Winning over the small-business owner

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There were 23 million small businesses in the U.S. last year employing half of all private sector employees. While a small business is independent, with fewer than 500 employees, who is a small-business owner, really?

It's the lawyer who opens his own sporting goods store. It's the parents who, after the children move out, start a landscaping business. It's the advertising executive who opens her own art gallery.

While those 23 million SBOs come in all sizes, races and disciplines, they have several things in common: their desire to be in charge of their own destiny, their passion for their work and their life, and their continual self-expression.

They are very different from the companies that market to them. They do not operate in a matrix organization with its job descriptions, hierarchical structure and silos. They are the president, the secretary, the salesman, the accountant and the janitor.

How do you reach them and make the emotional, rational connectivity that will drive business results for both them and your company?

Small-business owners are focused on the bottom line. Any money spent on their business comes right out of their pockets and can affect the viability of their venture. Being the decision-makers, they are confident and not afraid to try a new product or service. No committees delay the process. If they like your offer, they pick up the phone or go online, and you make the sale.

They also tend to embrace technology-80% of self-employed individuals have Internet access.

This segment is wholly unique from both consumers and corporate executives.

You can reach them physically, if not emotionally, the same way you reach consumers. Direct mail-the most preferred method of contact for consumers, according to the Direct Marketing Association-can be extremely effective. At large corporations, there's usually an assistant culling the mail. With an SBO, your message will likely find its way directly into the decision-maker's hands.

However, there may be a difference creatively between a b-to-b and consumer mailing. Consumers respond to lifestyle messaging, so you tend to use more elaborate design. Our b-to-b response rates tend to go up the more businesslike we make the mailing. Items that look "official" and fit within the context of a business environment are usually well received.

However, there's always room to break the rules. Large-format envelopes with bold graphics and a promotional look can also be effective, if the message and offer are right.

The message has to demonstrate that the marketer understands the small-business owner, has what they need and is on their side-which may be different than the consumer message. For example, our consumer work for Verizon DSL sells the excitement of broadband. The b-to-b message is about ROI.

Our research shows that highlighting customer support works with b-to-b customers. Why? Because small businesses don't have IT departments. Service continues to resonate with businesses and can become a point of differentiation.

From a media perspective, b-to-b messages can be effective across all direct response media. However, messaging via print or broadcast (including radio) must immediately self-select or it risks being ignored. Because you are trying to reach such a small subset of the people receiving the message, you have to grab the SBO immediately.

If you keep your target squarely in your sights-their emotional commonality, the fact that they're entrepreneurial, independent, in control-think of the dividends. What marketer doesn't want a confident, decisive customer who can green-light a sale at a moment's notice?

Laurence Boschetto is president-COO of the New York office of Draft, a global marketing communications agency. He can be reached at [email protected]

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