To market to SMEs well, you really need to understand your audience. Earnest spoke with small business owners to find out what marketers could improve on
When our marketing doesn’t land, there’s a good chance it’s because we haven’t understood our audience.
We didn’t spend enough time digging to find out what really jangles their nerves or gets them excited. Maybe because we assumed, rather conveniently, that the things that worry and excite them happen to be the same things we want them to be worried and excited about.
Truth is, there’s no shortcut to knowing a small business inside out. And there’s no better way to find out what will resonate with them than by speaking to the owner. In person.
Which is exactly what we at Earnest did.
We travelled the country to ask small business owners what it’s like to go it alone. And what they told us threw some light on what marketers could do better.
1. Forget digital channels (at least for a day) and go visit people
Yes, it takes time and effort. Yes, the phone and email are much easier. And yes, if you can’t be bothered to put in the time and effort, your marketing will tank faster than you can say “Who needs leads anyway?”.
Martin Harman runs Your Bike Shed
, a cycling and bike repair coffee shop in York. Initially, banks wouldn’t front the bucks because it was a small business with an unproven model in the UK.
Four years on the business is thriving. But Martin feels it wasn’t just the banks that didn’t want to know. Brands could’ve done more too: “Not once has anyone come to see how hard I actually work and what running a small business actually means.”
Is marketers’ obsession with digital channels making this worse? “I think digital channels are ruining communications between people in general. No one wants to interact person to person anymore.”
- Make that journey.
- Show them they’re worth your time.
- Be a partner, not a vendor.
It’ll go a long way to building a long-term relationship.
2. Know what’s at stake for small business owners (clue: everything)
When you drop the ball as an employee, what’s the worst that can happen?
A crappy performance review? Pay hike goes out the window? Ego gets slapped about a bit?
These all suck, but we’re not talking lose-your-livelihood-your-home-and-everything-you-ever-worked-for suck.
Because that’s what’s at stake for many small business owners.
Andrew Burton is an ex-professional footballer who now runs his own business, ABC Gym. He’s well aware of the pressure that comes with setting up on your own: “Of course stuff goes wrong. I lie awake at night knowing I’m not only the person that cares most about it, but I am the only person responsible for fixing it.”
Ann-Marie Slater is also no stranger to pressure. She and her husband run a bed and breakfast in the Lake District. Online reviews can make all the difference to whether any small business dies or thrives, but none more so than those in the tourism industry.
For Ann-Marie, being at the mercy of TripAdvisor isn’t all bad: “It’s driven up standards, and rightly so. Why should we get away with not sticking to the standards we’ve set out?”
But the prospect of an unwarranted bad review is always there: “I feel like we live in a world where it’s on trend to complain about anything you possibly can, while hiding behind a keyboard. This can make it much easier to forget that the people you are criticising are humans too, and the effects of the grumblings can be much wider reaching than you think.”
If you want to build an emotional connection with small business owners (which you do, because you’re in marketing), treat them as human beings not potential sales leads.
- Understand the pressure small businesses are under
- Know the obstacles they’re up against.
- Show you’re there to help, not sell.
And never forget you’re dealing with someone who puts their whole world on the line. Every single day.
3. Give them back what they prize most – time
When a small business takes off, the owner is hoisted out of their comfort zone when they have to deal with things they have little or no experience of.
Stuff like accounting, IT, HR. Stuff they may not enjoy doing. Stuff that gobbles up time. Loads and loads of time.
Di Hassall is the owner of Di, a home-run company that designs and makes bridal and special occasion footwear. She’s dedicated to her highly skilled craft – but also spends a lot time learning new skills: “There are so many new technologies, channels and ways to sell that you have to get your head around now – you have to be jack of all trades and master of all.
“I’m not fantastic at selling. I would love to work with someone who can sell for me, or help build the website. There’s just not enough time to do everything. At the end of the day, I just need all the support I can get.”
This is where marketers can really pull their weight. Small business owners are well aware of their weaknesses. They’re crying out for help lightening the load in areas where they lack expertise.
- Think about ways you can be useful to your small business customers and prospects.
- Create some helpful how-to content.
- Share hints and tips via social media.
The least you can do is make sure your marketing is accessible, interesting and doesn’t waste their time, because they don’t have any to spare.