5 strategies to strengthen your brand’s engagement with SMBs

Feb 10, 2021

Small business owners (SBOs) are often misunderstood, underappreciated, and, above all, underserved. They are different from big business leaders and deserve a very different marketing approach. Enterprise level B2B strategies aren’t effective for this group, and, more often than not, lead to low levels of brand engagement.

Successful engagement is even more important now as SBOs are navigating the pandemic. As experts in helping big brands market to small and medium sized businesses (SMBs), many brand leaders started asking us, “What’s next?” 

This new landscape will require a new, innovative, and re-imagined marketing approach to find, engage, and motivate small business owners. Transformative times call for transformative strategies, and here are five that big brand marketers should consider: 

Messaging: positive, partnering, pioneering

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 dealt a hard blow to many small businesses. In our most recent study as part of Project 99, 82% percent noted that they were negatively affected by the pandemic. However, 58% are optimistic about the future of their business. This sentiment is best summarized by the words of one Small Talk® Panel participant who noted: “I believe in the spirit of entrepreneurship now more than ever.” 

Resilience, positivity, and optimism are in the DNA of SBOs. It’s why they are entrepreneurs. So, our advice for brands is this: feed this optimism. Energize the positivity. WhatsApp, Uber and Square were all founded coming out of The Great Recession. And this period won’t be any different. I call this era The Great Re-Invention, and this re-imagined world will be led by entrepreneurs. As marketers, we must shift from messages of empathy to clear messages of empowerment. Instead of a hug, it’s arm in arm, together towards this bright future. They feel that they are the architects of the new normal, so let’s help them get there. At Cargo, we always say: “Move the heart to move the mind”. This is more powerful now than ever before.

Targeting: micro vs. macro

As optimistic as many of these SBOs are however, not all will recuperate at the same pace. Provincial governments hold the ultimate power when it comes to shutdowns. In addition, businesses in large metro areas like Toronto or Montreal, will see opportunities later than their counterparts in smaller towns. Young businesses (less than 5 years old) and smaller businesses (less than 20 employees) will face greater challenges during recovery as these businesses typically lack great degrees of liquidity and have greater credit constraints. 

The industry type is perhaps the most critical element that will define the recovery. 

Naturally, the hardest hit industries are those with “high touch” models that rely on large gatherings, close human interaction, high levels of hygiene, and travel. In summary, we are looking at three speeds of recovery for SMBs: 

  • Slow: urban/high touch/smaller and younger businesses
  • Medium: suburban, medium touch/established mid-size businesses
  • Fast: rural/low touch/mature businesses

This means that your marketing efforts need to match - don’t go after them in the same way. At the same time. With the same messages. Create a targeted approach, according to the speed of recovery. Firmographics, using industry attributes to create distinct market segments, have always been very important when marketing to SMBs. And now, they are not just important, but critical. Lastly, keep in mind that The Crusaders are going to lead the way. 

Brand: purpose driven experiences

“We are in this together” was a resounding theme throughout the early days of the pandemic, with communities pulling together to help its members and rallying behind the re-opening of their favorite small businesses. So, there seems to be this shift towards “shop small” and sense of purpose has become even more prominent. 

Even before the crisis, there was a growing feeling that shareholder value should not be the only business value in sharp focus. The idea of the “Triple Bottom Line” was coming into play, balancing profit with purpose and people. In our 2019 study of Millennial Small Business Owners, we found that brand purpose was one of the strongest drivers of brand affiliation. The reaction of big brands to COVID-19 was closely watched by many business owners, and it became apparent very quickly, who was purpose driven and whose promises fell on deaf ears. 

Purpose is not a CSR-only play or a task belonging to the corporate communications teams. Given the mindset reboot of many small business owners, you should align your marketing strategy with this amplified belief. “Do well by doing good” is not new as many brands were born under that moniker, but now is the time for you to embrace it. Think purpose driven experiences. It’s no longer about products or services alone, rather it’s all about how SBOs experience them. And if you can tie all your products and services into one ecosystem, you’ll remove the hassle and allow them to hustle. 

Content: digitization and WFH revolution; served with agility

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has caused a major consumer behaviour shift driven by the need for physical distance, health, and safety. And this has manifested itself in two major ways: e-commerce and digitization of business operations and virtual experiences. Similarly, the same needs created the WFH revolution. And both mean that digitization is no longer solely a nice to have. 

No matter what business you are in, help their digital transformation by reassessing your own. Make sure you redefine the customer journey because they will be buying, servicing, and experiencing differently now. Focus on how they buy, versus how you sell. And re-imagine digital experiences by creating more intimacy to facilitate conversation and drive trust. Digital transformation will be new to many of them, so make sure you support the process in bite sized chunks. 

Facilitate innovation by helping them move to new ways to work and get work done. In addition to tech tools for managing teams, SBOs will look for new ways of thinking, better approaches, and fresh perspectives on problems. You can play a big role in helping them with innovative ways to solve old, existing, or yet-to-be discovered challenges.

And of course, support the need for agility and efficiency - these are the name of the game. Small wins and shorter plays versus heavy, long campaigns. You need to stay close to these pivots and changes, and redesign the buyer journey accordingly. Don’t push them where you want them to be, rather meet them where they are.

Retention: advice rich, collaborative, partnering

When choosing brands to do business with, SBOs look for a partner, to help them through their journey. In our study, we found that 66% feel that their business model will change or evolve, through digitization of their sales channels, business operations, and innovation. And nearly 40% plan to launch a new product or service in the next six months. Their mindsets are fueled by the need for innovation, and they are about to kick-start The Great Re-invention era.

To strengthen the engagement, focus on delivering value and partner for growth by providing advice. They are looking for it and need a lot of it given all the shifts in their business models. And for some, this time may mean a complete re-start. Push valuable content. Build trust. And remember: “Talk to me, don’t sell to me” is more important now than ever. If you can be a true partner now, you won’t only have happy customers, but fans for life. 

SBOs. Entrepreneurs. The creators of the Next Normal, and the leaders of the Great Re-Invention. This is their time. They have done it before, and they will do it again. And this presents a tremendous opportunity for big brands that serve them. 

Author: Miki Velemirovich, President, Cargo

Tune into our next Marketing Connected LIVE session to hear Miki chat with our President & CEO about how transformative times require new, innovative, and re-imagined marketing approaches and strategies to find, engage, and motivate SBOs. 




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