Society and Culture Business

U of A students tapped to help local small businesses go digital

Business students trained to show companies how to set up shop online with help from City of Edmonton grant.

  • October 20, 2020
  • By Michael Brown

A troop of University of Alberta business students have been tapped to help small businesses in Edmonton boost their online presence in an effort to keep up with a rapidly shifting economic landscape exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the need for businesses to have a digital presence to help them survive,” said Heather Thomson, executive director of the U of A School of Retailing. “It's also just the future of business.”

Concerned about the stability of the capital region’s small businesses, the City of Edmonton purchased a licence agreement with Digital Main Street—a training hub designed to help businesses to create a successful digital future—and awarded the University of Alberta School of Business a $75,000 Edmonton Economic Recovery Grant.

“We created this stream of the Economic Recovery Grant Program to help organizations support local economic development and help businesses recover from COVID-19,” said Jeff Chase, director of local economy at the City of Edmonton. “This training hub is just the kind of innovative approach needed at this time to help businesses diversify. Creating digital functionality and literacy, while improving business functions, is vital now more than ever.

“We're thrilled with this partnership—it truly showcases Edmonton's strengths in fostering innovation, leading new initiatives and working towards a better future together.”

Thomson explained that she has 11 students involved in the project. Each student is responsible for walking 30 business owners with limited digital presence through the platform and showing them how to do everything from creating a Google profile to building a Shopify e-commerce site and setting up Facebook ads.

“We don’t do it for them, but we hold the hand of what I imagine will be a lot of restaurant owners and mom-and-pop shops where any sort of web search for their business will come off as invisible, or at best inconsistent.”

Thomson said this is a great time for the initiative, not only because the pandemic changed the way people shop, but also because it created a lot of buy-in for Edmontonians to shop locally.

“Picking up on that momentum, we want to help businesses help themselves so they can make more money.”

And not only will businesses find their footing online, but the program is completely free.

“On one hand, I can see some businesses knocking down our door, but on the other hand, having a virtual presence can be a daunting process for many businesses,” she said.

In advance of the program's rollout, the students were trained on how to use the software as well as everything from building websites to branding.

“The students have a full toolkit, so when they meet with the business, they can decide how best to help that business,” said Thomson.

“When it’s over, students will come away with every resumé tool needed to get employed.”

And though the initiative may not help their academic standing, Thomson said it will give them a second-to-none practical experience with on-the-ground marketing and how to effectively increase profit for businesses of today.

“In the end, in addition to their business degree, these students will have all of these employable skill sets,” she said.

“When these students decide where they actually want to go to work, they're going to stand out.”

Great ideas change the world, but ideas need a push forward. At the University of Alberta, we know that push has never been more important as we do our part to rebuild Alberta and keep doors of opportunity open to all. We're making research discoveries. We’re cultivating entrepreneurs. And we’re giving our students the knowledge and skills they need to turn today's ideas into tomorrow's innovations. Read more stories about U of A innovators.