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Big opportunities with small businesses

"We are men of action. Lies do not become us."

- Dread Pirate Roberts, The Princess Bride

Small business owners sometime seem like a big challenge to marketers. They can be difficult to target and easily dissuaded. Given the right opportunity, however, small business owners can also be timely and loyal customers.

Small business owners present a desirable and growing market to many businesses. According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), there are about 12 million small businesses in the United States and another 12 million "part-time" small businesses.

The vertical advantage
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One of the most common mistakes marketers make is targeting small business owners by the size of the business they operate. This too-broad approach rarely works because small business owners view themselves as very different from one another. Size isn't the most important factor in the mind of a small business owner. What works for a coffee shop with five employees isn't the same as what works for an accounting firm with five employees.

Industry-specific, vertical market, business-to-business media, and trade shows can be important strategies for selling to small business. A recent Harris Interactive study of how business owners use business media to make decisions found that business owners are more likely to remember products from ads in business publications. Fifty-seven percent of business owners said that an ad in a business-to-business publication has prompted them to buy. The study also showed that tradeshows can be used successfully to drive business owners to a sales person, an 800 number, or the web.

Vertical marketing improves the targeting of your ad, and it's essential when marketing to small business. Google, MSN, and Yahoo campaigns that include market-specific iterations of ads will be more effective in reaching small business owners as they browse the web.

The one-to-one challenge

Small business owners are generalists, juggling a wide array of tasks on a daily basis.

Small business owners depend on their vendors for expertise. They depend on their accountant for accounting information, their lawyer for legal guidance, and their suppliers for supply-related opinions. They value the one-to-one advice their vendors provide.

The challenge for marketers is to become an "approachable expert" for small business owners. When small business owners are online, they seek solutions to problems (or answers to questions) they already have in mind. Small business owners don't browse the web. They use it to find answers. Small business owners favor online destinations that help them answer specific questions.

Given the preference of small business owners for one-to-one communication, it's important for marketers to provide small business owners with the ability to talk with a human being if the information they are seeking isn't readily available.

Another aspect of a one-to-one relationship is pricing. Small business owners are used to using their relationship with sales reps to get great deals. It can be difficult to convince small business owners that the best price can be had online. This means you may want to offer promotions that encourage them to act.

When marketing to small business owners, consider the following:

Be Brief

Small business owners have little time. It's not that they have a short attention span, it's that they've got a long list of tasks in front of them at any given moment. Respect their time by getting to the point. Testimonials, charts, and graphs are more powerful than written words.

Show the Benefit

Don't tell a small business owner how your product or service works, explain the benefits that will be gained. Be as specific as possible. Tell them the number of hours that can be saved each week by using your service. Show them beneficial examples to companies similar to their own.

Save Time or Money

Small business owners typically have two things in limited supply: time and money. Show how your product or service addresses either of these. Ideally, it should address both of these. On the money side, focus on the ability to increase sales over incremental savings.

Be Sincere

Small business owners value their vendors as an integral part of their business. They want vendors they can view as trustworthy and reliable. They don't respond to platitudes, vague claims, or generalities. Footnotes, disclaimers, lengthy forms, asterisks, and fine print should be avoided whenever possible. Only promise what can be delivered.

Marketing to small business owners is challenging. It's also rewarding. Marketers have an opportunity to solve small- business problems and gain loyal lifetime customers that will actively refer your services to others in their network.

Troy Janisch is president and founder of the Icon Interactive Group (www.iconinteractive.com), an industry leader helping companies integrate Internet and other Interactive media into sales channels, marketing strategies, and overall branding. He can be contacted by e-mail at tjanisch@iconinteractive.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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