7 things to supersize for marketing to small businesses

14 mins read

If you didn’t know any better, you might think marketing to small businesses was pretty much like marketing to big businesses, but in miniature.

A sort of bonsai marketing.

Trimming bits off.

Tiny scissors.

But no. In fact, you need to do the exact opposite. You need to supersize many aspects of your efforts.

Go big or go home.

At least that’s what we found out in our Think Small road trip. We recently invited some other curious marketers to talk it over at a Think Small Roundtable with B2B Marketing.

Here’s the upshot.

1. Expand your brand

Bad news: If you’re a big corporate trying to market to small businesses, you’re already up against it when it comes to brand perception.

They’ll presume you’re not interested in them.

They’ll presume your products don’t meet their needs.

They’ll presume you’re too big, busy and important to answer the phone when they need you.

There’s also a lot of solidarity between small business folk that often makes them favour lesser-known names. Who can blame them for thinking a similar-sized supplier might understand their needs better and be more responsive? Like any business, SMEs want to be seen as your best customer, not a low-budget, low-priority one.

Good news: There’s a lot you can do to change the way small businesses see you. Read on.

2. Primp your proposition

No one likes to feel they’re getting a watered-down version of something (unless it’s a 21-year-old Glenfiddich, in which case a splash of room-temperature Evian is a game changer). So if you’re going after the small business sector, take a long hard look at your product or service. Does it speak directly to small business pain points? Or does it feel like a hand-me-down coat that doesn’t quite fit?

If you can swallow the potential cost and complexity, a personalised proposition resonates better with small businesses. Here are some pointers:

  1. Work out which product features best address the pain points of SMEs.
  2. Work with your product team to adapt your offering to small business’ needs.
  3. Test your proposition – check it’s quick and easy to use for time-poor business owners.
  4. Avoid creating a stripped-back enterprise solution – a genuine SME offering means adding stuff, not removing it.
  5. Name your product wisely – for some, ‘Version Lite’ could read ‘Version Sh*te’

3. Pack-a-punch pricing

Your price point might not even touch the sides of a corporate budget, but how does it sound to a one-man band with humbler coffers? Remember with small business owners, you are always competing against the “Can I do it myself?” option. A freemium version or a time-limited free trial gets your product in front of as many users as possible. Works a treat for Trello, Slack and Dropbox. Their proposition is so perfectly polished they know users will love it and rush to upgrade.

But you have to help that happen. In the first three months of a free trial, don’t stand back and worry about how much it’s costing you; do the opposite. You have a crucial window of opportunity to embed your product inside someone’s day-to-day business, help users get value from it and realise how much they need it:

  1. Invest in making the free trial a sticky, well-supported experience.
  2. Offer demo and FAQ content for intensive training.
  3. Provide advocacy and support via telephone-based customer success managers.

4. Strengthen your stakeholder management

The enterprise DMU is a sprawling and complex thing. The typical buying cycle is between a year and 18 months, sometimes longer. You can see why many corporate sales teams look longingly at the short, sharp, self-contained, gut-feel buying decisions you get from small business bosses. Some corporates even set up a whole new unit just to chase high volume, small revenue deals. But such impatience for payback rarely works.

You need time to build a brand in any new space, especially the small business space. You need to engage customers, build relationships, first become helpful, and then become indispensable. If your internal stakeholders are focused on short-term success, the small business sector really isn’t going to make their Christmas come early. If at all.

You can’t blame stakeholders for wanting to see results. But if you’re serious about marketing to small businesses, you need to persuade them to play the long game – and be bold about it.

5. Stretch your segmentation

Small businesses don’t all sit together in the same segment, sharing the same fears, hopes and aspirations. Firmographics suggest the usual segmentation according to size, location and industry. But these leave us blind to the things that make small businesses unique: values, drivers or customer bases. Size, for example, is almost irrelevant; it’s more about where a business is in its development cycle.

