Online searches involving the term “near me” increased by a factor of 34 between 2011 and 2014, with the vast majority coming from mobile devices. Greg Isbister, CEO of geolocation platform Blis, explains why it’s more important than ever for businesses to reach local customers online.

It was once thought that the best use of digital platforms was to connect people with brands beyond the physical space, however with the development of geolocation technology, businesses can now connect with people right outside their front door.

Geolocation technology gives businesses the opportunity to do three things:  firstly attract new customers, secondly reward loyal ones and lastly find out more information about the behaviour of people in and around their premises.

Essentially, geolocation connects businesses with local customers. Using a few simple techniques, businesses can ensure they come top of search listings when someone runs a location-based search, such as “coffee shop near me”, which greatly increases the chance of that person visiting your shop over someone else’s.

At the most basic level, geolocation means ensuring that all of your location-based touchpoints online are up-to-date. These include listings sites such as Google Maps and, as well as location-enabled social media platforms like Facebook and Foursquare.

Doing this pretty much guarantees your business will turn up in a localised search, potentially putting it ahead of your rivals in the area. It’s vitally important to be discoverable in this way, otherwise you are giving up sales to other businesses who may have a better online presence.

The second aspect to this is making sure that you have published the right – and relevant – information about your business and that your listings are fresh and accurate. This will include the description of what you sell, your address and your opening hours. Have in mind that it is often people’s default behavior to look up information such as opening hours before they head out, and it’s critical that small businesses make sure this information is up-to-date and at their customers’  fingertips.

You might also want to include an offer or promotion in your listing to help encourage the customer to visit your store. It could be something small like a free coffee on their first visit, or something unusual and eye-catching.

Taking geolocation to the next level

Geolocation doesn’t have to be a technical dark art. It can be about doing the basics well so that your physical premises are easily discovered by potential customers. That said, there are some more sophisticated techniques that could take your business to the next level.

In-store Wi-Fi is a great way to entice more people into your shop. These days customers expect to connect their devices for free, but in return they are generally happy to start their browsing with an introductory page from your business.

This page is a brilliant marketing touchpoint. You could have a login for regular customers, invite them to sign-up to your newsletter or display your latest offers on the page. One thing I would recommend against, however, is compelling people to sign-up to something as part of the deal.

Keep in mind that people don’t mind being encouraged to do something, but they don’t like being forced.

Beacons are another smart way to connect with passers-by. A beacon is a very close range technology which can detect whether people are in-store and where they are in the building – even down to an aisle.

For example, you could be in a supermarket in the detergent section and an offer might appear on your phone automatically, giving you money off a specific item or brand.

Beacons use a technology called Near Field Communication and they are useful not only for instant offers but also for collecting anonymised customer data. You can discover how many people use your business, at what times and even what they are most interested in, allowing you to shape your offering to maximise sales.

The importance of value exchange

Data is a hot topic and not everyone likes to share their information. It’s vitally important therefore that you create a value exchange that the consumer can understand. In other words, what do they get out of sharing their data with you?

This is a fine balance and it’s important to provide strong incentives so people don’t feel like they are giving something up, only that they are getting a great deal by telling you more about themselves, what they do and what they like.

Starbucks is a great example on how to do this well. You can place an order before you get to the store, saving you time if you’re on your way to work, and it has an extensive reward programme for loyal customers.

The great thing about geolocation is that it’s generally free or very low cost. So that’s all the more reason to give it a try and keep all of your listings and touchpoints up-to-date.

You can optimise your results by learning more about the customer journey and what drives people into shops. If it’s raining outside, for example, that’s a great time to ramp up local advertising and entice more people into your store.

Lastly, you need to convert impulses into sales. It’s one thing to attract people nearby into your business, but another to make them want to buy something. Make sure your business is set up for impulse purchases and has a welcoming feel in the real world, not just online.