Small Business Owners Get Intimate With Visa's New Network1 Dec, 2008 By: Jacqueline Renfrow Response
The world's largest retail electronic payments network seeks to help small business owners during tough economic times by utilizing social networking site Facebook.
When it comes to marketing a small business, one might argue that the most valuable resource for an effective and efficient business is networking.
That's why, on June 24, Visa Small Business, a division of Visa Inc. — the world's largest retail electronic payments network — joined the powerful direct response channel of the online social community by launching a Facebook application, the Visa Business Network (VBN). Dedicated to helping small businesses to succeed, it was the first application of its kind on Facebook. While most of the other 20,000 applications in creation are geared towards consumers, this one is the first dedicated solely to connecting small business owners.
"Applications are the fuel that drives the phenomenon that is Facebook," says Alex Craddock, the head of small business marketing at Visa. "It allows small businesses to connect."
Today, most of offline networking is done locally within communities. "But there can be real value in a coffee shop in New York talking with a coffee shop in Los Angeles," says Craddock. "They can compare information, such as: who are your suppliers; what are you paying your staff; what are your operating costs — and this can help you manage more efficiently."
Back when Visa was conjuring up the idea of the application, the Visa marketing team wanted to create a place where businesses could support each other and learn from each other's best practices. So Visa turned to the world of online social communities for help.
"Small businesses succeed by connecting with other small businesses, so we're helping them grow through networking, and helping them manage more efficiently through networking and a resource center with useful applications, advice and tools. When we launched the VBN, we knew it was still in the early stages of social media for small businesses, but all the research we did with small businesses indicated we were potentially on to something big in terms of how Visa could help them succeed by helping them tap the value of social networking," Craddock says.
Features of the VBN application include a Business Finder, which allows a user to search for a company based on type, location, size, etc.; an idea exchange center that allows users to chat with other owners; and a research center that includes tools from Google, experts at The Wall Street Journal and Entrepreneur.
"It multi-tasks," says Craddock. "Most businesses find it helps them to connect, manage more efficiently and grow."
Fresh content is added three times a week and a new section with Visa-specific content — Card Benefits, Find a Card, SavingsEdge, Security 101 — was added in the fall.
A Company's Lifeblood
Craddock says the idea for an application began 12-18 months ago when the VBN was brainstorming ideas on how to grow online, while still fulfilling its mission of helping small businesses, both existing card-holder customers and new, to succeed.
"We really thought there was an opportunity to step into the space with a community-based site. The lifeblood of small businesses is regular dialogue," he says.
The group also focused in on the fact that business owners are short on time, so Visa looked for a way to engage its customers in a closed site, creating a list of criteria.
"We asked ourselves, what can we do to facilitate networking where they [small business owners] are already spending their time and add value to it," asked Craddock. Other criteria included addressing the issues that were important to business owners and being able to open a large population to them for networking purposes. Moreover, Visa wanted to offer quality content that would enhance business beyond the basic offline networking. And finally, Visa wanted to create a platform to help generate new business opportunities for small business owners by bringing the owners directly to the customers. With all this in mind, Visa landed on social networking.
Facebook launched its own Business Pages in November 2007 so that company owners could reach out to existing customers, friends and families by posting news on special store events or use it as a communications platform. Today, Facebook's business community has 80,000 small business pages, and 300,000 owners have a personal Facebook page.
"But what we did was go in and provide an application that can help them [small business owners] find each other," says Craddock. "It's a really rich criteria-driven search function. Finding a business is as simple as looking for location, size, revenue or employee numbers. Then you connect around the world and put in your profile what you're looking for in a connection, advice, success stories, etc."