Can’t get online: a challenge for the Potteries

I’ve just been ranting on Twitter about how many local companies still can’t be found online. I’m trying to find quotes for a service and I’ve heard rumours that it can be found in Hot Lane, which is a very busy industrial area somewhere inbetween Burslem, Sneyd Green and Cobridge (don’t make assumptions, not *that* kind of service).

But in doing my research, I’ve found that the same problem that led to me setting up Social Stoke in the first place is still apparent. Websites, if they exist, are incredibly difficult to find. Once you find them, you have to save and cherish them, lest they be lost forever in a sea of SEO-enhanced listings sites. Many Stoke companies are simply not telling anyone online what they do. We have to actually walk in or phone them up, which is bothersome when all you want to do is poke around their pricelist and see when they’re open.

There are companies raising the game. Barewall and Boomerang PR are the first two that spring to mind, but there are many more. These local companies are selling globally and supporting other traders to do the same. They have fantastic, slick websites. They have particular technical skills to support them, but this isn’t the only thing that makes what they do work. The point is they are being social, reaching out and finding people as well as making sure that they can be found when someone is looking for them.

On what will seem at first like a completely unrelated notes, I’ve been mulling over John Popham’s Can’t Get Online challenge. He’ll be roaming the rural areas of the UK later this year, highlighting heroic efforts to get online and helping communities that want to follow in their footsteps. Whenever I hear about the issues of rural broadband, I consider how cities like ours have broadband – even with the sad closure of libraries free broadband is never more than a few miles away at most – but we have not made the same intensive efforts to make the most of it. Those people that use it benefit, but it all spreads organically and not fast enough when we have pressing economic problems. We’re making progress certainly, but this October I want to issue an urban challenge for the Potteries to time with John’s:

Let’s all of us who are enjoying the benefits of being online, find a company that isn’t and offer them help this October. Let’s see how many small traders can be persuaded to try practical, meaningful ways to grow their businesses using the internet, starting from all the free tools but also showcasing other businesses that can help.

Let’s have some real-life conversations and talk in the old media about what’s useful about being online and the fact that you can sell more, not just to people far away but to people close by who want to check you out before heading out, who really would rather support you than the neighbouring multinational but don’t have time to waste.

Finally, those of us with a voice online should use it to sing the praises of the amazing businesses on our doorsteps. Let’s link to them if they’re online already, or whatever websites we can pursuade them to maintain, capture a bit of what they do for Youtube and talk about why we like to buy from Stoke. Is it the great value? The unique Stoke sales patter that at times sounds more like they would rather you didn’t buy anything at all? Or the fact that you can get weather predictions, football scores and all the local gossip while you are served? Or the surprising things that are still being made on our doorstep when so many people say that British manufacturing is dead?

The city has pledged to give red carpet treatment to companies wishing to come to Stoke, but I think we should all create a red carpet to the internet for all offline traders in the city. It’ll take a lot of us to make it work, but once we’re all on, we’ll be able to reach each other in an instant and my Sunday DIY research frustrations will be solved.

Who wants to join in?

How to get people online

There are lots more resources than this, but here are some of my tips from my experience as a long-time web advocate 🙂

Don’t be a salesman – nobody likes the feeling they’re being pushed into something. People have all sorts of reasons why they don’t feel confident using computers or going online and they might not feel comfortable telling you what they are.

Listen – what do people want? What questions do they have that you can answer by going online? Do they have a hobby or a business? Are they interested in learning something, or family history? Do they want to know more about what’s happening in their own area?

Share – find answers for people, show them pages online or if you can, print something out for them. Try to make sure you are finding reliable information, for example on health queries we use NHS Choices instead of just searching the entire web. If you’re not sure where to find something, you can ask at the Race Online Staffordshire group.

Encourage – once people have found something online that they are interested in, you can help them to fill in gaps in their knowledge or confidence by helping them to access the online courses on Race Online or finding out where their nearest UK Online Centres are, where they can use computers for free. Don’t forget online safety, which is included in Myguide’s Online Basics course.

If you have questions or you’re not sure how to find a website that people will find interesting, ask via the Race Online Staffordshire group.

Running short of reasons to go online? Here’s a list:
Make friends | Have a voice | Save money | Share your hobbies | Create a newsletter | Learn | Shop | See the world | Access information | Register for services | Find a job | Read the news | Build websites | Contact relatives and old friends | Play games | Find love? | Change the council, the government, the world | Find your ancestors | Make money | Create games | Build mobile phone applications |