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Intuit contest highlights small-business owner stories

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How much would $5,000 change your life? To a manager in a big company, $5,000 may be little more than a drop in the budget bucket, but to small-business owners it can be that critical piece of equipment, signage or promotion that gets the business to next level. Software marketer Intuit Inc. has long catered to small businesses, a core market for its QuickBooks, TurboTax and other financial tools. Since 2009 it's given away more than $1.2 million through a program it calls Love Our Local Business. Recently it added a social media twist and saw a gusher of return. Called Small Business, Big Wishes, the contest asked business owners to describe in 500 characters or fewer what they would do with a $5,000 grant. Intuit research had determined that $5,000 was a magic number for its target audience, with 94% of small businesses saying it was enough money to make a difference. Intuit made the entry process simple. Contestants only needed to state that they employed no more than 60 people, provide a bit of contact information and share their wishes. They could help their chances by promoting their cause to friends and followers in social channels. While Small Business, Big Wishes wasn't a pure popularity contest, community support factored into the Intuit judges' decisions. The response “far exceeded our expectations," said Betsy Eshoei, marketing manager in Intuit's small business division. While declining to provide specifics, she said entries were in the thousands. Most entrants said they'd apply the funds to marketing, website design and equipment upgrades, but some of the most gratifying stories tugged at the judges' heartstrings.
  • An auto repair business in Branson, Mo., that had been devastated by a tornado asked for help rebuilding from the ground up.
  • A theater company in Ontario, Canada, which had soldiered on despite a devastating fire, said it would spend the money to buy a sign to capture more foot traffic.
  • A linen service in Brunswick, Ga., posted a photo of its delivery van, which had been gutted by fire just before Christmas, and asked for help buying a replacement.
In addition to the cash, winners also got a write-up of their stories for the Intuit Small Business Blog and in several of the company's social channels. That's a win-win, since the original content benefits both Intuit's marketing program and its customers. Linden Tree Books of Los Altos, Calif. was one winner. The community bookstore will use the grant to install new signage after recently completing an expensive move. Co-owner Dianne Edmonds said she applied for the award in part to test the effectiveness of social media tools to spread the word. “People from North Dakota were voting for us, and we couldn't even figure out how they heard about us,” she said. “We found out that everybody likes being part of a greater good.” Intuit's contest worked on several levels:
  • It tapped into storytelling, which is the most basic form of human communication and one that resonates with us as people, not just as professionals.
  • The tight limit on lengths demanded that entrants be specific about their needs and plans for the money. The short summaries are quick reading for a time-pressed audience.
  • Intuit knew the contest would unearth personal stories, and entrants didn't disappoint. Stories came from the heart, many including touching personal details of hardship and resolve.
  • Entrants were encouraged to promote their own submissions, which boosted visibility for Intuit.
  • The promotion fit perfectly with Intuit's small-business focus. In contrast to the typical contest entries crafted by corporate communications departments, these were first-person accounts from business owners.
Intuit's Eshoei said one of the most gratifying results was that the small businesses use the contest to reach out to each other and network within their vertical markets. “One of the pain points for small-business people is feeling alone,” she said. “This was an opportunity for them not only to tell us what they needed but to find others who could help. We wanted to show small businesses that we're on their side. Paul Gillin (gillin.com) is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB. He can be reached at paul@gillin.com.
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