Some myths and misconceptions:

  • Small businesses and start-ups think differently. Start-ups are seeking big backing so they can scale up and move towards their exit plan. Backed by investment they often behave like much bigger businesses. An SME is often more of a passion project or a lifestyle choice.
  • You can’t presume tech start-ups have more money – or that sole traders have none.
  • Don’t assume all small business owners want to grow – many are in it just to make a living.
  • If you’re marketing software to a small business that’s been up and running for a couple of years, you’re probably dislodging an incumbent supplier – and that calls for a challenger marketing approach.

There’s also Earnest’s own SUE model if you fancy.

6. Widen your team’s skillset

Small businesses think big businesses don’t get them. And sending a 22-year-old account exec to talk to them about managing staff or making ends meet at month-end won’t change their mind. Truth is, empathy is everything when marketing to small businesses. So try recruiting people who have experience of running their own business, or have at least worked in a start-up. You might find an untapped pool of ex-SME talent in the retiree/grey market; people who understand the big picture, passion and pride behind every small business.

Younger recruits are data, digital and social media savvy of course, but that’s not all you need for success in this sector. ‘Old school’ skills like relationship marketing, account management, in-person and phone-based advocacy and good ol’ fashioned direct mail are equally important for tapping into the small business mindset. At a time when corporate life has gone all chinos and polo shirts, you might find life experience and a smart suit better shows small businesses you’re taking them seriously.

7. Sharpen up CX

So small businesses need to feel special but how do you scale the personal touch? How do you make small businesses feel like the centre of your universe while making it worth your while? It all comes down to using the right content and the right channels at the right time:

  1. Bundle up: Kicking off the customer journey is typically the most expensive end of the funnel. Take a leaf out of Sage’s book: they partnered with a high street bank to offer accounting software as part of a small business bundle. A smart way to get your brand on their radar is to hang out where you know they’ll need to be (in this case a bank), and bundle up with something you know they’ll need to have (in this case a business account).
  2. Widen your influence: Small business owners and sole traders often have a social presence before they have a website, so include their influencers in your list of marketing targets: bookkeepers, accountants, banks, networking groups, Instagram channels relevant to their product sector. You might not find this activity links directly to sales but it’s key for awareness.
  3. Offer smart service channels: Combine high-touch relationship/account management with online support channels such as chat, apps and knowledge-based FAQs. SMEs are multi-taskers, not because they like it but because they have no choice. Don’t keep them waiting on the phone. Offer good self-service options so they can get in, get out and get on. Chat is good for people who are busy doing other things.
  4. Optimise for search: As with consumers the small business owner’s buying journey starts with Google. Remember though, people don’t usually search for products or categories, they search for answers to problems “How can I save money on shipping costs?” or “Do I need professional indemnity insurance?” Make sure you’re ranked for specific questions small businesses are asking and make sure you send them to landing pages that answer them.
  5. Remember print: These days our inboxes are full but our physical letterboxes are empty. Don’t underestimate the power of direct mail to reach small businesses and stand out above the clutter. But avoid showing off with a gorgeous glossy thing; a simple, well-written letter is more relatable.
  6. Create straight-talking content: Small businesses only buy when they have a problem or a crisis. Create use cases that quickly and simply show that your proposition solves a range of typical problems. Use an informal, personal peer-to-peer tone, with simple human language; you’re talking to an individual person, not a market segment, a department or a line of business leader.
  7. Tap into trusted channels: Trust is a major factor in all small business purchase decisions, so focus your resources on channels such as review sites, ambassador marketing and referral programmes. Corporate networking events like industry conferences and exhibitions won’t get you in front of small business people; they don’t have the budget and they can’t spare the time. They do network but it’s informal and untappable: maybe you’re not invited. The best way is to secure yourself a few SME champions in your base to evangelise on your behalf.

If you’d like to host your own small business roundtable, we can set it up. Or if you’d like us to help unpick your strategy, get in touch.

Read more about our small business research (including our one-man road trip) here on the Think Small microsite.