"All of my small business problems would be solved if only I had a $350 designer ink pen or $500 bottle of alcohol," said no entrepreneur ever.
As the founders of ZinePak, a successful entertainment startup that makes custom collectibles for celebrities and brands, we've found ourselves on the receiving end of a lot of attention from corporate marketing executives in the past year. These big companies are almost always trying to position themselves as "startup friendly," "focused on small businesses," et cetera.
We've been asked to speak on at least a dozen panels, meet one-on-one with corporate marketing executives and their agencies, and complete endless surveys, all designed to help demystify what our illusive species, known as small business owners, actually craves.
Without fail, at some point during each of these meetings there is a point when confused looks spread across the faces of everyone in the room. "This sounds too simple to be true," they often say. "Plus, it's at odds with our current marketing campaigns." That's usually the point when someone from the brand's agency will shift in his or her seat, and point out some kind of yearlong "small business marketing research" study they commissioned at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As a subset of a subset of a subset--young, female co-founders running a multi-million dollar entertainment company with no VC money or advisory board--we've been jokingly referred to as "white unicorns" by these corporate marketing types, who sometimes suggest that we just fall outside the lines of what small-business owners (SBOs) nationwide are looking for. While we've been fortunate enough to be successful early, the core principles we use to run our company are no different than most small-business owners across the country. So, what should brands looking to market to small businesses know?
• Small business owners thrive on efficiency. Make things easier for us, not harder. Every hour matters to an entrepreneur, whether it's an hour of the owner's time or an employee's time. If it isn't simple to work with your company, we'll find another alternative.
• The second most valuable resource after time, not surprisingly, is money. While a 10% or 15% discount might not sound like much to someone used to a corporate expense account, every dollar matters to small business owners.
• Small business owners want access to the same resources as large corporations. Don't employ the SBO version of the old-school "pink it and shrink it" marketing faux pas. We don't want a smaller, cuter version of the benefits you advertise to corporate clients. Make the offers as similar as possible.
And the biggest change we would like to see in 2014? Stop making extravagant, useless promotional items with your brand on them. Please. We're savvy enough to know that many of these premiums were produced because your company has a "use it or lose it" policy for marketing dollars, and if you couldn't spend that last $50,000 before the end of the year, it wouldn't be in the budget next year. Guess what? For a small business, $50,000 means the different between creating another job and not creating another job. For some, it could be the difference in going out of business or not going out of business. So, even if $50,000 is one-hundredth of your marketing budget, seeing it being recklessly allocated to, say, a $400 cashmere blanket with your logo on it that has absolutely no value to a small business owner, can have the opposite effect you were going for. We don't think: "Gee, this business really understands me and my needs. I want to use their services for my company!" Instead, we think: "What could the moron brand manager and ridiculous agency behind this have been thinking? If my business had 1% of their advertising budget to run our entire company, we could be 75 times more productive, because we wouldn't blow it on things like this. How insulting."
How can you effectively market to small- business owners, help them, and help yourself at the same time? HINT: it's not another gift bag filled with $175 boxes of chocolate or a $300-a-plate "networking lunch" with other entrepreneurs. Here are some things that can move the needle:
Hire small businesses as vendors.
We know you're paying your agencies tens of thousands of dollars a year (or more!) on retainer to market to us. How about shifting some of that budget to support the small companies you're trying to reach? No matter what you're looking for, whether it's a caterer for an event or a company to help launch a communication satellite, there is an amazing small business somewhere that fits the bill. Do the extra research. Find a small business to align with, and be sure to call them out on the event collateral.
Feature small business owners in your ads or on your website.
Small business owners (and most Americans, for that matter) like reading success stories. Instead of hiring actors to tout the benefits of your products, spotlight small businesses using your brand. Dozens of companies, including Intuit and Chase, are currently featuring small businesses in their national ad campaigns that have received rave reviews.
Give small businesses a discount on your products or services.
Few things are more infuriating to a small-business owner than expensive, elaborate direct mail campaigns promoting business services that are sent without any kind of context or true offer. Don't spend $15 per unit on some fancy tchotchke and send it to via FedEx First Overnight to promote something with no discount. Instead, send a postcard or an email promoting the service, and utilize the cost savings the offer a discount.
If you simply must send the $350 designer pen, at least send it FedEx Ground. And considering there are two of us, and we work right next to each other, save yourself the time and money by sending it in the same box. This small-business duo will certainly appreciate your effort to relate to our reality!