'It's kind of a life-or-death situation for small businesses': U of A students providing free digital support for local businesses – Edmonton Journal

Tech-savvy students at the University of Alberta are partnering with local businesses to improve their online presence through e-commerce, social media marketing, or even building a new website.
The Digital Economy Program (DEP) launched on Jan. 12 and already has about 220 businesses signed up, said Heather Thomson, executive director of the U of A’s Centre for Cities and Communities and leader of the program.
“The biggest reason this program is important and needed right now is because of the consumer shift of how we consume goods and services has gone primarily online, because of the pandemic’s restrictions,” said Thomson.
“These habits have been formed and we’re not necessarily going to go back to a completely brick-and-mortar shopping base. People are savvier, digitally savvy and I think businesses just need to be prepared to shift as well.”
Once a business signs up for the program, they get matched with a student. Thomson said about 70 students applied to be a part of the team and 25 have been hired. It’s a paid position with about 15 hours of work per week, she said.
The program’s goal is to help 3,400 businesses in Edmonton, Sherwood Park, Leduc, Wetaskiwin, Nisku, St. Albert and surrounding areas in the next 15 months.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what’s tricky about starting up an online or creating some sort of digital platform,” said Thomson.
“People often think it’s expensive, they think that it’s really difficult to do and actually, thanks to the pandemic, there’s been so much growth with accessibility through e-commerce platforms that are very affordable and scalable as well as landing pages.”
Thomson said the students will provide a little bit of help to businesses to show them the ropes and give them enough education to take over and continue from there. Their goal is to provide the opportunity for businesses to support themselves and to capitalize on the shop-local momentum.
“It’s kind of a life-or-death situation for small businesses,” she said.
The provincial government provided the program with $960,000 to offer their services for no charge. The project is in partnership with Businesslink and Digital Mainstreet, the platform provider.
Businesses interested in receiving help from the DEP can register online at yourdep.ca .
Once a business registers online, the form goes to the U of A and they get matched with a student, said Thomson.
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