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The impact of Digital Communities on small businesses

The ambitious O2 Digital Communities project was started to make sure that the development of the digital workforce had a positive impact on small businesses nationwide, rather than just in London and the South East of England. We catch up on progress so far in pilot town St Helens…

Today, the digital economy is responsible for over a third of overall GDP. That’s a lot, and it’s set to get even bigger – by 2020, it is predicted to grow to over £746 billion.

This growth is incredible, but at the same time it’s largely skewed. More than half of jobs being created will be in London or the South East. The Government’s Digital High Streets Board reports that many small Northern towns are already lagging behind when it comes to broadband speed, access to Wi-Fi and digitally-engaged shoppers. This has a significant impact on the small business community in these areas, and is detrimental to their growth.

Cue the introduction of O2’s Digital Communities, which was piloted in St Helens in North West England. The project was about much more than teaching businesses how to use tech to their advantage, it was about changing an entire small business community through digital confidence and engagement. To do this, O2 provided a selection of businesses in the town with digital makeovers and tools, including software such as Office 365, a live-feed clothing rail and devices, such as lightweight tablets.

And it really worked. Results show that the pilot reached more than 42,000 people in St Helens – close to quarter the borough’s population – and improved digital engagement of the town by 15%.

When it comes to small business, these three examples from St Helens demonstrate the huge benefits that digital can bring to a business…

Unite Healthcare – digital makeover

After finding it difficult to keep up with the quick growth of their business in a digital capacity, Unite Healthcare needed help. With Digital Communities, the company has been able to improve communications with staff who are often out of the office and on the move, and speed up recording of patient information (thanks to moving patient notes and staff rotas from paper to phone). Managing Director Dan Butler agrees: “To have seen such a positive impact in such a short space of time is fantastic, and I’m not stopping there either; my next step is to use the technology to boost our website and social media presence”.

Bartons Pickles – digital tools and training

After receiving digital software and training through Digital Communities, family-run Bartons Pickles was able to move from relying on three standalone PCs, to several iPads. This opened up a whole host of opportunities for them, and streamlined their communications. No more phoning back to get files of numbers for meetings, for example. General Manager Joanna Jenna says: “We can take our business anywhere, and I’ve got my office with me wherever I go.”

MyTrav app – app development

With support from O2, St Helens Council were able to trial social and digital innovation app MyTrav. The app helps young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) travel independently to school, and was tested by parents and children at St Helens College. The results have been hugely positive; parents are proud that their children can forge new frontiers in a safe way, while the young people feel empowered, independent and confident.

These three examples show how small businesses can bring technology into the heart of what they do, streamline their services to provide a better experience for their customers and reach target audiences. St Helens has moved 17 places up the Digital High Street Index thanks to this project and estimates suggest that the pilot could inject £43.6m to the area by 2020. If Digital Communities becomes a blueprint for Britain’s small business network, this could be replicated across the country.

For free, impartial business tech help and advice, why not book a session with an O2 Guru? They’re available online, in store and over the phone.

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