced, reprinted or redistributed without written permission from Attard Communications, Inc.