If social distancing has proven anything for small businesses in Surprise, an online presence can make or break them.
Unfortunately, some businesses are learning this the hard way.
The Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce, which serves about 400 businesses in Surprise and surrounding areas, is taking the unconventional step of opening up its business service tools to non-Chamber members for free during the time of the coronavirus slowdown.
“These are unprecedented times,” Surprise Chamber CEO and President Raoul Sada said. “We have to pull out all the stops. If it means forgoing some revenue for the time being, so be it.”
Chamber membership dues are typically the lifeblood of chambers all over the country. Mr. Sada said those dues can make up 75% to 80% of the operating budget.
“Businesses are hurting,” Mr. Sada said. “Many have cut back on their marketing budgets. However, they still need a strong Internet presence. Many more businesses simply do not have a large digital footprint, and some simply need a website.
“This is where the Chamber can make available a robust set of easy to use marketing tools, to help businesses get more leads, sales and brand exposure.”
The Chamber has a wide reach, too, with 5,000 people on its mailing list that touches business in Surprise, El Mirage, Youngtown and surrounding areas.
Bill Vensel, chair of the board of the Surprise Chamber, said the initiative has one goal — helping businesses “reopen, recover and grow.”
Many small businesses without a $200 or $300 budget for web maintenance often resort to social media sites like Facebook and Instagram instead.
While a social media presence is also imperative these days, a basic website usually is the first to be cut from the budget when a couple of hundred of dollars in savings makes a difference.
Unfortunately for those businesses that don’t have an updated one or one at all, a website is still the first place most people go first to find out information about a business.
“If your business is not on the web right now, you’re even worse off,” Mr. Sada said. “We want to remedy that first and foremost.”
Mr. Sada said the chamber software called Chamber Nation can generate a website with a video showroom in as little as 30 minutes.
Mr. Sada said it’s designed to be do-it-yourself. A business owner simply inputs the purpose and mission of the business and other facts such as hours and it populates a website for them.
“We can get them up and running with a digital website that is mobile-ready in the matter of minutes,” he said.
The Chamber last week also rolled out its “Saving Small Business” initiative, which started with its “Take-Out Tuesday” promotion.
That campaign is using social media and digital text marketing to remind Surprise residents about the food choices that are still available.
“At least one day of the week where people go out and get to-go orders, breakfast, lunch or dinner, or even dessert,” Mr Vensel said. “There’s still lots of restaurants out there trying to make to struggle trying to make it, and Take-Out Tuesday is just a great way to try to recognize them and try to help them.”
The free Shop Local campaign sends deals, news, and information to residents via mobile phones. Residents can sign up at SurpriseRegionalChamber.com.
“We’re using ‘Shop Surprise’ and social media to promote the concept of ‘Take-Out Tuesday,’” Mr. Sada said. “Take out is good every day of the week. We’re just doing a promotional effort on Tuesdays to increase the awareness of the community.”
Mr. Sada said some of the ways of doing business because of the coronavirus are here to stay. The Chamber, itself, plans to host more webinars now after more than 100 people joined a business town hall it hosted in April.
Most Chambers of Commerce nationally were already moving away from in-person networking functions like ribbon-cuttings and into more political advocacy on behalf of businesses.
“Small businesses are fighting to keep their workers employed and their dreams alive,” Mr. Vensel said. “Amid the pandemic, too many small businesses [nationally] already have shuttered, and thousands more are on the brink of permanent closure. Small businesses need the Chamber of Commerce more than ever.”
Mr. Vensel said the Surprise Chamber has seen a decline in membership renewals because of the struggles businesses are facing.
“This is a bold move on the part of the Chamber, but it is an essential strategy to help get the economy jump-started,” Mr. Vensel said.
Because of its nonprofit status, the Surprise Chamber itself isn’t eligible for PPP funds to pay its employees. Mr. Sada said the group is dipping into its rainy day funds to get through the tough times.
Editor’s Note: Jason Stone can be reached at email@example.com.