Overnight, what had been an optional way to reach and serve her clients became critical to the survival of Ronnie’s business when COVID hit.
Ronnie Littlewood is on a mission to help people. Or, to be more precise, help couples build relationships that will last a lifetime.
She and her husband of 25 years, Brian, operate The Couples Clinic in the Sarnia-Lambton, Ontario area. The clinic counsels couples and individuals to overcome whatever issues may be interfering with their relationships or their ability to form lasting ones.
Ronnie’s life goal is to save one million marriages.
For years, she worked on creating a counselling program that helped couples heal their attachments and better understand their conflict styles. Her plan was to franchise her model across the province. Still, her program would rely on in-person counselling sessions.
But of course, people continue to source more of the services they want online. This held true before the pandemic struck. One day, it struck Ronnie like a bolt out of the blue – rather than franchise, she should focus first on how she could provide the same in-person service online.
“Timing is everything,” Ronnie said. The very next day, she went into the office and there in the mail was a card promoting the Digital Main Street (DMS) program.
Taking the time to do it right
DMS is a training and grants program available through local BIAs and municipalities. It offers funding and free education resources to Ontario main street small business owners like Ronnie, to boost their online presence and marketing. In early 2019, she completed the mandatory online training sessions and developed a Digital Transformation Plan to qualify for a grant.
But Ronnie wanted to do this right. When she received her grant, she stuck it in the bank. She then spent the better part of a year testing out nine different platforms to find the right one that would allow her to deliver interactive video counselling sessions online, including the means to confidentially file share worksheet assignments.
By February 2020, Ronnie had made her choice. She handed the project off to her website developers for implementation and went on a cruise.
“Nothing exists in Canada that looks and works like what we have,” Ronnie said.
She describes what happened next as “a baptism by fire.”
Shortly after she returned from vacation with plans to launch and promote her new online service, the pandemic struck and Ontario declared a State of Emergency. Overnight, what had been an optional way to reach and serve her clients became critical to the survival of Ronnie’s business.
State of Emergency demands hustle to survive
“When everything shut down on March 13, we almost lost everything,” she said.
But they didn’t.
She and husband Brian hustled to reach out to clients one-on-one. They relied on the support, resources, and learnings of the DMS program to develop and implement effective online advertising campaigns that would zero in on their target audiences.
Clients responded and followed Ronnie and Brian online. They quickly came to appreciate the convenience of being able to get the same counselling and support from the comfort of home that they would have had in-person.
During those first months of the pandemic, it became evident how much the stress and fear was taking its toll on people and their relationships.
“It wasn’t just about saving my business, it was about saving families – we must have prevented a dozen divorces during that time,” Ronnie said. “What people are suffering from is more than stress, it’s collective trauma – we saw the same thing during the Great Depression.”
Six months later, the volume of business still isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels, but the important thing is that The Couples Clinic is still in operation. And it’s all because of Ronnie’s watershed moment almost two years ago when she realized it was time to take her services online.
‘Change is inevitable’
“We are taking to the streets, we are driving more social media activity, we are investing in Google AdWords and it’s working,” Ronnie said. “I am very encouraged that this is now an opportunity for more growth so that we can provide more help for the people who need it.”
In June, the DMS program was renewed. Ronnie was one of the first in line to apply for another grant. This time, her focus will be on making more effective use of Instagram as a marketing tool and upping her game when it comes to video production.
“I truly do believe this is the future of my business,” Ronnie said. “We invest every cent we can back into the digital side of it. Change is inevitable. Not only does your business benefit from being more tech savvy, your customers are going to benefit with you.”
Ronnie’s story is just one example of the more than 15,000 main street small businesses across Ontario that have taken advantage of the Digital Main Street Ontario Initiative. Program funding has been renewed and DMS began taking applications again as of July 2020. Applications will close November 30, 2020.
For information and how to apply, go to www.digitalmainstreet.ca/ontario