Durham Regions massive Digital Main Street roll-out pays off
Main street businesses can no longer treat digital presence as an afterthought. The pandemic has proven that, says Jamie Nowe, digital marketing expert and team lead for Durham’s Digital Main Street program.
“One of the questions I get from a lot of my clients is when do you see things going back to normal?” he says. “This may be the new normal – (digital isn’t) a passive revenue stream to help support a business… 80 or 90% of the revenue that you might be making for your business might have to be transacted online.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean selling through e-commerce, but that does mean using “online avenues” to bring customers through the doors of your physical business. It’s the core message behind the digital transformation Nowe’s been advocating for as he’s worked alongside fellow Digital Service Squad lead Orzala Quddasi to roll out Digital Main Street in Durham Region.
The program combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario alongside partners like Google to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities and plan for the digital future. Durham Region has invested heavily in the program hiring 17 Digital Service Squad members to provide Durham businesses – in Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa, Pickering, Brock Township, Uxbridge, Scugog, and Port Perry – the supports and resources to adapt to today’s digital environment.
“A lot of businesses realize that they haven’t taken the opportunity to be online,” says Quddasi. “All of a sudden, now you have to push it, and you can’t get the same results versus a business, that’s been doing it for, say, three years… they’re already ahead of you.”
Digital Main Street has helped to fill those knowledge gaps, adds Nowe. “There was a lot of integration with the services that are being offered through the Business Advisory Centre of Durham (BACD).” That gave them the flexibility to support the more than 1,100 businesses across the region that registered for Digital Main Street over the duration of the program.
Quddasi says the types of digital support in demand varied widely across the different main streets but search engine optimization (SEO) was definitely a hot topic. “The minute I’d say we have an expert that can sit down with you and talk about SEO, everybody was ready to book a session with Jamie,” she says. “From the social media aspect, (businesses) were looking more for content creation… somebody to do it for them.”
Ultimately, says Nowe, the goal is to empower business owners to enact their digital transformation plans on their own. “In some cases, clients may already know what they want and in some places, it was our position to tell them what they should be working on.”
Several of the businesses the Digital Service Squad worked with received a $2,500 digital transformation grant. But Nowe says the emphasis was often on finding zero-cost solutions. “That’s why SEO and social were so attractive to a lot of our clients because that’s driving traffic online for free… you don't have to spend any money to do your social well, you just have to know what you're doing and put the time into it.”
Both Quddasi and Nowe say they’re pleased with how the roll-out has gone. “It’s a shame how this digital transformation that's top of mind right now is brought on by COVID,” says Nowe. “But if there’s anything that could come out of it, I hope now, at least, when things do go back to some sort normal, that people are going to be in a much better position to be successful online.”
Written by Andrew Seale
Digital Main Street was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) with direct support from the City of Toronto. DMS is also supported by a group of strategic business partners, including Google, Mastercard, Shopify, Microsoft, Facebook, Intuit QuickBooks, Square, Yellow Pages and Lightspeed.
A $42.5-million investment from FedDev Ontario brought together the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, Communitech, Invest Ottawa and the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association to expand the Digital Main Street Platform in order to support more businesses going digital as a response to the impacts of COVID-19 in Southern Ontario.