At this time of year, every year, an accountant in my town has his young son dress up as the statue of liberty and stand in front of the office, waving a large tax preparation services sign. While I'm not sure what this may be doing for the growing boy's psyche, it's pretty easy to guess the message this is sending to the community: it's tax time, and I know you need an accountant, and I'm right here! The accountant has recognized a clear local need and is making a special effort to let the public know that he is the answer to that need. Taxpayers everywhere are getting this kind of attentive treatment right now, because everyone knows it's tax season, but what about all of the other real local, region-specific needs that would only require some observation to perceive and fulfill?
Take farmers, for example. Where I live, the local town is surrounded by miles of farmland being worked by families and small commercial enterprises. It's more rural than urban here, and as this is the year my family has finally realized its dream of starting our own organic farm, I've been butting heads with using local search to try to find solutions to our agricultural needs for some months now.
I've turned to Google for everything from renting a rototiller to getting our water tested and it's taken real persistence on my part to turn up answers because of a combination of incomplete data on Google's part and lack of effort on local business owners' parts.
Through trial and error, I have been able to locate local providers for some of the things we've needed on the farm, but in the heat of the search, I have also identified several really important needs that simply are not being met locally. These unmet needs are opportunities just waiting to be seized by the smart local business owner, and the best illustration I can give relates to water quality.
Most rural people live on wells. Many wells are periodically shock treated with chlorine to kill bacteria. Chlorine is a carcinogen and many people have filters to remove it from the water that is piped into their homes. But what about what's coming out of the garden hose? Dump chlorine on your farm and you not only cease to be organic (an important concern in my geo location) but you also kill off the healthy bacteria in your soil that causes plants to grow. Understandably, then, my neighbors need a way to remove chlorine from hose water before it hits their gardens and farms. And, so, you'd think that someone around here would be offering a product specifically designed for this need.
I've squeezed the life out of Google Maps and even the YP, contacting every local nursery, water filtration company, water commission I could find asking for a solution to my real local problem. Not one person I spoke to could help me. I began to get the feeling that none of these businesses or groups had ever really talked to their rural neighbors to discover the issues we face, despite the fact that their businesses frequently depend upon this relationship. I was fully ready to shop local, but I ended up having to order a garden hose filter from an e-commerce business located 4 states away and that's just incredible to me.
So, opportunity is knocking. If any nursery in my county would act with perception and stock garden hose filters, sales would be almost guaranteed because so many of their neighbors are on wells. And, while we're at it, municipal water is often full of chlorine, too, so an education program could lead to urban sales as well for all those folks who are ripping up their lawns to plant food this year.
The local nursery could:
Having identified the local need, all the local business has to do is fulfill it and the web offers almost limitless opportunities for bringing maximum visibility to the situation. Whether a business is catering to farmers, tax payers or tourists, the basic process of observing a need and providing for it will utilize a similar Internet toolkit to promote a local solution.
Take a look around your local landscape, and reflect on your own life experiences trying to procure goods and services in your town. Some things are easy to get in most places (gasoline, basic groceries, postage stamps) but maybe you live in an area where there are no window washers, no dump run trucks, no chimney sweeps. I once spent a day freezing in a tourist town where I couldn't find a sweater or sweatshirt to purchase for under $150 because all of the shops were so la-dee-da. Had anyone thought to stock an affordable warm garment, they would have had my business.
None of the ideas you come up with may be the foundation for a whole business, but they may be goods or services you could easily add to an existent business and thus increase the types of needs you are fulfilling in an under-served niche. When it comes to serving locally, it may be helpful to keep in mind some of the factors that create region-specific local needs:
I am hearing from business people on a weekly basis these days who are looking for new jobs or looking to change their business models to adapt to the current economy. The times may be a-changing, but for the perceptive local business person, change is full of opportunity. I am convinced that observation is the key skill you need to succeed with a local-focused business, and with the promotional tools the web provides, there has never been a better time to begin cultivating local needs for the benefit of your community and your business.
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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