Vaughan Rising Blog: Three Reasons Why Digital Marketing is Important

COVID-19 as the Catapult to Business Modernization & Resiliency

Digital marketing allows businesses to meet customers where they spend their time. This is especially important during COVID-19, as more people are spending time at home and in isolation, increasingly turning to their devices for work, communication, and entertainment.

The City of Vaughan’s Digital Boost small business resiliency program helps entrepreneurs and small business owners find new opportunities during COVID-19. Vaughan’s Economic and Cultural Development Department has collaborated with General Assembly, an education organization that teaches entrepreneurs and business professionals practical technology skills, to provide expert training and instruction to help program participants reach their business goals, as well as mentorship opportunities to bring their new digital marketing strategies to life.

As of March 2020, Canada had 25 million social media users (with more than 900 thousand added in the previous year) and 35.32 million internet users – both up year-on-year, according to the Digital 2020 Canada report. And those were the numbers at the beginning of the pandemic. Each of those users may be potential customers for your business.

What does this mean for small business owners in Vaughan?

To find out, the City of Vaughan spoke with two digital marketing experts.

Joshua Doner – Marketing Manager, General Assembly Canada

Joshua is a Remote Marketer and Livestream host with General Assembly. He loves connecting with communities about the future of work, tech trends and marketing. His team at GA helps people find rewarding careers at the most innovative companies investing in great User Experiences, Data Science and building amazing Software products.

Connor Taras, Regional Director, General Assembly Canada

Connor started with General Assembly over four years ago because he recognized an opportunity to help shape the future workforce and provide our community with the skills needed to build for our digital economy.  Connor currently makes operational decisions and manages the team on the Toronto campus. He also executes on Canadian expansion opportunities for General Assembly in Canada as Regional Director. Prior to joining the team at GA, along with working at several small start ups, he was a member of the Canadian Olympic National Team in Sprint Kayak.

Here are three ways digital marketing can work for your small business:

1. Invest in e-commerce to better serve your customers (and learn more about them)

One of the greatest opportunities that have been presented to small businesses due to COVID-19 is connecting with customers online. Joshua notes, “Businesses that are successfully adapting during COVID-19 are continuing to connect with their customers virtually. If you are a yoga studio, dentist, restaurant and/or business owner who can embrace new techniques for engaging customers online, you will have a business that is resilient and can scale into the future.”

Connor adds, “As part of the Digital Boost program, General Assembly has made high quality digital skills training available for free. The access to these new skills and tools are a great opportunity to transform your business to optimize operations for an online customer experience.”

The City of Vaughan provides a training and mentorship program, Digital Boost, to support local small business owners in finding new opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. This program helps entrepreneurs scale their marketing efforts, strengthen their online presence and deliver compelling content that helps them keep in touch with their current customers and connects them with new business opportunities.

“It is important to meet customers where they spend their time. Through digital marketing tactics, a local business, in the city of Vaughan, can win both locally and on a global scale. This is an amazing opportunity,” says Joshua.

There is a lot that is possible for a small business through e-commerce that isn’t possible with in-person shopping. Connor explains, “Selling your product or service through e-commerce gives you far greater ability to connect with your customers in a targeted way. The power of data allows you to understand what the buyer is looking for, by understanding what products they may be looking at in your online store, how many products they may have in their shopping cart or maybe even understanding how long they are spending on your site. These are metrics that are very difficult to measure with an in-person shopping experience. The power of e-commerce allows you to make data-driven decisions, explore and optimize the customer journey and target an optimized and larger audience through digital marketing techniques. All helping you grow your business much quicker than may be possible with in-person shopping.”

For a bricks-and-mortar business that is reluctant to invest in e-commerce and digital marketing, Joshua has this advice, “If you are mission-driven to serve your customers, it should be a part of your organizational DNA to meet them where they are: online. If you are unsure of HOW to achieve success online or WHO can help you with that, get in contact with the Vaughan Small Business and Entrepreneurship team at You can also join a General Assembly workshop and the instructor will walk you through how to be successful!” Find the support system that can guide you in making the right choices for your business.

2. Take advantage of free and subsidized tools and services

There are many types of software or tools that are available to support a small business with limited people, time and money. Now is a great time to take advantage of the many digital marketing tools and services that are free or subsidized during COVID-19.

To make the transition to a digital storefront easier and more cost-efficient than ever before, Joshua has the following suggestions:

  • Shopify has a 90 day free trial, up from 14 days. This is long enough to launch a store with their easy user experience and gain support from their team of Shopify Gurus.
  • Other great alternatives are Wix and Squarespace. Within these e-commerce platforms there are amazing apps that can help you automate many of the different processes and help transform the services you would offer with your in-person shopping experience into your digital experience.
  • A couple great local (GTA) apps are:
    • Zapiet – For curbside pick ups, local delivery and inventory management
    • You Can Book Me – Calendar integration to help your customer seamlessly book in-person visits or service appointments
    • DigiSmoothie – Increase conversions on purchases and upsell your customer
    • WebFlow – No code apps that will help you automate your process

He adds, “There is also a wealth of knowledge on Reddit, YouTube and of course, General Assembly can help you with hands-on workshops to guide you through that journey. Your only blocker is starting!”

