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Keep it short and simple when targeting small businesses online

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It may be chump change for a large firm, but a cash prize of $25,000 could go a long way for a small business.

The pay-out is part of United Parcel Service of America's Out of the Box contest, an online campaign directed at small and midsize businesses that in the last two-and-a-half years has morphed into a major marketing vehicle for the company.

UPS program goes global

The program, which debuted in the U.S. in November 2005, was expanded recently to include Canada, China, Mexico, the Philippines and Singapore. It is designed for companies with annual revenue in 2006 of at least $250,000 but not more than $10 million. Eligible businesses are asked to submit a 500-word essay explaining why they're original and why they have been successful. Prizes range from $25,000 in cash for first place to $5,000 in cash for third.

UPS this year dialed back its print advertising budget devoted to targeting the SMB segment for more Web ads plugging the contest. Banner ads are running on bizjournals.com, CNNMoney.com, entrepreneur.com, forbes.com, newsweek.com, smartbiz.com and Yahoo.

The ad-buy strategy has paid off. Since this year's contest started in May—it runs through Sept. 1—UPS has already garnered 500 responses whereas last year's contest generated a total of 800. In light of the program's growing popularity, this year's winners will be announced at UPS' inaugural Global SMB Forum Nov. 13 at the Georgia Aquarium.

"We've really gained some legs with the contest," said Donna Barrett, PR manager at UPS. "We were looking for a program that says to the SMBs: `We care.' "

She added: "People tend to think UPS serves big business. But the vast majority of our customers are small businesses." While the intention of the contest has been to boost the UPS brand with the SMBs, Barrett said sales leads generated by the effort "have been the icing on the cake."

UPS' Out of the Box contest targets SMBs using a strategy that emphasizes being short, sweet and to the point.

Brief window of opportunity

Indeed, when targeting SMBs online, b-to-b marketers have a brief window in which to get their message across, said Jeff Koch, VP-member services for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents 350,000 small companies in the U.S.

"Most SMB owners have the mentality of `What's in it for me?' " Koch said. He added that because many small businesses have only started to familiarize themselves with the Internet in the last few years, it's important that b-to-b marketers keep their online communications simple when it comes to pitching the SMB segment.

Office Depot, a major b-to-b marketer, subscribes to that notion. "We have to make sure our Web site's tools—live chat, shopping—are nice and easy for our SMB customers to use," said Kristin Micalizio, VP-direct sales.

She said that perhaps the most important component in reaching the SMB market online is more sophisticated use of keywords with the main search engines.

"We're getting smarter and smarter at how to deploy keywords" when targeting SMBs, Micalizio added. "For example, there are certain terms that do well in certain parts of the country but not in others, and certain words that get hits at certain times of the day."

B-to-b marketers hoping to reach small-business owners online also have to be hyper-specific in their communications, said Kevin Arsham, trade media director at ad agency OMD, whose clients include Bank of America, FedEx Corp., General Electric Co. and Visa USA.

"Marketers tend to use `SMB' as general term, and then it becomes too vague," he said. "They need to look at things more vertically. Drilling down is very important."

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