Patricia Sheppard runs Small Hooves, Big Hearts, an equine therapy program located in Kawartha Lakes, Ontario and she has a unique point of view on business grants. She believes the simple act of applying for a grant is a valuable exercise in and of itself. “The money’s great but […] a grant should always teach you more about your business,” she says.
Sheppard applies for five to ten grants per year and is intently focused on the foundational elements of her business like who her key customer is and what her brand stands for. Digital Main Street’s Digital Transformation Grant (DTG) program presented an opportunity for Sheppard to dive deeper, learn more about her business, and strategize on how to better serve her customers and community. The program provides small businesses with a digital assessment, online training, and a $2,500 grant to implement their Digital Transformation Plan.
It’s not surprising, given Sheppard’s approach to business, that she understands the value of the educational aspects of the DTG program. “You have to do so much learning before you even get to apply for the grant. That helped us to really define a plan,” she says. So, when it came time to invest her grant, she was ready.
Sheppard’s training with Digital Main Street (DMS) helped her recognize just how saturated the digital marketing space is. Instead of viewing this as a hurdle, Sheppard saw an opportunity. By getting clear on her business’s key customer persona, she would be better equipped to cut through the noise and create marketing collateral that speaks directly to them. So she got to work defining a customer persona, a semi-fictional representation of the ideal customer for Small Hooves, Big Hearts. Sheppard hired a digital marketing professional to help her with this process. “It was really neat,” she says, “he was able to say ‘Okay, so Bessie is 77. Here’s why she connects with your farm.’ So that now when we go forward and tell our story, we make it so that we’re talking right to Bessie.” Everything down to Bessie’s likes, dislikes and life history was defined and this level of specificity has been enormously helpful to the business.
Armed with a detailed customer persona, Sheppard and her team got to work on creating the right content for ‘Bessie’. Small Hooves, Big Hearts is active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even TikTok. Sheppard is in tune with the changing tides of social media and is interested in the way TikTok has popularized a movement towards content that is more stripped-down and real. “ I think people are ready for that again. I think we went through the […] fantasy land for a little while with Instagram, […] but I think people are ready to see the real and the gritty again,” says Sheppard.
This is why Small Hooves, Big Hearts has a multi-prong content creation strategy that is tailored to the platform it will be published on. Sheppard invested a portion of her DTG funds into polished professional photography for her website and Instagram. Meanwhile, for TikTok, Sheppard enlisted the help of her students to run the account and share behind-the-scenes moments captured by smartphone cameras. Whether the content was a high-resolution image or a simple iPhone video, it was created with ‘Bessie’ in mind.
The social strategy that was developed is resonating with the target audience, but it’s also having a positive impact internally. Sheppard views her business’s TikTok account as a way to engage with the next generation and stay ahead of the curve. She embraces the point of view of her younger team members, recognizes the value they bring, and works to keep them engaged with the business. “You can be the greatest business person in the world, you can run the numbers perfectly. You can balance books phenomenally, but if you’re not keeping up with that marketing side, and you’re not keeping up with how you’re connecting with your customers, then you’re really just chasing your tail,” she says.
Driven by the impact her equine therapy program has on the populations she works with, it’s clear that Sheppard is thinking ahead. She says she owes it to herself, her business, and her team to stay on top of technology and plan for the future. The DMS Digital Transformation Grant helps businesses like Small Hooves, Big Hearts prepare for success and longevity. As Sheppard points out, the funds are only one piece of the puzzle, “I think every business owner, even if they don’t need the grant, should still apply for it because you’re going to learn something more about your business.”