Helping Independent Downtown Merchants Engage Effectively In E-Marketing: Part 1


Over the past year, DANTH Inc. has experimented with such social media as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest and revamped our website, blog  and email program. To support this effort we did a lot of research on what the various e-marketing tools do best and the challenges small firms like ours have in using them. In this two-part article I would like to share with the downtown revitalization community what we learned from our e-marketing overhaul, so that more independent downtown merchants (e.g., retailers and restaurateurs) might make an effective transition to e-commerce.

What we learned was the importance of an analytical process able to identify the e-marketing tools that will most effectively use an organization’s scarce resources to achieve critical marketing objectives. This process:

  • Starts off by looking at and prioritizing the organization’s marketing objectives
  • Then matches them with the e-marketing tools (e.g., website, emails, Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc.) that can best achieve each of those objectives. These two topics will be covered here in Part 1
  • And next selects those objective-matching tools that  can be implemented, because the organization has the required financial resources and either has or can acquire the needed skilled employees. This topic will be covered in two weeks in Part 2.

Where Not to Start

In the years preceding DANTH’s entry into the social media, a slew of e-marketing consultants and downtown management types had suggested that we do so because:

  • These e-marketing tools were popular
  • They were chic
  • The astronomical number of people on Facebook and Twitter
  • Most importantly, their purported and vaguely evidenced ability to attract new customers and drive sales.

For us, such “follow the pack” reasoning was plainly inadequate. DANTH is, like many independent downtown merchants, a small establishment, with fewer than five employees. There are limited financial resources available for our e-marketing activities. We long have hired  consultants to set up and technically maintain our website and email blasts and guide our entry into the social media. However, most of DANTH’s e-marketing activities fall directly into my hands, where they compete with many other demands for my time and attention. It was essential to know, when we used an e-marketing tool, that it would be consistent with our overall marketing strategy, effective and affordable in terms of money, my time and the skills sets of the current DANTH team as well as any other skilled professionals we could afford to hire.

Possible Downtown Merchant E-Marketing Objectives

Our field observations strongly suggest that one of the biggest mistakes independent downtown merchants make is to not identify the specific marketing objectives they want their e-commerce activities to achieve. It is essential for them to do so, if they want to effectively use e-marketing tools. Typically faced with a scarcity of money, skills and time, a small operator: a) needs to have objectives in order to make any judgment about the effectiveness of the e-marketing tools the firm invests in, and b) cannot hope to achieve all of the possible objectives. Therefore,  prioritizing them and then focusing on the most important are essential.

There are a wide range of marketing objectives that a small merchant can try to realize through the use of the right e-marketing tools. Here is a brief list of some potential e-marketing objectives:

  • Reaching target market segments
  • Being found on the Internet
  • Finding new customers
  • Branding
  • Making direct sales: setting up an e-storefront
  • Advertising: information about new merchandise, sales , discounts, fun events; driving customers to brick and mortar stores
  • Relationship building with customers; grooming “store apostles”
  • Customer service.

I would argue that when considering e-marketing, for the small independent downtown merchant, the most important of these objectives, the one that all should focus on, is “being found on the Internet.” Here’s why. The most significant impact the Internet has had on retailing is that, today, most shoppers first go online to research the merchandise or service they are interested in and the stores that sell them. For example, a 2010 Pew survey found that “58% of Americans research online about the products and services they buy,” with 78% of Internet users engaging in this online researching (1). Merchants who are not in on the search, consequently, are unlikely to be in on the sale!

“Being found” is complex and entails several components, such as:

  • Name recognition – shoppers can learn who you are
  • Contact info – shoppers can learn where you are
  • Info about merchandise offered – shoppers can find what they want to buy
  •  “Why this store” info – reasons why the shopper should buy what he/she is looking for in this shop.

Merchants in different situations may vary in their needs for each of these components. For example, a new downtown merchant or a pure Internet retailer needs to be concerned about all four components, but a longtime downtown merchant may already be fairly well-known and found with relative ease. If the number of downtown merchants and the trade area population are small and/or relatively stagnant, then more merchants are likely to be in this situation. As a result, in many small and medium-sized downtowns, shoppers are probably more likely to want to know which merchants are offering the goods and services they want to buy and the reasons to make that purchase in that store.  The websites of too many downtown merchants and downtown organizations that provide member merchants with a web page usually just focus on the shop’s name and contact information. Actually, the merchants usually have the stronger additional needs to display their product information and make persuasive appeals to patronize their shops.

Regarding online sales, although they accounted for an estimated 7% of the USA’s 2010 total retail sales, a study by Mckinsey & Company estimated that by 2011 the internet had played a role in 45% of the nation’s retail sales(2). So the vast majority, around 80+%, of the internet’s impact on retail is not via direct sales. E-marketing’s impact is primarily indirect, but still critical. Also, many observers have noted that e-retail stores demand a lot of complex and expensive infrastructure related to storage, shipping and payments. While this barrier that has kept more firms from competing with Amazon, it also is a major reason that more independent downtown merchants have not attempted e-stores and why so many that did have failed.

