Op-Ed: Digital advertising limits will harm small business

Congress is considering legislation that could be detrimental to businesses in Hampton Roads and across the commonwealth. The politicians in Washington have decided that digital advertising is an area where they want to burden local businesses with onerous regulations. Unfortunately, rather than helping consumers, their actions threaten to inhibit the purchase of products they are looking for, while at the same time threatening the health of businesses that rely on digital marketing for their success.

The Virginia Diner has been around for nearly 100 years. We have seen technological advancements in that time that revolutionized how businesses operate: mass automotive transportation, computers, the internet, cell phones and the digital revolution. Over the years, we have had to adapt to each of these changes because that is how businesses stay relevant — by observing and adapting to the environment so they can continue to thrive. Savvy entrepreneurs know that they need to be nimble and adjust to the business landscape, and keep pace with consumer preferences that change over time.

The advent of the internet has made it easier for businesses to get their products and services to market. Cost-effective advertising disseminated by digital marketing services is readily available to any business with an internet connection. It is the only cost-effective way that businesses in places such as rural Wakefield can market and sell products to people around the globe.

When we first opened our doors nearly a century ago, our business was supported by local residents and hungry travelers en route to Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks. While we still proudly serve more than 200,000 patrons through the restaurant each year, the internet has allowed us to stay competitive, grow our business and support more local families with steady employment. Now we can reach customers literally anywhere on the planet who crave Virginia’s famous peanuts and our many other beloved food offerings.

The internet and digital advertising are the great equalizers. They let small businesses compete with large ones, regardless of their brick-and-mortar locations. With nothing but an idea, some extra space in their house and an internet connection, new entrepreneurs can strategically market themselves to the consumers most likely to buy their products and services, and curb wasteful spending of limited resources on advertising to audiences that do not fit the buyer profile of their typical customer.

During the pandemic, the Virginia Diner had to make a quick pivot in our business model to a direct-to-consumer format in order to survive. Our story is not unique in that respect. Many other companies found similar ways to adapt. Businesses that had previously relied on foot traffic into physical locations or selling wholesale to independent shops and regional and national chains had to find a way to deliver their goods and services to people’s doorsteps.

For us, data-driven digital advertising services were the key to our success. Our ability to hone in on customers who model towards Virginia Diner’s customer demographic is the thing that kept the lights on and people employed during the pandemic.

Speaking as a consumer myself, I can attest that I enjoy how digital marketing has helped me find the right product at the right time and discover new brands that I have come to love. Digital channels are bringing me unique brands and products that align with my tastes and needs. I can point to several products in my home — oftentimes from small and local businesses — that I never would have heard of without digital ads.

Should Congress intervene, the threat to Virginia’s businesses and future entrepreneurs is real. It will be significantly more difficult and expensive for businesses and entrepreneurs to get their products and services to markets, and in the end, the consumer will end up as the loser.

Andrew Whisler is the president and COO of the Virginia Diner in Wakefield.