Column by VerticalResponse CEO/Founder Janine Popick, Inc.com "Basement to Boardroom" April 2, 2012
It's usually assumed that when it comes to marketing, small businesses can always learn from their larger counterparts, right? Chances are, the big guys have survived their fair share of marketing campaigns, whether good, bad or downright ugly. Factor in an ample marketing budget and a well-paid marketing team and they're probably light years ahead of smaller businesses. But is that really the case? I beg to differ.
Corporations tend to keep a closer eye on their bottom line, which means they're far less likely to take risks or test out new ideas. Conversely, the folks in charge could also decide to gobble up every last penny in the budget knowing if they don't use it now, it might not be there next year. But what if those dollars came out of their own checking accounts? They'd certainly think twice before spending it now, wouldn't they?
Most small business owners experience pangs of guilt after opening up their pocketbooks. I know I did when I first launched my e-mail marketing company, VerticalResponse. It seemed like every dollar spent on advertising was one less dollar going toward buying new supplies or technology, hiring employees or even clearing their paychecks. It's a pretty tough pill to swallow. Because every dollar is so important, small businesses want to see results for everything they spend, and they want to see them quick.
That's why small businesses must be super creative when it comes to acquiring customers. Here are some things that I think small businesses are doing good that larger companies might learn a thing or two from.
Remember the days of good ol'-fashioned face-to-face networking? Ever see anyone from a huge corporation at a local Chamber of Commerce function? Small business owners frequent these gatherings and network like there's no tomorrow, because a lot times this is their only opportunity to get out of their store or office to meet like-minded people. The San Francisco Chamber, for example, holds after-hours events where local business owners meet, exchange ideas, establish leads and stay in touch however they can. Bigger companies should follow suit by designating community coordinators who can get to know owners by name and attach real, human and hopefully smilling faces to corporate logos.
Small businesses excel at building genuine connections, engaging existing customers and leveraging their networks to secure new prospects. Take San Francisco-based pet boarding facility Pet Camp. They keep in touch with e-mail marketing and include lots of easy-to-share content. They take photos of their campers and post them to their Facebook page (often with hilarious captions), so proud moms and dads can check in on their four-legged family member while away. Of course, larger companies do encourage social media participation - as long as employees follow their gazillion-page social media rulebook. Now I'm not saying social media should be a free-for-all, but companies of all sizes can benefit from having a personality and some flexibility when it comes to social media.
In order to set themselves apart from competitors, "mom-and-pop" operations realize a few extra touches make all the difference in the world. I once bought a pair of shoes from a seller on eBay. The package not only arrived in pristine condition, but came with a free shoehorn, leather protection and hand cream. Talk about making the most of your packaging real estate. When was the last time you were treated to a freebie by Amazon?
Small businesses do a great job at showing what happens behind the scenes, which helps establish a stronger and more genuine connection with customers. Sonoma, Calif.-based winery Longboard Vineyards encourages readers to learn about Oded the owner, his passion for wine-making and his loyal Longboardians while browsing photos of the lush grounds and their trips to Costa Rica and San Diego. What an great way to immerse people in the company culture.
Many entrepreneurs start their own businesses for the chance to do what they truly enjoy, not to make it to the top of the corporate ladder. Customers sense this the moment they enter their stores or visit their websites. Vermont's Magic Hat Brew Company injects fun into everything they do, whether it's telling folks about upcoming events or where to buy beer. My own company once shot a rap video to increase awareness of what we do and years later, it's still getting views.
I challenge big businesses to lighten up, get creative and take a few cues from small business owners. Urge your CMOs to pretend they're spending their own money and you'll be surprised at what they come up with to battle the competition and the "little guys." But watch out, we're sure to put up a fight!