If your target customers are primarily small to medium-sized businesses in the 2-49 employee space, you’re probably struggling to reach (and nurture) your target market. It’s often said that small- and medium-businesses—SMBs or SMEs for short—have nothing in common, other than that they’re totally different. This isn’t totally true, though. Across industries, SMBs, particularly in the 2-49 employee segment, have a few common traits.
First, SMB buyers are almost always super-generalists. They must wear many hats, and at the same time be pretty good at a lot of them. In fact, this is what drives many people to found or work at small companies in the first place. “If there’s one thing I’m sure of,” one 25-person firm founder told us, “it’s that I’ll never be bored at work.”
Second, SMB buyers are break-fix oriented. They search for a solution to a problem only once they have encountered it. It is rare that a 2-49 employee company will embark on a large strategic transformation project lasting a year, for the simple reason that by the end of the year too much will have changed, and the outcome will likely be irrelevant.
Third, SMB buyers, even more than buyers at large enterprises, are focused on the ground-level reality of their business. Everyone at a 25-person firm knows exactly how their company makes money. They are much closer to their paycheck than a buyer at a large grocery chain, an accountant at a tech company, or a developer at Google.
Finally, SMB buyers are also consumers and individuals. While this is also true for large enterprises, employees at SMBs are much more likely to merge their consumer and work brand affinities and shopping behaviors.
For a marketer, these four common traits have several strategic implications for effective outreach and engagement, regardless of industry.
First, inbound marketing is your best bet to drive engagement. Inbound can be frustrating, because the payoff takes a long time, for a lot of effort. However, building an inbound strategy around the insights that SMB buyers are generalists and break-fix oriented will drive real leads. The key is first understanding exactly how your company’s solution solves a generalist’s queries when in break-fix mode (“how do I fix model number G-843?”)
Obviously, organic search optimization is key for this marketing use case, and there’s a whole industry around doing that, but more active techniques can also be used to drive inbound generalist / break-fix engagement.
The definition of the online community has evolved over the years, but the basic idea is to foster an audience around a shared interest, for example, auto detailing. In the early 2000s, companies invested in their own communities, but these efforts have largely shifted to platform-hosted communities. For example, one of our clients noticed a rich and vibrant community of auto mechanics and owners had emerged on Facebook. By engaging with this community in a non-commercial, informative way, brand equity was created, and a wealth of insights were continuously surfaced to be pushed back through marketing.
Increasingly, LinkedIn groups are becoming a key knowledge sharing area for white collar professionals, subsuming more fragmented forums and listservs. LinkedIn Communities do not tolerate much commercial activity, however. If you’re going to engage, take your time, learn the content, and actively contribute. The leads and inbound queries will come over time.
Interacting with your potential customers in their communities will also help when it comes to audience profiling and outbound targeting. For example, one of our clients identified three key websites that brokers were using regularly to understand and discuss state licensing requirements, and then purchased display advertising with those publishers. Even today, solid customer insights still beat programmatic ads when it comes to relevance for the extremely fragmented SMB market.
Once you’re interacting with your customers in their communities, it’s time to build how-to content to solve their problems. The rules on how-to content are pretty simple. First, it has to be ultra-specific. Vague steps and platitudes simply won’t drive volume and will make your brand look bad. Specific how-to content is much more likely to stand out in a sea of generalities, because the need for this content is evergreen. Unlike “news”-based content—which we’ll see later is great for one-on-one outreach—how-to content will see a consistent hum of traffic daily, and is much more likely to attract backlinks—a key driver of organic search volume.
Second, how-to content doesn’t have to be on your website. YouTube is a preferred platform for how-to content. You can certainly embed your YouTube videos on your site, but most people will probably find them in the Google > YouTube motion. Your brand can then use the built-in subscribe button on the platform to build and communicate to that audience.
The same goes for LinkedIn; trying to drive people off the platform doesn’t work well. Instead, engage on LinkedIn using their tools. The platforms have realized that they hold all the algorithmic power, so they will up-promote content that stays on their site.
Blogs on your own site can also be effective, but they have to be very specifically targeted. Blogs that are too general “Tom’s musing on auto repair”, won’t stand out unless Tom is really good and very prolific. “The ultimate classic car transmission blog” will stand out. Again, how-to guides and definitions of terms are great content for fix-it generalists.
A technical note; having communities spread out across platforms is more effective in the real world than trying to keep everything on your domain, but unfortunately this is not the model that marketing automation platforms have built around. Pardot, for example, is built assuming social links that drive back to an owned site. This is fine for large, established brands with a robust opt-in newsletter circulation, but marketers at smaller firms will have to do a lot of manual work to effectively set up engaging marketing communities before they are able to drive meaningful traffic to their domain.
Once you’ve started to acquire your audience, it’s time to build relationships. Relationship building with SMBs can have many channel elements, but a newsletter-based approach is still a winner. That being said, most companies get newsletters wrong. A transparently commercial newsletter with a lot of links will have low open rates and high unsubscribe rates. A better approach is a text-only newsletter that is well researched and on-topic. This isn’t rocket science; people, whether at work or at home, want to read stories. Writing newsletters as stories, without any “asks”, will over the long drive far better relationships than ones that always ask for something. Remember, small business owners are break-fix people; you want them to think of you first when they have a problem.
One-on-one outreach is also key for SMBs. Automated “account based marketing” touches do not work well. Instead, focus on reaching out to your known contacts with warm, personal touches. Just like the newsletter approach, blatant commercialism isn’t going to work. Instead, do a little research and congratulate people (not companies) on new roles, strategic movements, or questions about a new location.
Think like a newswire service when sending out one-on-one outreach. Spend time picking out the most important trends, news articles and innovations for them, and spend 5-10 minutes crafting emails around these nuggets. These types of emails signal that you are actively interested in their business, and know their issues.
In conclusion, small business buyers have a few common traits; they’re always fixing problems, they wear a lot of hats, they are very close to the operational issues in their business regardless of their position, and they love stories (just like you and me.) Engaging them means helping them fix their problems, whenever they happen. This translates to sustained, long-term effort, over the course of years, to build up a trusted presence across platforms, combined with non-automated, one-on-one outreach, and a story-based, non-commercial newsletter. You want to be their first call when they have a problem. This approach can be frustrating when leads are needed, right now, but will create lasting value over time.