Viral how-to videos on TikTok and snappy AI-generated slogans have helped a Tauranga cobbler take his trade, with its centuries of history, to a new level.
Shane Barr Shoe Repairs is one of a growing cohort of small businesses taking advantage of new technology and social media platforms to reach new and bigger audiences.
Barr told the Bay of Plenty Times he had made about 1000 TikTok and Facebook videos and posts and while his on-the-tools practices had not changed, his approach to new digital technologies had.
The cobbler, whose business is in the Tauranga CBD, said his early video forays were heavy on his sales pitch but following some “pretty rank comments” he changed tack and it had paid off big time.
“So from then on I just tried to make the videos more helpful and valuable.”
His videos - including quick tips for regluing the sole of a shoe, cleaning “scuzzy insoles” or saving Birkenstocks from going to landfill - proved a hit with viewers.
His Tik Tok channel has more than 1.3 million likes and was approaching 39,000 followers.
He said it had boosted his customer base and business was good: “We’re so busy.”
Artificial Intelligence was another concept Barr had taken advantage of to help with snappy slogans and he used a chat forum on his website.
Barr was one of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment Digital Boost programme’s success stories. Figures show nationally the Digital Boost free programme - teaching businesses digital skills - had nearly 62,000 active users more than its target of 30,000, including 4,822 registered users in the Bay of Plenty.
Through those digital platforms and smart marketing tactics Barr was repairing shoes for people who couriered them to him from all over New Zealand - as far afield as Invercargill.
Most of that traffic stemmed from the website, which he had put 500 hours into.
“We’ve had people from some far-flung places who are now our customers.”
Ministry director of innovation Malcolm Luey said the programme was a government-funded platform run in partnership with the private sector and was set up in response to Covid-19 and the challenges faced by businesses to keep their doors open.
Initially, $2,500 of free training for 30,000 small businesses or $15 million was allocated but an extra $61.5m in funding was made available to continue developing and expanding the Digital Boost Educate platform.
“One of our key objectives is to develop a comprehensive five-year small business digital enablement strategy/work programme. Our ambition extends further as we join forces with the private sector partners of the Digital Boost Alliance to continue building on a five-year roadmap, aligning all our efforts towards making New Zealand fully digital by 2030.”
The Digital Boost Alliance was a collaborative effort between private sector organisations and the government and consists of 37 large corporations including heavyweights such as Google, The Warehouse Group and ASB.
Luey said as a nation, New Zealanders were supportive of buying local and encouraging small businesses.
“The challenge was not an unwillingness of New Zealanders to support local small businesses but rather for small businesses to gain a digital presence so that consumers know they are out there.”
In the Bay of Plenty, training was provided by groups such as the Eastern Bay Chamber of Commerce, Western Affair, Pakihi Ora, Katch Katikati and the Tauranga Business Chamber.
Tauranga Business Chamber chief executive Matt Cowley said having an omnichannel presence allowed businesses to connect with a wider range of potential customers, wherever they might be.
“Whether your business sells directly to consumers or other businesses, people are constantly on their devices. Digital channels can be a cost-effective way to complement your wider marketing strategy and build a stronger relationship with your target market.”
Leeann Bassett from Face Up, who facilitated the Digital Boost programme in Tauranga, said digital technology was an undeniable part of the marketing success of a company.
She said the programme was amazing because everything was covered and it was broken down into different learning modules and had video interviews with a range of experts.
Redwalk Treewalk Rotorua and Altitude director Bruce Thomasen said Digital Boost was about ensuring it maximised the opportunity to sell directly to visitors via online channels and that its website and interactions with customers were seamless and assisted in boosting conversion.
“Most visitors are using mobile devices so ensuring we are 100 per cent effective at delivering our online presence through mobile devices was critical, being one click from booking a ticket and having a live feed from Instagram and Facebook keeps content real-time. We are lucky the forest is very photogenic and that organic sharing has been a great source of referral for us.”
Artificial Intelligence had also been a game-changer.
“Using AI to answer visitor questions in real time online has been a game changer also, freeing up staff time that was in the past utilised to answer guest queries when booking. Now our chatbot is able to predict and answer some 99 per cent of questions that guests may have without our team having to be involved.”
Pre-Covid, online sales accounted for around 10 per cent of direct sales, in the post-Covid environment that had moved to 20 per cent of sales. More and more people preferred and were more comfortable with buying direct online, Thomasen said.
Carmen Hall is a news director for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post, covering business and general news. She has been a Voyager Media Awards winner and a journalist for 25 years.