As they emerge from three years of economic sluggishness, small-business owners are beginning to invest cautiously in their companies. As they do, b-to-b marketers are looking for new ways to engage with this important segment, from social media outreach to providing tools to help them run their businesses.
According to the fall 2011 “American Express OPEN Small Business Monitor,” 48% of small-business owners plan to make some sort of capital investment in their companies in the next six months. That's up from a 44% response in the spring 2011 survey.
The “Small Business Monitor” is a semiannual survey of businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The fall survey was based on telephone interviews with 814 small-business owners conducted in August and September, and the spring survey was based on telephone interviews with 728 small-business owners, conducted in February and March.
Fifty-five percent of respondents to the fall survey said they have cash-flow concerns, down from 66% in the spring survey.
AmEx is reaching its own small-business customers by providing resources and new features on OPEN Forum, its online community of small-business owners (see case study below)
Other marketers are boosting their marketing to small businesses using new techniques as the sector's purchase behavior changes.
“In today's world, we see that over 80% of the time a small or medium business makes a technology decision, it starts with a search engine,” said Ed Abrams, VP-marketing at IBM Corp.'s global midmarket unit. IBM defines small and midsize businesses as those with fewer than 1,000 employees.
“We have to make sure we show up in their search queries—not just paid or organic search, but we want to drive stimulated search,” Abrams said.
IBM makes heavy use of social media—including blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter—to drive conversations around topics of interest to small and midsize businesses, such as IT security and cloud-based computing.
“Much of what we're doing with our campaign work is shifting a lot of our execution from traditional paid advertising to a paid/owned/earned model that leverages our own digital properties as well as content from our customers, so they can engage with our brand,” Abrams said.
IBM is also using events to reach small businesses, such as a recent series on IT security that attracted more than 10,000 attendees. “The point of view is not intended to hard-sell IBM, but to provide access to information so that our customers can be much more informed,” Abrams said.
Many marketers are boosting their use of social media to reach small businesses and engage them in brand conversations.
Microsoft Corp., for example, recently created a robust social media campaign for Office 365, which provides cloud-based computing solutions for small and midsize businesses. The effort included Facebook and LinkedIn groups, as well as The Grid, an online community of Office 365 users that features guest blogs, user forums and customer case studies.
“We use social and community to establish a relationship with small-business professionals and focus our content strategy on showing how our solutions can help them think more about their business challenges and less about their IT infrastructure,” said Stephen Bury, senior product manager- Office division at Microsoft. “A big part of our success is in creating a vibrant, helpful community where professionals can interact with peers, industry experts and Microsoft employees for timely, accurate and objective information.”
Recommendations from peers are proving to be a key factor in the decision-making process of small-business owners, according to the Enterprise Council on Small Business (ECSB).
In a January study of more than 1,200 small-business owners, ECSB found that 45% of purchase decisions by small-business owners were influenced by a recommendation from another small-business owner. “In the small-business market, the influence of owner-to- owner is highly relevant in purchase decisions,” said Rufino Chiong, research director at ECSB.
Many marketers are featuring small businesses in their advertising, addressing unique issues the sector faces, particularly in a tough economy. In September, FedEx debuted new TV spots in its “We Understand” campaign, which showcases some of the challenges facing small businesses.
“At the end of the day, the small-business owner probably has more skin in the game than anyone else,” said Steve Pacheco, director of advertising at FedEx.
“For example, they don't have a dedicated supply chain specialist, so we want to show them how we can help them do that. In the campaign, we feature small businesses, such as AAAAA auto repair, and talk about how FedEx can help them.”
FedEx also launched a website (www.fedex.com/weunderstand) that highlights small-business case studies.