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Growing influence

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As they seek to expand their market share and grow revenue, b-to-b marketers are increasing their focus on the small and midsize business segment. From financial services companies to technology giants, they are rolling out new products, services and resources aimed at this lucrative audience.

"In general, IT vendors are moving down-market as they are feeling a little tapped out at the enterprise level," said Rich Vancil, VP-CMO Advisory Practice at research company IDC. "The next big opportunity for marketers is down in the SMB segment," Vancil said, pointing to findings from IDC's "Trends, Forecast and Essential Guidance for Tech Marketers: 2008" benchmark survey released in September. The survey was based on an online survey and telephone interviews with 99 senior marketers at IT companies.

As they increase their focus on the SMB market, companies are challenged to come up with new ways of selling to this segment.

"The small-and-midsize business segment is extremely important to us," said Mich Mathews, senior VP-corporate marketing group at Microsoft Corp.

"There are unique requirements in the SMB space that impact how we design, deliver and market our software to customers in this space."

Nontraditional sales tactics

For example, she said, Microsoft typically does not sell to small-business customers through its traditional sales force. Instead, it uses the Web, direct marketing and partner vehicles.

In one unique marketing effort this year, Microsoft created an event called the Notch Tour, designed to show how Microsoft Office Live could help entrepreneurs start their own businesses.

The tour, developed with help from independent creative shop Bradley and Montgomery, made stops in Atlanta; Portland, Ore.; and Tempe, Ariz. It featured a real kitchen table at which entrepreneurs could sit down and discuss their business ideas, then carve a notch on the table to leave their mark.

On the tour, entrepreneurs could set up free Web sites for their businesses using Office Live. Videos of the tour were shown on a Microsoft microsite, and the effort was also supported on the Facebook, Hotmail and Tribal Fusion Web sites.

Mathews said Microsoft also plans to introduce new executions of its "People-Ready Business" ad campaign, developed by McCann Worldgroup, San Francisco, to include topics that are important to the SMB marketplace, such as improving data security and customer acquisition.

Other marketers are also rolling out new products and promotions to expand their marketing efforts to SMBs.

Bank of America "Small business is a very significant opportunity for us," said Meredith Hein, small- business marketing executive at Bank of America. "We have been increasingly focused on this segment."

Recognizing the potential of this audience, with more than 23 million small businesses located in its service areas, the company last year established a separate division to market to this segment.

It also launched Business 24/7, a suite of services aimed at small businesses, from online bill paying to online payroll services.

Another new product Bank of America introduced this year is Franchise Banking, a program designed to support the business growth goals of franchise owners with revenue of less than $20 million.

In February, Bank of America unveiled a new branding campaign called "Bank of Opportunity," aimed at consumers, small businesses and enterprise customers. The ads show how Bank of America can help people realize their dreams, such as starting their own business.

Other companies that have historically marketed to small businesses are finding new ways to reach these customers and prospects.

'Small' differences

"AT&T has a long history serving small-business owners," said Wendy Clark, senior VP-advertising at AT&T. "Long ago, we determined that there are differences between the small-business market and the large-business market in the communications industry. If you're a small-business owner, your world looks different."

AT&T has used a variety of media, including TV, print and online, to reach the small-business segment. For example, it launched www.att.com/OnwardSmallBiz, an online resource for small businesses, featuring webinars, case studies, best practices and discussion forums for small-business owners.

"This is a place where small- business owners can get together and collaborate, talk about being a small-business owner and share best practices," Clark said.

AT&T has also developed print ads targeting small businesses, including a "David vs. Goliath"-themed ad that showed how small businesses can slay the goliaths in their industries.

Media companies are also developing online resources for small businesses, with the hope of attracting advertisers to these sites.

In August, CMP's TechWeb Network launched bMighty.com, a Web site designed for small and midsize businesses and marketers that are trying to reach them. The site focuses on the business and technology information needs of companies with 50 to 1,500 employees.

BMighty.com's features include a searchable database of more than 90,000 vendors to help SMBs find the right products and services, how-to technology content, product reviews, white papers, blogs, webcasts and market research. Cisco Systems signed up to be the site's charter sponsor.

Amazon's new business center

Also, Amazon.com last month announced a new online business center aimed at small and midsize businesses.

The Amazon All Business Center, at www.amazon.com/allbusinesscenter, features customer forums, industry-specific software and access to Amazon's e-commerce services. It also features products for small businesses, such as office furniture, electronics and office supplies.

In addition, small-business owners can use the center, which is sponsored by Microsoft and Intuit, to access their corporate account and fulfillment services.

As small businesses get more sophisticated about their own marketing efforts, software companies are rolling out new products to meet their marketing and measurement needs.

For example, Web analytics company Coremetrics introduced Coremetrics SMB Solutions, a suite of online marketing products designed to help small and midsize businesses optimize their online marketing campaigns and improve ROI.

And e-marketing company Yesmail last month rolled out Yesmail Direct, a new online community for small businesses that provides tools for their online marketing efforts.

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