How to Digitize a Family Business in Europe

Learn how to use effectively three critical digital strategies and channels to enhance your family business visibility via search engines and grow your turnover.

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The first time I met Brunello Cucinelli, owner and founder of the homonym group, I saw the tenacity of an entrepreneur who founded his whole life and company’s philosophy around the teachings of Socrates, Seneca, Kant, Marcus Aurelius, Alexander the Great and Saint Benedict. 

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You might assume that a person that is so passionate about ancient literature and philosophy might miss the importance of digitizing his business. However, that’s not the case. With more than €500 million in revenues in two thousand seventeen, Cucinelli is not a small business by Italian standards. Yet, it is still a family business managed from a small medieval hamlet, Solomeo. 

Recently, Brunello Cucinelli launched two digital initiatives called “Humanistic Artisans of the Web” and “Contemporary Factory.” As pointed out by Cucinelli in his letter to shareholders, the former initiative was to “to look towards the future while at the same time keeping in mind the importance of the lessons of the great people of the past.”

Cucinelli’s story is paradigmatical of a mindset shift that highlights the importance of digitizing a family business in Europe. In fact, of the world’s 500 largest family businesses, more than 44 percent are based in Europe

When asked about the most important priorities for a family business, 37 percent of the cases showed innovation to be an important concern. Today, innovation goes through a first critical step: digitalization. 

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I’ll focus on three digital channels as critical propellers for the family business future growth. 

Leverage ecommerce platforms on top of traditional physical stores.

With ecommerce in Europe experiencing double-digit growth, not adopting a digital platform on top of a physical store might be a mistake worth a good chunk of profits for any family business. Although popular platforms like Amazon and eBay seem a no-brainer, it is critical for a family business to build its own ecommerce platform. 

Marketplaces like Amazon allow you to start digital operations immediately. However, you don’t have control over the marketplace itself. Also, Amazon will take a sizable cut of your revenues. If Amazon changed its policy in terms of pricing or general guidelines, your store would need to adapt, which prevents you from running operations as you would like.

Therefore, while it might be fine in the short term to build a store on top of an already established marketplace, it is critical to invest in a proprietary infrastructure, where you have total control of pricing, distribution and relations with the final customer. 

Building up a proprietary ecommerce platform isn’t hard and can be done on platforms like Shopify, WooCommerce or BigCommerce. Of course, hiring a good developer is the key ingredient to manage your ecommerce platform. You can expect to be able to build a successful ecommerce platform in one year. 

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Use SEO to gain the most prestigious location on the web.

Once you have your ecommerce platform, you have created a window shop on the web. That alone is not enough. As the saying goes, the first three rules in real estate are “location, location, location.” The same applies to the web.

The ecommerce platform you’ve built might be accessible at the global level, which gives you the illusion that the work is done. However, when you launch your ecommerce, it’s almost like you’ve opened up a shop in the desert. It’s there, but no one will find it unless you take the time to rank it on Google. How? Via search engine optimization (SEO). 

SEO represents a set of techniques that allow websites to rank higher on Google search results to gain more visibility and qualified traffic (this is a very simplified definition). Imagine you're walking through the streets of Rome and looking for a handmade bag. You search for “best handmade bag in Rome” on Google and based on the result you’ll go shop there. 

Thus, SEO is about putting your store in front of the right people on the most prestigious location on the web: Google’s first page of search results. Indeed, most Google traffic (around 95 percent) comes from its first page. 

Implementing a proper SEO strategy isn’t simple, and it requires a certain degree of expertise. Therefore, a first step is to hire an SEO agency that can help you at least for six to 12 months to get things going. This process will allow Google to trust your site as authoritative in a specific niche and to recognize your business as the go-to place for a particular group of customers, based on the searches they perform. 

How do you choose a good SEO agency? Here three warning signals that the SEO agency you contacted might be the wrong choice: 

  • They don’t ask you about the business goals you want to achieve with SEO. After all, SEO is another distribution channel that must have an impact on the business. 
  • They tell you they have the secret sauce to rank you higher on Google. No one has such a secret sauce, and a good SEO agency will need to experiment a lot before finding the strategy that works for you. 
  • They promise you a boost in traffic of 200 percent. SEO is about experimentation. It's one thing to share previous case studies; it's another to promise crazy returns. A good SEO agency will share the process and make it transparent so that as a business owner you can make them accountable for the work they’re doing. 

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Content marketing is a powerful weapon to position the family business brand.

One of the most powerful weapons to build an effective SEO strategy is to start with a good content marketing strategy. Content marketing represents a set of strategies and techniques to produce and distribute content across several channels to position your brand and put it in front of the desired audience. 

Just like SEO, content marketing requires some degree of expertise. In fact, as a family business owner, you might not be aware of the nuances by which content can become a new distribution channel for your business. One critical ingredient is to get clear who you’re talking to or who you want to be your ideal customer. 

It all starts with your business goals, from which you will derive your ideal customer. From there, an editorial strategy can be structured by using several tools. For instance, Google Keyword Tool is a free yet powerful resource to uncover critical insights about your audience. Another free tool is Ubersuggest. Given that part of the editorial strategy will be built around the ability to answer the right questions your audience has, a free tool like Answerthepublic can be very useful. 

It all comes together with an editorial strategy.

Defining an editorial strategy for your digitalization process is critical. That is where all the three pieces (ecommerce, SEO and content) come together. 

Ecommerce is a window shop. SEO is the way to place your content in the location where it generates conversations with the people you want to have as customers (Google's first page). That content also bridges the gap between your store and your customers via an editorial strategy. That is when you’ve built an effective digital strategy for your family business!