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Marketing to SMEs: are your tactics small business savvy?

SMEs provide a lucrative marketplace for B2B businesses, but they're an audience that's fragmented and wildly diverse. Emma Crofts presents three SME-targeting tips

For many seasoned marketers, the latest government report on the make-up of our UK business population contained no real surprises – as expected, all eyes are on the growth of the SME. Stats suggest that 99.3% of the 5.7 million private businesses on record in the UK are small businesses, with 99.9% of those being small to medium-sized SMEs.

Add to this the fact that the combined turnover of our UK SMEs is estimated to be around £1.9 trillion; accounting for more than half of all private business turnover in the UK, and it's little wonder that more B2B businesses than ever before are keen to access this lucrative marketplace.

However, while business opportunity from SMEs is clear, the all-important question remains: how do we reach them? The difficulty lies with finding the right way talk to an audience that is not only fragmented and wildly diverse but also quite simply doesn’t have the time to listen.

SMEs just don't have the time

For those who have never marketed to SMEs before, it quickly becomes clear that even the most successful corporate campaigns probably won’t cut the mustard when you’re dealing with smaller operations. A lot of it simply comes down to time: they don’t have any.

SMEs are less likely to have resources to dedicate to procurement of products or services and are therefore less likely to shop around or switch suppliers than their big-business counteparts.

In an SME, the decision-maker is likely to be much closer to the bottom line – so keen to shave the edge off costs – but the focus tends to be on ‘need’ rather than ‘want’ and, in most cases, addressing immediate business-critical needs will take precedence over giving time to strategic purchasing decisions. This can frustrate your efforts to reach them, no matter how good your marketing, unless you have something they need right now. It also makes cross-selling to existing customers much more of a challenge.

That’s not to say that the usual good marketing sense won’t apply when you start planning an SME campaign; it absolutely will. It just means that to get real value from your marketing investment, you need to revisit your strategy, adapt your tactics and get ‘small-business savvy’. Here are three top tips for doing just that:

1. Start by listening

The foundations of every good marketing plan are built of insight. This is no different when you start marketing to a new audience of SMEs: it’s time to get your ear to the ground.

Remember, if you’re planning primary research, think short and sweet - and offer a real incentive to the time-poor individuals who take the time to talk to you.

Alternatively, start with industry organisations such as Small Business Saturday and the FSB, who have a useful online presence and run regional events that may be worth attending. Their social media accounts can be a way to find small businesses in your target area, whose own accounts might be less active or less easy to identify.

The conversations taking place online and offline will help you to fill any gaps in your SME knowledge and find out about any interesting or disruptive events on the horizon. As with bigger businesses, SMEs will be affected by regulatory changes and new initiatives; unlike bigger businesses, SMEs may not have the time or expertise to stay informed or take appropriate action.

Get to know what's making SMEs vulnerable so that you can offer them protective solutions; get to know what opportunities are open to them so that you can offer them a way to maximise on those opportunities with minimum fuss.

2. Talk to them about them

Once you’ve done some active listening, it’s time to join the conversation. The trick here is to keep it all about them. Yes, you've created a wonderful product/service that’s exciting and innovative and better than the competition – but SMEs probably don’t care very much about that.

What they care about is survival in a competitive world, the continual need to evolve, and the constant pressure of balancing the budget. They're also likely to believe strongly in their own unique set of needs and may, therefore, be cynical of anything that seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach.

A service that purports to be ‘for all SMEs’ may actually fall short of the mark for many – after all, a business with less than 10 employees will operate very differently to one with 100 and a small business in London will have a different set of pain-points to one in the North of England.

Small businesses are going to want to know that you are flexible to their individual requirements and understanding of the pressures they face but are also going to need you to approach them with simple no-nonsense messages; it’s a balancing act. While it’s good to be emotive, it’s also essential to be clear, concise and focused on their needs.

TOP TIP: While budget stretch is always a consideration, SMEs often won’t simply choose the cheapest option. Our experience tells us that they also place value in ease of transaction, highly-rated customer service, reliability and product quality. While it may not be universally true, many will be more likely to choose the best they can afford than the cheapest they can get away with (79% of SMEs buy the best they can afford not the cheapest they can get away with, according to CEB Globa).

3. Stay visible

As mentioned above, SMEs are primarily concerned with their immediate needs. The success of your campaign will, therefore, often depend on timing. That’s perfect if your product or service applies to a need created, for example, by a change in legislation that SMEs need to act upon, or something that’s made a significant and recent impact on public consciousness - or if it just so happens to land at the moment an SME is looking for a new product/service provider just like you. However, if this isn’t the case, you’re going to need to achieve longer-term visibility and this is where your tactical approach can make all the difference.

Direct mail may sound like an outmoded approach, but where SMEs are concerned, it can still really pack a punch. Send them something that’s fast to read, eye-catching, and worth holding on to and they’ll be more likely to remember you than the 60 people whose emails they deleted that day. Want them to reply? Include a self-addressed, freepost, pre-filled postcard. (If you can keep your process simple, provide maximum reward for minimum effort and back it up with a seamless customer experience, you’ll be on to a winner)

Another way to make sure you’re the name SMEs think of when they need a product or service like yours is to become a ‘trusted expert’. There are many ways you could do this but perhaps think about speaking at regional small-business events on the issues that affect them, offering social media drop-in Q&A sessions, brand/industry partnerships, or providing an information and content-led website are just a few that come to mind. Try to be positively present in the lives of your target SMEs before they decide that they need your product. That way, you’ll be the first name they think of when they do.

Think Small: How to market to small businesses

In this marketing success pack, B2B Marketing and Earnest offer advice, opinion and first-hand experiences of targeting and engaging small businesses owners.

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