Some Examples of Matching E-Marketing Objectives to Appropriate E-Marketing Tools

Research on e-marketing tools is still unfolding, with many issues yet unanswered, but this much is clear: e-marketing tools differ in their ability to achieve various marketing objectives. It is critical to select those e-tools that are best able to  achieve your firm’s objectives. For example:

  • The social media differ substantially in their penetration of the online audience: according to a 2012 Pew report, 66% of online adults use Facebook, 20% use LinkedIn, 16% use Twitter and 12% use Pinterest (3).
  • The social media will also differ in their ability to penetrate specific market segments. Some illustrative findings by Pew: “African-Americans, young adults, and mobile users stand out for their high rates of Twitter usage” (4); 19% of online women use Pinterest compared to 5% of online males (3); LinkedIn attracts the most educated and male audience (5).
  • E-commerce tools also vary in their ability to enable a downtown merchant to be found in Internet customer research efforts. The Pew Research Center studied the sources that people rely on to get news and information about local restaurants, bars, and clubs. They found that 38% used a search engine and 17% specialty websites (e.g.,,,, etc.), while only 3% relied on a social networking site or Twitter. For finding information about other local businesses Pew’s survey had similar findings: 36% of respondents relied on a search engine, 16% on specialty websites and just 1% on a social media (4).
  • The most searched for online categories, when shoppers seek information about local businesses, are restaurants, financial services and beauty services (8). Firms in these sectors definitely need an easily findable online presence
  • Research also suggests that social media do not drive online sales. For example, one study found that the average order value of e-commerce sales sourced from social media is 25% lower than the average sale coming from emails and 35% lower than those sourced from Internet search. (5). Another study in 2012 by Forrester Research found that only about 1% of e-retail transactions could be traced back to “trackable” social media links. Consumers making a first-time purchase with an e-retailer were far more likely to originate their purchase by first making a direct visit to the vendor site (20%), or finding it via an organic or paid search (16% and 11%, respectively). For repeat shoppers, e-mails and direct site visits are the keys: 30% of their online purchases are sparked by an e-mail from the retailer, while another 30% of repeat customer searches start with a direct visit to the retailer’s site (6).
  • For downtown retailers, the more important question is can e-marketing tools drive customers into their brick and mortar shops and increase sales. We could not find a reliable systematic survey of consumers that addressed this question. However, we did come across numerous anecdotal reports of special product and discount offers distributed via emails, Facebook and Twitter that did bring more customer traffic and sales into traditional retail shops and eateries. For example, one ice cream parlor we visited in a New York City neighborhood reported occasionally offering special flavors only to people visiting their Facebook page and they are always quickly sold out. But, this ice cream parlor has been around for about 50 years and has 8,000 Facebook likes
  • Many e-marketing experts claim that e-marketing tools, especially the social media, are very effective at building customer traffic and sales indirectly through stronger branding, relationship building and better customer service. For example, a 2012 survey of business to consumer marketers by Webmarketing 123 found that the top objectives of their digital marketing programs were increasing brand awareness 33%, increase sales 26%, generate leads 22%, generate site traffic 11%, build online community 6% and other 3% (7). It is interesting that only about a quarter of these marketing professionals were focusing on directly increasing sales. Among these marketers 49% reported search engine optimization had the biggest impact on lead generation compared to 26% reporting it was pay-per-click advertising and 25% the social media.  

What About the Personal and Professional Service Operations? This question was posed by a reviewer of a draft of this article who noted that these firms are so strong in many downtowns. My expectation is that most of the above applies to them too, but that there may be some important differences. For example, I suspect that the potential for effectively using the social media is greater among hair and nail salons, gyms, spas, etc., because they do not primarily sell merchandise and personal relationships are so important in the delivery of their services. Also, as DANTH found, LinkedIn will be very important for professional service firms.

N. David Milder


  1. Jim Jansen, “Online Product Research: 58% of Americans have researched a product or service online,” September 29, 2010, Senior Fellow, Pew Internet Project
  2. Steve Noble, Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, Christiana Shi, “The promise of multichannel retailing”, McKinsey Quarterly, October 2009.
  3. Lee Rainie, Joanna Brenner and Kristen Purcell, “Photos and Videos as Social Currency Online,” Sept. 13, 2012, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project,
  4. Aaron Smith and  Joanna Brenner, “Twitter Use 2012,” May 21, 2012, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project,
  5. Keith N. Hampton, Lauren Sessions Goulet, Lee Rainie, and Kristen Purcell “Social networking sites and our lives” June 16, 2011, Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project,
  6. The Forrester report, The Purchase Path of Online Buyers, is reported in Brad Tuttle,  Study: Posts on Facebook Almost Never Lead to Retail Sales” TIMEMomneyland Sept 27,2012    and Zak Stambor, “Social media posts don’t lead to sale,” Social Media, Sept 25, 2012,
  7. Webmarketing 123,  2012 State Of Digital Marketing
  8., “The YP Local Insights Digital Report”