Digital Service Squads find direct engagement with business owners is critical

By Leo Valiquette

Having a strong digital presence went from being a nice-to-have to a necessity literally overnight for legions of small business owners when Ontario declared a State of Emergency on March 17, 2020.

When the pandemic struck, thousands had already taken advantage of the Digital Main Street program (DMS) to build this resiliency into their businesses.

Through Phase 1 of DMS in 2019, these business owners benefited from free assessments, counsel and access to the resources that would equip them with the knowledge and skills to prosper in an increasingly digital world. Of these, hundreds had applied for and received Digital Transformation Grants of $2,500 each to assist with specific projects, such as relaunching a website with ecommerce capability or making more effective use of social media marketing.

In June 2020, the partners in DMS announced Phase 2 of the program. The renewal came as a relief for many still struggling to adapt to a new way of doing business in response to the pandemic.

Through DMS, municipalities and BIAs can also apply for grants to staff and deploy Digital Service Squads. These squads serve as the frontline ambassadors for DMS, to introduce DMS to “main street” business owners, deliver those free assessments and other services, and assist with the Digital Transformation Grant application process.

‘Priming the pump’

Of course, no one in 2019 could foresee what 2020 had in store or appreciate how vitally important having a strong digital presence would become for small business owners across the board.

“We were priming the pump without knowing it,” said Kira Mees, Community Development Officer for the Municipality of Trent Hills, which lies on the Trent-Severn Waterway in Northumberland County.

Digital Service Squads didn’t just build awareness and interest in the DMS program and its grants. They also provided business owners with free education and resources to chart their own digital destinies. And they did it by pounding the pavement to visit as many business owners as possible in person.

That direct contact was key, said Ciara Stead, Communications and Marketing Officer at Almaguin Economic Development in the Parry Sound area.

“A lot of businesses wouldn’t have signed up for Digital Main Street if they hadn’t had the one-on-one help,” she said. “The whole program was a big success because a lot of businesses up here didn’t have access to anything like this before. Through it all, they got to know us and we got to know them and their needs.”

Driving a change of habit

Dave Gray, Director of Economic Development for the Almaguin Highlands Region, said it took a focused effort to shift thinking and encourage business owners to follow through on adopting new practices.

“When you are used to running your business in a certain way and having success doing it that way and someone comes along and says, ‘here is a better way to do it,’ there is always that eyebrow raise reaction that has to be overcome,” he said.

That reaction of course became a little easier to overcome once the pandemic struck.

“The program went from being an interesting new way to service small businesses to all of a sudden being propelled into the solution for a global problem that puts so much pressure on them,” said Samir Husika, Downtown Development Officer for the City of St. Catharines.

“Everyone’s priority became, ‘how can I get my business online, what are my e-commerce options?’” he said. “A lot of businesses in our area got their DMS grant just as the pandemic struck, which allowed them to pivot at a crucial time.”

Many local BIAs and municipalities also employed a little creative thinking to complement and expand the impact of DMS in their regions.

DMS as a launchpad

Trent Hills, for example, is one of seven municipalities within Northumberland County. They worked together to create Digital Footprint 2020. This county-funded program uses the DMS template to help local tourism operators.

“Because DMS is a model that is a great way to help people navigate these challenging times, and to have local service providers doing the work, we did this to help those communities that didn’t have BIAs and were not eligible for the DMS program,” Mees said. “It’s great that Northumberland County decided to go to bat and dedicate the funds that we can spread around.”

In other words, a rising tide floats all ships. This same sentiment was embraced down in the Niagara Region. The largest city in the region is St. Catharines, a stone’s throw from the well-known tourist destination of Niagara Falls.

When St. Catharines’ economic development team first learned about DMS in 2019, the decision was made to apply with a “centralized partnership” that would deliver greater benefit to the whole region. Twelve BIAs applied together, which created the critical mass to fund a larger full-time Digital Service Squad for a longer period.

For St. Catharines itself, driving the digital transformation of downtown businesses is an economic imperative to complement the huge infrastructure investments that have been made over the past decade to revitalize the city core.

“We have found DMS so valuable over the last year, we are definitely grateful that it’s been renewed and would like to see it become a permanent fixture of our services,” Husika said.

Working in concert

Michelle Browne and her colleagues at the Economic Development Office of the Mississauga Business Enterprise Centre (MBEC) are also focused on how DMS fits into their mandate to support local business and drive the community’s prosperity.

“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy and we want to do all we can in concert with all levels of government to support business owners,” she said.

David Soo on Browne’s team served as project manager for Mississauga’s Digital Service Squad during its run in 2019. With a catchment area that included some 2,400 small businesses and now spans five separate BIAs, Soo’s four-person team had their hands full pounding the pavement to build awareness of DMS.

“We found that digital literacy was a mixed bag, but that was something we expected,” Soo said.

His team soon discovered that lack of knowledge around digital presence wasn’t limited to any particular demographic.

Digital literacy is a widespread challenge

“You would presume that if you spoke to a certain age demographic, that person would have a certain level of digital literacy, but that could not be relied on,” Soo said. “Owners are entrepreneurs, and they are often so engulfed in the day-to-day operations of their business, they don’t make the effort to build their digital knowledge.”

Mississauga’s original Digital Service Squad program wrapped up at the end of 2019, but Browne’s office, like others across Ontario, found ways to continue offering support through the first half of 2020. This included webinars that became an important resource for local businesses with the pandemic.

As we head into the fall of 2020, the focus of Mississauga’s Phase 2 grant is on assisting business owners with their recovery. Browne’s office was already fielding calls weeks before the new program launched. Those Digital Service Squad efforts from 2019 are paying off, with businesses “coming to us instead of us going to them as that first point of contact.”

“Businesses have to be innovative and use outside-the-box thinking to be resilient and understand how they can grow globally,” Browne said. “Digital technology can help them get there.”

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