Small business owners with limited resources may wonder where to put their time and money to get the best results from digital marketing.

Here’s Connor’s advice: “As mentioned above, most services and products are offering free trials that will help you get the process started. Make sure your product can be accessed by your customer and most importantly, purchased by your customer. After you’re comfortable with an MVP (minimal viable product) of your online store, remember it doesn’t have to be perfect, start experimenting with some digital marketing techniques like social media. Tell your customers you’re open for business. This can all be done with minimum, if zero, investment upfront!”

3. Double down on your digital marketing

Consumer habits have definitely changed due to COVID-19. As the economy reopens, digital marketing should remain at the forefront of your small business marketing and communications strategy.

“‘COVID pulled the future forward’ is the quote that says it all,” Joshua observes. “From a corporate perspective, we have seen this affect organizations like BMO, Pinterest, Shopify, etc. Most of them have even recognized that they have to adapt quickly and re-align for the future COVID-19 has created, creating a remote-first culture.”

With respect to small businesses, he notes, “While these large organizations do not fully represent Mainstreet, we do believe they set the tone for a digital-first economy and more importantly a digital-first consumer mindset. That said, as the economy re-opens we will see physical spaces become areas that complement an online experience that is the first touchpoint for your business.”

Joshua provides some tangible examples of this trend:

  • Curbside pickup
  • More 1-on-1 scheduled appointments for services like the gym and health and wellness that used to have majority walk-in traffic
  • Food delivery
  • Virtual consultations, job interviews and meetings

Digital marketing tactics haven’t really changed during COVID-19. If anything, they’ve intensified.

Joshua explains, “What has changed is the desire for customers to feel safe, this has led to people avoiding public spaces, waiting in lineups, hanging out in coffee shops, etc. That means more people are looking for things online, using Google, eCommerce functionality, delivery apps and Zoom for appointments. Consumers are more receptive to virtual versions of the services and products they once used and importantly are willing to pay for them. While most Digital Marketing tactics have remained the same before and after, their importance to a small business has gone up 10-fold, and so has the opportunity.”

Here are some successful tactics that Joshua has seen work for small businesses:

  • Leverage your email lists: Promote COVID unique specials. You can use services like Mailchimp that are free up to the first 2,000 emails.
  • Focus on Google Search Ads: Pay Per Click ads put your business search result at the top of the list when a customer does a search.
  • Use Facebook, Instagram, YouTube video: The best performing video creative is short (15 seconds) and works to capture the user’s attention, drawing them in quickly.
  • Engage on LinkedIn: The “business social network” has seen a rise in engagement in the last couple of years. Posts about self improvement, personal life and sharing your story all do really well on LinkedIn. It is no longer just a B2B platform.
  • Sell Gift Cards: Ask your customers for support by promoting gift cards now during COVID for future gifts, birthdays and work related anniversaries.
  • Use data and customer feedback: Promote your Google Reviews page to your customers. Respond to all reviews either addressing a bad review or thanking someone for a good one. Look at search trends in Google’s search trends tool for new product or business ideas.

He notes, “Shopify’s eCommerce sales increased 10X during COVID and that is because customers are sitting at home bored looking for things and products to purchase. So while the tactics have not changed, their importance to a business has dramatically increased.”

Digital Marketing Training and Innovation Success Stories

To find out how small business owners feel about digital marketing strategies, the City of Vaughan examined responses to a Digital Boost workshop survey.

One business owner commented, “It literally is a digital boost. Gave me a better understanding of the digital world and opportunities to optimize my business.”

Another observed, “I am learning a lot and making great connections with other local business owners. This is a huge help in developing my online presence, content and marketing strategies.”

A third entrepreneur shared, “I’m trying to start new at the tender age of 64. All my work so far has been by word of mouth, something that just doesn’t work in 2020.”

Tania Das, a General Assembly Alumni, said, “The [Vaughan Digital Boost] initiative gave us an opportunity to collaborate with a wonderful business owner who was friendly, supportive, and open to changes on his site. As new designers, working with such a helpful client was a valuable experience that allowed us to draw from our skills set to help boost a business that positively impacts the community.”

Sounds like a win-win for everyone as the Vaughan community comes together to keep our small businesses rising and provide them with the digital marketing tools they need to pivot, innovate, and do what it takes to get through to the other side.

Although Digital Boost is in the midst of their final cohort, the City of Vaughan is always available to support our local small businesses. We look forward to hearing from you!


The information presented in this article is provided solely for the purpose of bringing ideas to the attention of the business community, as a service to the businesses of the City of Vaughan.

The City of Vaughan does not, whether directly or indirectly, endorse, sponsor or sanction the opinions expressed in this article, nor any services or products that may be offered by the contributor/s in their normal course of business.  The City of Vaughan does not intend by this article to recommend the contributor/s nor to promote them as subject matter experts over any other business persons employed or engaged in similar lines of business.