A strategic alliance can be defined as an agreement between individuals or entities whose stated actions work toward a common goal. Strategic alliances usually make sense when the parties involved have complementary strengths; thus, it may behoove your firm to try to develop strategic alliances with key business partners.
In the grain industry, an alliance might be utilized to develop an area wide website shared by several elevators in a region, which can be utilized by farmers for marketing or gathering market information. Thinking a bit more broadly, an alliance between an elevator and a local farm equipment retailer might result in sharing advertising. In the feed business, an alliance could be utilized to add new products to a local manufacturer's line of feed, where the benefits go beyond just purchasing the product.
The next question focuses on how well you are using the internet to support your business. There is a fine line that can be drawn between providing a full-service/all-encompassing website that provides up-to-date market information as well as allows your customers to access their account, and one that just lists the facts like name, address, phone number, contact names, etc. To understand the value of a full-service website, conduct a cost/benefit relationship to determine if the added expense is warranted.
There are some good examples in the whole Internet/Web services approach in general. As an added perk, many banks, credit card companies, mutual funds, etc., offer a variety of online services to their customers free of charge.
Since there are no printing or mailing costs, moving customers completely online can reduce a firm's expenses. These incentives can be built into a well thought-out plan, helping it become more efficient and self-sustaining. Other firms have successfully used the approach where you build the site, get the customer used to the convenience, value and simplicity of using the site, and then eventually charge them for the service. Market Research is cheap to do here so spend some time online, check out what other websites offer and identify what features your customers would find useful.
The next question looks at whether your business is considered a supporter of the community. We tackled the pros and cons of this issue in our June/July '07 column titled "Corporate Citizenship: What's in it for Your Business?" (see: http://www.feedandgrain.com/print/Feed-and-Grain/Corporate-Citizenship--Whats-in-it-for-Your-Business/1$615 ) Supporting your local community indicates that you are "invested" in your town. While the "Wal-Martization" of America is something many local businesses fear — their approach and success can be overcome with focused effort. Experts indicate that the best way to compete with Wal-Marts (and other similar competitors) is to develop your own niche for product and service (i.e., don't carry products the Big Box stores carry), provide exemplary customer service and support your local community. Community support comes in a variety of ways and you may already be doing many of these things like supporting the county fair, purchasing 4-H and FFA members' livestock, and buying advertisements in the high school football program.
But sometimes it pays to take an even more proactive approach. Examples of other projects/ideas might be: having your employees run a food drive to support your local food bank; annually purchasing the awards given to local Boy Scout or Girl Scout troops; making your conference room available on a regular basis for community groups, and publicizing this fact; hosting a job shadow project on a regular basis for a high school student; sponsoring a day of community service in conjunction with your local city council. Volunteers can plant trees, plants, pick up trash around town, and repair/paint park fixtures with your feed or grain business serving as the hub of "volunteer central" where jobs are assigned, refreshments are provided, etc.
A website you might find useful for information and a resource, regarding optimizing a local advantage is the New Rules Project — a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (http://www.newrules.org). A portion of their website is devoted to retailers, and is entitled "The Hometown Advantage — Reviving Locally Owned Business."