Back to insights

The four secrets to successful small business marketing

By Simon McEvoy

Head of Strategy Simon McEvoy reveals the four secrets you need to know for successfully marketing to small and medium sized businesses.

SMEs represent a lucrative B2B audience, especially for SaaS-type subscription businesses. But they can also be notoriously hard to segment, market to and convert. Whilst most complex B2B offerings rely heavily on sales teams to nurture a sale to completion, the sheer size and low value of SME audiences make this impractical, so superb marketing is needed to step in and do the job.

What we have typically found is that within this segment the goals, needs and pain points can vary wildly – SME is a single term that hides a multitude of business challenges. For example, the needs of a lifestyle micro-business with 4 employees is vastly different to a medium sized company with 100 employees, investors and a specialist management team. This means that finding any ‘one size fits all’ approach to creating effective campaigns for SMEs is impossible.

However, through our work in this space we have some learnings which are key things to remember when targeting SMEs. We’ve collected these below, along with some examples.

1: Always start with customer insight

Great insight is the cornerstone of any effective marketing campaign, but nowhere is this more true than amongst small businesses. Many campaigns fall flat because assumptions are made about what’s important to the audience, what the pain points really are and what language SME owners or managers use. For example, when we started working with an SME focused telecoms brand they were referring to their product as ‘Unified Cloud Communications’, a phrase that we quickly discovered not a single SME owner used or understood! This was putting buyers off before they’d even seen the product or explored the features.

Our qualitative workshops with this audience further demonstrated the value of in-depth insight work. The product had a smart feature that allowed one phone number to be routed to a number of phones simultaneously – landlines, mobiles, even overseas numbers. We pitched this idea to the group and one member said, ‘so I can look like someone is always in the office, even if we’re out visiting clients? My customers will think I’ve got a huge team!’ So that became the way we spoke about that feature – benefits first, not features.

2: Speak the right language

SMEs are often tricky audiences to calibrate language to, as they can have huge understanding gaps in some areas, and yet by highly specialised and technical in others. For example, a small accounting firm might find jargon hard to understand when buying SEO services, yet be looking for specific technical language when buying accounting software.

Further to this, different buyer personas can often have very different messaging needs. We worked with an SEO platform to develop their brand messaging, and had to have completely different messaging for the different audiences. Non-technical for CEOs / CMOs, vs highly technical for product managers / IT managers. Messaging can be segmented using things like specific areas of the corporate website, developer programmes and invite only events. We were only able to identify these differences through careful insight work, and working closely with our client.

3: Invest in strong partner programmes

Successful SME leaders realise that they are only as strong as the experts and consultants they surround themselves with, particularly in areas like finance, IT or the law. It’s vital for brands selling to small businesses to consider advisor / consultant personas and remember that the person making the purchase may be heavily influenced by a third party. In 2018, Xero claimed that in Australia and New Zealand (their most developed markets) 90% of their sales came attached to a referral from a third party! An effective partner programme has been a core part of their growth strategy.

The four secrets to successful small business marketing

Strong partner programmes combine rewards and incentives with training and advice for product users. Partners can be a valuable source of insight when developing new products. Equally, partners can benefit from the strong brand and advertising of their chosen brand. For Xero, they also use their annual conference Xerocon as a way of growing their partner network.

4: Nurture using content

Nurture programmes are vital for SMEs where sales teams cannot reach large volumes of customers; yet products are often complex and hard to buy, with subtle differences between competitors. So content needs to do the job of sales. When selling to SMBs we build detailed content relevancy maps for our clients, mapped against the buying journey, to help nurture prospects from unaware to loyal customers.

A good example of CX mapping is the work we carried out with financial data company Refinitiv as part of their global website development project. We spent time carrying out qualitative and quantitative research to understand customer challenges, pain points, moments of impact and brand touchpoints. By identifying the gaps in the buying journey, we could begin to see what content could do to help close some of those gaps, particularly for lower value customers where a sales-person wouldn’t have been appropriate.

This mapping of content is a process we called ‘content relevancy mapping’, which we also carried out for the aforementioned telecoms brand as part of their ecommerce experience development. Having identified different personas and their contribution to the sales process, we could see that IT managers would need very different content to owner / founders when buying cloud telephony systems. For example, we developed jargon-free buying guides for SME founder / owners that could form the basis of an online diagnostic, whilst producing more detailed technical specifications and integrations documents for IT managers.

This process also forces you to think about the entire buying and owning experience, which is extremely important in subscription markets with short contract terms. In theory customers can leave with little notice, so continuing to add value from the moment someone signs up for a trial is vital – conversion doesn’t end with the start of a trial, it only begins there. Adding value can include high-quality utility content, like how-to guides and tutorials, as well as broader business support, online communities and events.

These are only the start of the tactics that can be used when marketing to a small business audience. The specific needs, wants and goals of your customers will always throw up new challenges and opportunities. Our philosophy is always to take small steps toward big results – making the small moves that allow us to test, learn and optimise toward outstanding campaign performance.

We are the digital experience company for business brands.

In today’s connected world, experience is brand.

So we help you create better experiences for your customers, employees, partners and stakeholders. Ones that work in empathy with them to achieve their goals, engage and delight them, and build brand loyalty.