The SMB marketing problem

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Harendra Kapur

25. 08. 2016 | 7 min read

The SMB marketing problem

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The most pithy explanation of ‘strategy’ I’ve ever heard came, weirdly, from an episode of The West Wing.

The set up: young presidential candidate Matt Santos is worried about all the budget cuts his campaign has to make. His wise, old running mate Leo McGarry reassures him.

LEO: “You’ve got to manage your resources.”

SANTOS: “It feels like we’re closing a lot of doors.”

LEO: “Good strategy always does.”

At a very fundamental level, that’s really all strategy is – a series of decisions about what you will and won’t do.

I bring this up because while most B2B marketers will agree that ‘let’s be all things to all people’ isn’t a viable strategy, there is a strategic choice that makes us forget all that – the decision to target small and medium-sized businesses.

SMB marketing many small fish

Why SMB marketing is so hard

Before I go any further, let me be clear that ‘going after SMBs’ is a perfectly valid decision. And there are loads of companies who’ve done a really great job of targeting them (I should say us).

But the way you market to SMBs is complicated by a number of important factors.

1. SMBs don’t self-identify as SMBs.

They identify as ‘B2B content marketing agencies specializing in technology’ and ‘family-run trucking companies’ and ‘eCommerce software vendors’. The only reason you’d self-identify as the owner of a small business is if you needed to clarify you aren’t the owner of a large business.

This is the classic SMB challenge. The people marketing to them describe them in ways they don’t describe themselves.

2. There are a lot of SMBs.

Let’s say we move past the fact that there isn’t a common definition of SMBs.

We’ve still got to confront the fact that most businesses are small and medium sized. And I do mean most. In the UK, 99.9% of all businesses are small or medium-sized. In the US, they make up 99.7% of all businesses, with 89.6% of all businesses having fewer than 20 people in them.

So when we say we’re going to ‘focus on SMBs’ we have to realize we aren’t really focusing at all. We’re actually making our segment even broader than it would have been had we gone after large enterprises only.

3. Size is a weird metric.

If we’re going to measure the size of a company, or more pointedly, qualitatively segment our potential market based on size, we need to accept the limitations of ‘number of employees’ as a metric. Here, the lack of a common definition doesn’t help.

For one thing, a 100-person company is scarcely like a 700-person company. So a 0-1000 employees segment doesn’t work. And yet some programs might exclude a 120-person company because they don’t fit their 0-100 employees segment. That’s just weird.

But ok. Let’s once again, pretend we’ve agreed on a common definition.

Now there’s the question of size dynamics in different verticals. Is a 13-person tech company really ‘smaller’ or less attractive a prospect than a 400-person publisher? What if I told you that software company was Instagram and that publisher was Gawker?

‘Number of employees’ might be an available metric. At a push, it’s even good to know. But is it really enough detail with which to segment your potential audience? I’m not so sure.

Put it this way: if you’re selling Martech wouldn’t ‘number of marketers’ be more useful?

4. ‘SMB’ is not a vertical. It’s a collection of verticals.

It always worries me when I see someone group SMBs with verticals like transportation and insurance. Because it’s a fatal misconception to assume the SMBs we’re targeting aren’t players in exactly those verticals.

Case in point: a 300-person call center has more in common with a 3000-person call center than it does with a 300 person manufacturing plant.

If you’re going to sell to Velocity, you’d better know a thing or two about how an agency business model works.

5. SMBs don’t buy like big companies do.

Big companies have buying teams and procurement departments and implementation challenges that come with scale.

Smaller companies have a smaller gap between the person having a problem and the person who can do something about it. So, often in SMBs, there’s an equally short gap between identifying a problem and then identifying the solution to that problem.

Of course, SMBs can take too long and be too conservative with their purchases too. But if your current marketing mix was built for huge buying teams, don’t be surprised if the end-user in an SMB finds it hard to navigate.

Why companies go after SMBs

Ok. I’ve just said a whole bunch of stuff. So let’s come back to our initial premise for a second.

If ‘going after SMBs’ isn’t really a clear strategy in and of itself, why do so many B2B companies still do it? Like I said before, I don’t think companies targeting SMBs are making a bad choice. They’re actually making an important strategic decision (i.e. one that ‘closes doors’).

