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Free Business Resources for the Harrisonburg Entrepreneur/Manager

It is a pleasure to address the faithful readers of the Do Downtown blog! I started working for the City of Harrisonburg at Harrisonburg Tourism & Visitor Services in November 2011. Not even half a year has gone by and I am in love with this community!

My background is in membership services and tourism marketing for the Chamber of Commerce. Over the last five years, I have learned that there are a lot of free opportunities to help the businessperson; knowing how to utilize it is the tricky part. For clarity, I have laid out my top five favorite free business resources. These are not new ideas but rather tools that are continually developing and usually under-utilized. My hope is that this will help to make your business life a little easier.

#5: Workshops & Seminars

Workshops and seminars are hosted throughout the Shenandoah Valley and are a quick and easy way to get reliable information to help your business grow. Most are free to attend, although a few may not be, and cost will depend on the hosting agency and who is conducting the event. Generally lasting one to four hours in length, the settings of these events are usually intimate, with no more than fifty attendees, and the guest speakers are typically from the area, which is helpful when discussing details of business practices.

Over the last five years, I have coordinated and attended workshops and seminars on social media, customer service, strategic planning, personal and business finances, marketing, the tourism industry, the service industry, and much more.  If you belong to a membership organization, chances are that they have a yearly calendar of events like these in a wide variety of topics to suit your needs.

The following agencies and non-profit organizations are knowledgeable on how to assist with setting up or attending workshops and seminars. While this is not a comprehensive list, it is a great place to start your research.

Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce
People, Inc.
Virginia Department of Business Assistance
Virginia Tourism Corporation
Shenandoah Valley Travel Association
Small Business Development Center

#4: Business Counseling

Whether your business is a huge success, you’re in your first year(s) of operation, or you’re merely tossing an idea around, free business counseling is a great way to consult a professional for advice. Don’t worry, these “counseling” sessions are not on a couch. They focus on subjects such as marketing, strategic planning, customer research, and loan information that can be helpful no matter what stage your business is in. These sessions are also private, generally last around one hour, and can be scheduled as often as needed.

The following agencies and non-profit organizations are knowledgeable on how to assist with setting up business counseling sessions. While this is not a comprehensive list, it is a great place to start your research.

Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce
People, Inc.
Virginia Department of Business Assistance
Small Business Development Center

#3: Google Analytics

Any business with a website and a free Google account is able to receive Google Analytics. This is a website tracking report system that enables website hosts to see details about the use of their website. Once Google Analytics is set up, a report may be emailed to the business owner daily, weekly, or monthly.

Custom reporting is made easy with Google Analytics. If you wish to track only one piece of information, perhaps your main referring website for example, you may set up a report to send that sole information to you. If you conduct a short-term marketing campaign, you may wish to see the analytics for only that stretch of time. You can also examine specific demographic information about the viewers of your site, which can be helpful in determining who your consumers are and aid you in tailoring your marketing approach.

#2: Social Media

Almost every business now has a Facebook page, and some business owners elect for this option over a website to avoid costs while building relationships with the consumer. While I would not recommend substituting Facebook for the power of a full-fledged website, I certainly advocate for the importance of a social web presence. I believe that  having both a website and Facebook page is the best way to go.

With the new “Timeline” feature on Facebook, businesses are offered more incentives than ever before. At the top of the home page, you will find demographic information about the viewers of your Facebook page, which, like the type of information found in Google Analytics, could be helpful in determining who your consumers are and aid you in better tailoring your approach.

Timeline also allows you to “highlight” your most important posts to make them appear larger in the page layout, thus drawing more attention to the information you want your consumers to see first.

Facebook is projected to hit the one billion users mark in 2012. If only a small fraction of those users fit into your target market, imagine how many potential customers to whom you have free access through this avenue.

There are also many other forms of free social media: Twitter, HootSuite, LinkedIn, etc. In my opinion, you only get back what you put into it. So if you only have time to keep up with one avenue, Facebook is the way to go.

And (drum roll please) #1: http://www.Virginia.org

www.Virginia.org is the state’s tourism website and offers a free way to connect to millions of potential customers, a.k.a. Virginia vacationers. 500,000 people visit this site each month and you can be seen by all of them, for free!

Any business that falls in the category of tourism – accommodations, dining, attractions, special events, recreational activities, etc. – is invited to provide informational listings. Simply sign up for the ‘administration tool’ and start submitting! The website is user friendly and all listings must be approved before they go live. Should your listing be missing information and/or photography, the friendly staff at the Virginia Tourism Corporation will email you with suggestions.

At Harrisonburg Tourism, we are in the process of making our listings on www.Virginia.org mirror our website, www.HarrisonburgTourism.com. Our hope is that every tourism asset in Harrisonburg is listed so that we may become a premier tourism destination. With that being said, we encourage all businesses to take ownership of their listings. If you would like to take over the administration of your listing, please contact me and I would be happy to give you a tutorial of the site and get you started on this free service.

I wish you a prosperous 2012!

Emily E. DeBenedetto is the Tourism Marketing Specialist for Harrisonburg Tourism & Visitor Services. For more information about business resources, please contact Emily at 540-432-8937 or emily.debenedetto@harrisonburgva.gov.

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