In 2008, the then Business on Smith St (BOSS) traders’ association received a $6000 grant from the City of Yarra to build a website to promote itself and the members it claimed to represent. The website proved to be a clusterfuck of incompetence when it was published a year later, and it was soon abandoned although it remains live.
I reviewed some Melbourne traders’ association websites in 2009 and listed features that audiences should reasonably expect from them. The Smith St site did not contain most of these features. In particular, it did not explain what the purpose of the organisation was, what its relationship with local government was, or what it aimed to achieve in communicating with the public.
The BOSS website
In 2011 it was reported that BOSS was struggling to survive as an organisation and was not financially viable. It evidently collapsed.
In 2013 a new group of Smith St precinct traders, calling itself the Smith St Business Association (SSBA), has started to develop a new online presence. SSBA has published a Facebook page and has a Meetup profile that invites people to participate in the group. It is not clear if SSBA is the same legal entity as BOSS, but it appears to have control of the craptacular website, which now proclaims ‘We have abandoned this website for the present’. No, really?
Unfortunately, the new copy and its formatting is as terrible as the old copy and formatting. This is an ominous sign that the old incompetence is being perpetuated. A marketing campaign that has less sophistication than the audience it is aimed at will inevitably fail.
A lot has happened in relation to traders’ associations since I wrote my review in 2009. Consumer expectations have increased along with the complexity of online technologies and their possibilities for communications and marketing.
SSBA needs to undertake an analysis of the needs of Smith St consumers and a benchmarking or competitor analysis to determine what it can learn from other traders’ association sites and how it can improve on them.
More traders’ association sites now exist to benchmark against. A project of the City of Melbourne, Melbourne Business Precincts, lists 8 precincts and 7 of these already have websites built with WordPress (some also have associated social media profiles).
In terms of mobile accessibility, many people now access the web via mobile devices, but most traders’ association websites are not responsive or mobile friendly. The only one I have seen that is responsive is the Puckle St Moonee Ponds site.
In terms of representation of the precinct to an online audience of potential customers, the old BOSS site was not inclusive in that it did not list all the businesses in the area, and it did not explain the mission of the organisation.
The desire to promote member businesses is not the same as promoting the entire precinct. A voluntary membership based organisation may not want to promote businesses who don’t pay to join, but consumers don’t care about internal politics. They expect a coherent and comprehensive representation of a high street precinct with all its businesses listed.
The Sydney Rd Brunswick Association (SRBA) has a different site to the one that was live in 2009 (it is now built with WordPress). As terrible as it is, the SRBA site appears to represent all the precinct’s businesses via a comprehensive index and it explains its purpose and how it is funded:
The Association is contracted through the Moreland City Council to promote and market the street. The funding is generated by a ‘Special Levy’ collected via the Council Rates on over 500 businesses in the Sydney Road retail strip[.]
It is not clear whether SSBA is being funded by the City of Yarra to develop its new online presence. Ratepayers will be deeply unhappy if they discover that more of their money is wasted in this new initiative as it was last time. To avoid this embarrassing fate, the SSBA should prioritise meeting consumer expectations in terms of functionality, transparency and efficacy in developing its new online presence.
This is a difficult task because the skills and abilities of individual business owners will vary considerably. Some would not own computers or know how to use them. They would have no idea how to maximise their marketing via online channels.
At the other extreme, some restaurants and bars are particularly sophisticated and savvy in their use of online communications, including social media. They know that their customers are educated people with disposable incomes – the same demographic that has the highest use of the internet. These customers read online reviews and swarm, flashmob style, to visit new venues that are reported to be favourable or fashionable.
The products and services the businesses sell also vary significantly in their potential to be marketed online. Fashion and food are relatively easy. Secondhand whitegoods? Not so photogenic or fun to read about online.
The concept of curating content created by other entities, from businesses to bloggers to aggregator sites, is not something I have seen any traders’ association do. The SSBA, for example, has made no effort to like the Facebook pages of Smith St businesses and then share their updates. The same kind of curation could be achieved with Twitter, such as with a list similar to the list of Fitzroy businesses I maintain. They could also post links to content from newspaper websites and blogs.
I remain skeptical as to whether any traders’ association can demonstrate the conceptual sophistication required to achieve anything significant with their online marketing. The potential of online marketing is difficult to determine and its effectiveness difficult to measure. This uncertainty can lead to poor decision making, which leads to poor outcomes.
Not being able to determine the potential of a campaign makes it difficult to justify spending real money to pay for expert advice. This investment is often not made, and the work is done instead by volunteer business owners whose indifferent skills lead to indifferent results.
A superficial review of the campaign leads unsurprisingly to the superficial conclusion that online marketing is ineffective and it is abandoned. In this scenario, the potential of a professional campaign is never tested and the true efficacy of online marketing is never established. Stalemate.
Can the SSBA avoid all these traps and deliver a successful online marketing campaign to bring more consumers to the precinct?