  • They’re saying they won’t sell to large enterprises. If the enterprise space is saturated, or the small business segment is under-served or the solution was made specifically for small teams that’s probably a good move.
  • They’re aiming for volume sales over a few big fish. Again, a useful strategic decision. If you can pick up many small deals that are relatively uncontested as opposed to many big deals that wouldn’t even consider you, you should certainly make that move.

But for all the reasons detailed above, it isn’t enough to just aim for small businesses. You’ve also got to approach it very differently.

Getting SMB marketing right

Getting this right isn’t about any one silver bullet. It’s about doing the simple things well.

1. Get specific: ‘99.9% of all companies’ and ‘every vertical’ is way too broad. So look for ways to segment some more.

  • Target specific issues: Ideally, you’re already doing this. But aim for issues that matter most to small businesses. If you’re improving processes, pick the ones a small business needs the most. For instance, one of our clients uses a lot of examples about processes that improved visibility into cash flow – always a challenge for small businesses.
  • Target specific psychographics and firmographics: If ‘heads of sales in small businesses’ is too broad, go after ‘heads of sales in start-ups’ or ‘heads of sales in growing companies’. Depending on the stage your best personas and prospect companies are at, they’ll have different issues. A growing company is different to a new company is different to an old company is different to a willfully small company.
  • Target specific verticals: This scares the bejesus out of most marketers. But going vertical-specific shouldn’t mean putting all your eggs in one or two baskets. Produce general content for most prospects. At the same time, keep some budget aside for one high-propensity vertical. If you can see uplift in that one, go after two more.

2. Make it easier to try your product: SMB prospects need you to ‘show them the money’ as quickly as possible. So in addition to all the useful how-to stuff you’re used to producing, you’ve also got to make sure it’s really easy to see and try the product.

Think assessment tools, tutorials, demos and product trials.

This ties in to a wider point of difference between enterprise and SMB strategies – there’s a different split between marketing and sales.

If you’re going after a few big fish, marketing just has to generate potential opportunities and sales has to do a whole lot of legwork per account. But here it’s worth doing.

If you’re going after many small fish, you can’t justify those kinds of sales resources. So marketing has to think through the whole purchase journey, starting at lead generation and even ending at web conversions in some cases. The content plan needs to support this very different approach.

3. Show them other companies like them: When Stan chooses software for Velocity he isn’t interested in all the bells and whistles of the software. He knows that running an agency is nothing like running any other type of company. And he knows that running our size of agency is different to running an Ogilvy.

So when he’s choosing a vendor, he’s looking at their track record with other agencies like us. 

Make testimonials and case studies a big part of your program. And make sure they’re made to resonate with your best prospects.

The scary thing about strategy

It’s easy enough to accept the notion that good strategies close certain doors so you can focus on the right ones. The hard part is figuring out which ones you can afford to close and which ones you can’t afford not to close.

When it comes to marketing to SMBs, it’s important we accept and realize the fact that if we aren’t careful about it, we’re only inviting more ambiguity, platitudes, condescension and before you know it…mediocrity.

Let’s not do that.

Picture: Daniel Selmeczi/Steve Bloom / Rex Features

Published in:

  • B2B Content Marketing

  • b2b-marketing

  • smb marketing

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  1. Jacob james


    August 31st, 2016

    I’m going to put your suggestions to action. Thanks!

  2. Chris

    The SEO Expert

    January 26th, 2017

    SMBs are definitely a different beast altogether. Most identify in different ways from what you would expect. It makes for a marketing nightmare in most situations. If you can get focused then that’s a big win. Either on a niche or a very specific problem/solution. Those have been the biggest success stories when it comes to marketing to SMBs.

  3. Alex

    Haki Review

    August 1st, 2017

    I appreciate that information on how to write a blog post that brings business and SEO. I agree that it is important to really cite your sources with a link, this will help with links in your blog but it will also help with the credibility of the blog. I would imagine that it is also important to ensure that you are using hard facts when writing a blog so that people can learn to trust the things you have to say.

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