Establishing a business in a remote Thai village has been a unique challenge for us. I would like to share some experiences with you that hopefully will be of interest to you and maybe you can learn from our experiences
A Little Bit of Background
Our village of Ban Dong Yang has less than 400 people and we are located about 13 miles from the nearest town of Si Sa Ket about 30 miles from the Cambodian border.
We are connected to the power grid but the infrastructure is very poor – often the poles carrying the power are little more than spindly bamboo poles. We do not have a mains water supply but fortunately we have a very reliable artesian water supply about 35 meters below the surface of our village and that supplies our non-drinking water requirements.
Internet connections are very rare and I doubt if any adults in our village have even heard the word “Google.” The system is very slow and at times non-existent for hours on end. To get technical help and maintenance is a major problem and we may wait days for the service guys to get to us.
All the families here in our village are related back to my great-grandmother who founded our village more than 140 years ago. Rice farming is the most common source of income but people never seem to be able to earn more than what they already owe to banks and money lenders.
Silk weaving is a cherished skill handed down through the generations but this skill was usually a pastime or a way to relax by the elderly ladies of our village. There was little or no interest shown by the younger generation in these craft skills.
It was only when we started to sell their creations at the local markets did we realize that our fabrics were the most sought after in the entire region. This gave me the idea of how to help my village and also re-ignited the enthusiasm in silk weaving by all members of our village.
Thai Silk Magic is a community business specializing in high quality, handmade Thai silk and all the profits are shared to improve lifestyles and education opportunities for the children of our village.
After messing around with government departments for months we finally were granted our export license for our silk products. At the same time we constructed our own weaving facility using our family’s funds.
In fact all the capital to set up and run our business has come from my family as no one else in the village has any money and we did not want to rely on government funds that may or may not have been available. And we didn’t want any “hidden strings attached” to our village community enterprise.
It’s Always Comes Down to Money!
Corruption is alive and well here in Thailand and we wanted to keep control over the business revenue to ensure it remained in our village and not be “spirited away” to some official or advisor who was claiming to be able to organize our business for us. This was, and still is, an issue that greatly upsets me.
Relying on our own limited funds has meant at many times our family was very short of money. Every month the majority of our funds being invested in Thai Silk Magic to build the weaving facility, purchase silk looms, buy in high quality raw silk with its ever increasing prices and pay our weavers for work done before we even had the chance to market and sell it via our website. But we never once thought of giving up on our passion to help our village.
Paying our weavers quickly was very important as it showed them that this business was real and the chance to earn a reasonable income each month was no longer just a dream. One of our earliest challenges was to win the trust of our village to participate in a business that sold their products online – something they could not relate to at all.
In fact the average income of our weaver families has more than doubled since we started just a little over 2 short years ago. But we have a long, long way to go still.
Despite the ever present risk of failing internet connections, my husband Peter enrolled in 3 online training programs to learn how to establish a website and more importantly how to maximize our visibility in the internet search engines like Google. He spend many, many weeks researching and getting our internet presence established and then many more months improving our “keyword” usage so we could rate on the first page of Google for our 5 main search keywords.
We had to promote ourselves in this way as our funds did not stretch to any form of advertising. We did have some success with press releases, writing articles for online directories containing links back to our site and commenting on forums and blogs in our niche. But nothing really substantial.
Whilst these methods did create almost 3,000 visitors a month to our website, we could not convert very many of them. In fact, our Google Analytics statistics showed us that our website visitors were spending less than a minute on our site and rarely looking at more than 1 or 2 pages. They definitely weren’t potential buyers or business partners!
We also started creating lots of videos showing Thai Silk Magic in action plus glimpses behind the scenes of lifestyles in our village. These videos now totalling over 40 plus every new one we create, are uploaded to online directories like our YouTube Channel and all contain links back to our website.
Our Social Media Birth
However, it wasn’t until we had the fortune and pleasure to meet up with an fantastic English guy called Justin Wheeler that we really started to take off business wise. Justin, who lives in Peru, operates many successful web businesses including Vashon Media Company. Justin gave so much of his time and expertise in completely revamping our website (no disrespect to Peter!) and more importantly introducing us to the critically important concept of “Business Social Media.”
Our website needed to be “more social” to enable people to share us on social media. We have made lots of improvements but we still have more to do – and to make it “stay alive” I guess we always will.
We also established our Twitter and Facebook accounts and Justin created our Facebook Fan page at the same time. We quickly realized the wisdom of Justin’s recommendations by being able to both establish and build relationships with potential customers (B2C) and business partners (B2B). We followed these accounts with a presence on FourSquare and StumbleUpon but it wasn’t until Justin educated us about Linkedin did our social media presence start to become a profitable reality.
Linkedin with its 100+ million professional members gave me the chance to be able to participate in group discussions, answer questions and help people who like ourselves had been struggling to get established. All this and it’s free.
Recently I also started to participate in groups on Facebook doing basically the same thing. However, I learnt very quickly that you have to be patient as relationships take time to develop and you never know what opportunities they may lead to. An added bonus is that you meet some wonderful people who are always willing to help and give advice. So just be positive and passionate in adding whatever value you can and let people get to know and trust you. I believe in this way people will seek you out and if this is correct then it’s a lot more powerful than any paid advertising campaign. Sure it takes a lot of time but it’s also enjoyable and exciting to be able to meet new people.
Currently I have over 1000 professional connections on Linkedin and the vast majority of our nearly 1200 “likes” we currently have on our Facebook fan page have come from relationships started on Linkedin. We have about 3,000 followers on Twitter but we have not really maximized our potential with this site although we have started some really exciting relationships with excellent B2B potential down the line.
From my limited experience so far I would strongly suggest you provide help, offer advice and share ideas rather than “sell” on social media. PASSIONATELY BELIEVE in your business mission and share this passion at every opportunity. Let people decide to come to you – then you really do have the chance to convert them with your passion and your products.
Spend time to really find your Unique Selling Proposition (USP). This was another big challenge for us especially as we were a small business new comer into the Thai silk industry that was dominated by large, long established companies. The time we spent in creating our unique points of differentiation from our competitors was time very well allocated. Do this and then you can build your brand around your USP with passion, self-belief and real enthusiasm. Think of our motto “Woven by Hand, with Love, for YOU” - can you feel the passion?
What have been the results of using a business social media strategy and being careful to always add value in any way we could and avoiding any sales pitches on each of these social media platforms?
Quite simply the visitors that are now coming to our website are a lot more aware of WHO we are and WHY we are doing what we do BEFORE they land there and our conversion rates have improved dramatically.
We still have lots of marketing challenges like how to engage more people on our Facebook fan page, how to get more readers to our blog and have more of them leave comments, how to deal more effectively with our retail and wholesale market niches and how to more efficiently run our social media marketing. For the latter we have been using Tweetdeck with good results but our twitter expertise needs a lot of improvement.
Please see the following links to resources we have found to be extremely helpful in building and implementing our marketing strategies. There are no affiliate arrangements in these endorsements – I just wanted to share what we found to be of value (most are free)
Wowwe – free video email service
Wajam – Great minds search alike
Easy Fan Page Design – a MUST HAVE for any Facebook Fan page
Buzz Zing – an incredibly supportive introduction to social media group
Jeffrey Gitomer’s “Social Boom” – the best $20 you will invest this year
What About Your Experiences?
What were (are) your biggest challenges in getting established online? Care to share some of your biggest mistakes and/or wins? What success have you had in using social media to build your brand? Have you worked out your USP? Would you like some help with this? Please leave your thoughts and comments below as I know our readers would love to hear what you have to say and share.
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