(This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
The New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) is giving away free marketing services to small business owners looking to expand their online presences.
The Small Business E-commerce Support Program launched this month as part of the state’s Main Street Recovery Finance Program, a $100 million small business support program included in the state’s 2020 Economic Recovery Act. The pilot program has been initially funded with $1 million to assist small businesses with website development and optimization as well as improving their e-commerce, online ordering, and appointment booking platforms.
“We’re trying to really reduce the burden of running a small business and alleviate some of the pain points,” said Christina Fuentes, NJEDA’s vice president of community and business development.
Fuentes says that the program aims to help offset some of the operating costs that a business incurs and help owners attract new customers.
Is your business eligible?
Your business has to be physically located in New Jersey and it has to be in the restaurant, retail, or personal care industry. You’ll also have to meet the U.S. Small business Administration’s definition of a small business (generally less than 500 employees) and be in good standing with the New Jersey Division of Taxation. Assuming you meet those requirements, and a few others, you can apply here.
If accepted into the program, you’ll work directly with one of the seven marketing and consulting firms selected by NJEDA who will then be reimbursed by the state for up to $11,400 of services . These services can include web page design and development; implementation of online ordering and appointment systems; and development of an online marketing plan.
How will business owners work with marketers?
Dania Ceruti, the cofounder and CEO of Camden’s 360 Marketing & PR, one of the seven marketing companies selected under the program, says her firm has created templates for marketing services that would be ready as soon as a client is approved.
“Together we’ll agree on a plan that will define what the deliverables will be beforehand so that the business owner will have a full understanding that this is what they’re going to receive,” she said. “We want to work with someone who’s ready, prepared and responsive.”
Phyllis Lacca, the founder of Atlantic City’s Masterpiece Advertising, another marketing firm participating in the program, has a similar approach.
“After determining eligibility, we will then set up a meeting with each client to identify their individual needs in relation to the available digital marketing and e-commerce services that we’re providing,” Lacca said. “Once we assess their needs, we will develop and present a proposal, and once approved, we will begin building and implementing solutions, getting client input and feedback, and keeping communication lines open during the entire process.”
How long does the program last?
The marketing consultants who are participating in the program each say that a small business can expect their project to last about two to eight weeks. And although all the costs are covered by the state, there may be some continuing costs — such as monthly fees for e-commerce platforms — that could be incurred after the program has ended. And then there’s the necessary internal investment that must be made to ensure that the marketing plan developed by the consultants continues to be implemented.
“Once we create the website and setup up the e-commerce platforms and any campaigns, we hand everything over to the client,” said Ceruti. “They’ll receive training but then they’ll have to be ready to continue the work.”
NJEDA’s Fuentes also said that small businesses participating in the program have to be fully invested.
“It’s really important that the small business owner is prepared to work with the consultant and have realistic expectations of what the consultant does and what they need to do in order to make the project a success,” she said . “Some of this may require internal changes and more work and it can be a struggle at first, but in the long run should produce good results.”
Who should apply?
The program is just a pilot, but Fuentes says if it meets its goals of helping the state’s small businesses there’s likely to be more funding in the future.
Lacca is also encouraging businesses situated in Qualified Opportunity Zones, as well as small-businesses, and women-, minority-, veteran- and disabled veteran-owned businesses to enroll.
“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our state’s economy,” she said . “We are thrilled that the state will be providing funds for us to support them, help them modernize, enhance their digital presence and, ultimately, expand their businesses.”