Boulder’s digital capital

Small business owners work to stake their claim

Google\'s Get Your Business Online event in August
Courtesy of Google\'s GYBO

As home to large online technology companies like Yahoo and eBay, as well as large digital advertising firms like Crispin Porter Bogusky and Mondo Robot (who put on the mind-blowing light show and 3-D video outside of the Fox Theatre last year), it’s no wonder Boulder is a mecca for digital competency among businesses. But it’s thanks to the collective digital savvy of small- and medium-sized business owners, not the online giants, that Google awarded the city of Boulder the digital capital of Colorado last month.

Google teamed up with independent research firm Ipsos to hash out exactly what a digital capital is — a word unfamiliar to the tech lexicon until now. The criteria boil down to whether businesses have a fast-loading website with e-commerce functionality, a blog and social media pages, and are listed in an online directory (businesses like real estate companies, for example, often list their website or services on directory sites that feature solely real estate agents). Their results showed small- and medium-sized businesses in Boulder, from one to 50 employees, have a larger Web presence than any other city in Colorado.

For companies already well-established in this new digital capital, finding value through these criteria that actually convert to sales can be challenging. A website and an online presence is like a living entity — it must be nurtured, tweaked and constantly maintained with dynamic content. Even more, it takes the right mix of social media to fuel the traffic — both online and through the store. Even some the most hardened, old-school business owners are now tweeting, using Facebook and adding sepia filters to photos of their businesses or events on Instagram.

Angelo Keely, creative director of madelife, a Boulder company that sells products from local artists and designers, compares his online presence to the physical presence of his store: “If people come into the store and it’s really empty or dirty or disorganized, people are going to judge us.”

Madelife launched a new website in August weeks ago, and has already seen promising feedback. By switching to a content-based website bolstered by a healthy dose of Instagram and Facebook blasts, visitors on the new site stay for a longer period of time, and the site carries a low bounce rate (a percentage of users that only look at one page, then “bounce” or leave).

For madelife, its online presence is almost all about reinforcing its brand, not necessarily selling products online. But companies like Piece, Love and Chocolate depend largely on online orders and social media to drive customers into the store. “We put our attention where we get some response,” says Sarah Amorese, owner of Piece, Love and Chocolate. Amorese says Facebook and Instagram are what works best for her business, but it’s hard to measure and put a dollar value on social media.

Even though Google and Ipsos’ ranking system for digital capitals gives weight to businesses with strong social media presence, does social media equate to more sales for small business? For e-commerce websites selling something like chocolate, the importance of social media, especially Twitter, is overrated, according to a June report from marketing data company Custora. It studied 72 million customers shopping on 86 retail sites over the past four years and found most new customers came from email marketing. But this just means social media might not help online sales. It could still drive foot traffic into the store.

Among all types of digital marketing, organic searches, meaning unpaid search traffic, fared the best, with customers 54 percent more likely to spend and continue spending in the future than the average online customer. Email customers were 11 percent more likely, while Facebook customers were about average. Twitter fared the worst, with customers 23 percent less valuable than average during the two years following their first visit to a business’ site.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say Twitter is inherently a bad way to do [online marketing], but we haven’t seen a lot of good Twitter strategies,” says Aaron Goodman, Custora’s lead data scientist.

Keely says Twitter might be a viable option for madelife in the future, but because of the time commitment it currently does not use Twitter.

“Twitter is not a strategic value for us right now. It demands a certain kind of user involvement on our part — tweeting all the time and retweeting and communicating with the rest of the Twitter community. We more naturally find that happening with Instagram.”

For companies off the grid on the fringes of our digital capital community, the opportunity to get online is available through a program sponsored by Google. On Aug. 13, almost 200 business owners created a website during a workshop called “Get Your Business Online.” Google offers small-business owners free website-building tools developed by the company Intuit, which provides user-friendly drag-and-drop options to create a website, plus a free domain and free website hosting for one year.

Or, for businesses frozen by cyberphobia — or by workload — Boulder is home to a large cache of Web design agencies and freelancers.

“My focus is on developing the business,” says John March, partner of The Riverside and general manager of The Agora at The Riverside, a new event center undergoing a Web design project through an agency. “I choose to use a developer rather than an online tool, because I want human contact so I can best utilize my time for the business.”