Back to Gartner for Marketers Blog

Marketing to Small Business Owners During (and After) COVID 19

By Kristina LaRocca-Cerrone | April 06, 2020 | 1 Comment

MarketingContent MarketingContent Marketingdigital marketingMarketing, Consumer, and B2B Insights

Small business owners have been enormously adversely affected by COVID 19: many have been forced to shut their doors, to furlough or lay off employees, and even with the introduction of recent government support and loan programs, many small and mid-sized businesses may not survive the crisis.

If your organization sells products or solutions to the small business market, your marketing team is likely struggling to identify just how to speak to owners during this sensitive time. We know we don’t want to be too commercial, or appear insensitive – but just how do we support small business owners credibly, effectively, and without being lost in a sea of similar content from other suppliers?

Marketers need to:

  1. Create content with the small business owner values, pain points, and motivations in mind that…
  2. Prescriptively helps owners with specific business or business continuity tasks.

Small Business Pain Points In Times of Disruption

When the economy is strong, as in recent years, small business owners articulate competition with other businesses, large and small as their most pressing pain point. However, when the economy is poor, as you can see in the chart below, owners tend to describe poor sales as their biggest issue.

Competition is outward looking, while poor sales is inherently inward-looking. When owners articulate poor sales as a pain point, they’re thinking about how to keep the lights on, and make it through the next pay period or to the end of the year.

Top Owner Pain Points

“What is the single most important problem facing your business today?”
Percentage of owners

n=772 N.A. (March 2019), 1,321 N.A. (July 2017); 1,222 N.A. (July 2015); 1,087 N.A. (July 2013); 1,099 N.A. (July 2011); 1228 N.A. (July 2009)

Source: Gartner

Today’s owners aren’t looking to innovate. They’re unlikely to be investing in their business. They don’t want to stay ahead, they just want to stay. Content that helps owners focus on necessities: what to do today, this week, this month to ensure business survival, is going to be more resonant than forward-looking content.

Our primary research also tells us owners struggle business management and strategy. Even in the best of times, owners are too busy to spend much time “on the business” vs. “in the business”.  Suppliers can help by , at minimum, not taking up too much of owner time with unnecessary messages and updates. Keep your messages straighforward, make sure your asks are minimal, make it easy for owners to perform any business management or operations management tasks they may need to do with you, quickly, and resist the urge to send out messages that don’t offer any substance beyond “we’re here for you” or “we know this is a difficult time”.

We should also remember that, while looking back at 2008 is helpful in some ways, today’s crisis is not the same. We are not dealing with a breakdown of the institutions at the same level. And the generational makeup of the owner market has changed: many of today’s Millennial owners may not have even been doing business in 2008. Millennials bring a more growth-oriented mindset to running their business. This may mean that as things return to normal, the owner segment moves back to a growth phase faster than during the last recession – that they begin investing and innovating in their businesses more quickly. While we might pause our commercial-focused messaging for now, we may need to prepare to turn it back on quickly as the shutdown ends.

Creating Content Small Business Owners Value

So, let’s talk about what kind of content you should be building. Given how many things owners have to tackle right now, and how many unprecedented challenges they may be facing, providing owners with access to other owners, creating space, whether on social media channels, in webinars, or in hosted peer forums, that allow owners to learn from one another is a valuable approach, especially since owners typically have limited access to peer benchmarks or case studies. If you go this route: remember to scale your content. A webinar to 20 owners may be helpful to those 20, but don’t miss the opportunity to develop new content from that webinar, to post the replay, to disseminate highlights, across your customer base.

But you might also create new content, not sourced from other customers. In our B2B focused research, we’ve learned that in ambiguous times, customers value content that helps them both make sense of what’s happening around them, and know what to do next in response. But you still need to be targeted. Helping an owner assess the impact of COVID on their business, helping them identify potential scenarios and create response plans, those are useful themes. But don’t stop at the level of generically “useful” content. You’re not the only vendor out there reaching out to a small business owner offering to help them. In order to be truly valuable, content (even non-commercial content) needs to tie back to what you sell.

That means examining the myriad implications of COVID on different facets of a small business’ operations, until you find an altitude of people, technology, or processes where you can credibly assert expertise. For example, let’s take a telecommunications company.

A major teleco could provide helpful content to an owner on scenario planning in case their business is shut down for the rest of the year, sure – and so could every blogger found on Google (although perhaps with varying degrees of efficacy). What might be more impactful is helping a small business owner identify essential changes in their telco usage to make right now for the next couple of weeks to optimize their costs or enable WFH. But it might also mean creating a roadmap of what they should start using in terms of devices, platforms, technology today – that’s easily accessible, available online or in freemium format – along with an assessment that helps owners prioritise additional platforms or technology to introduce if their business needs to be run remotely for longer than expected. Or content that helps owners understand what kinds of internal processes to build and introduce to enable a mobile workforce. It could eventually mean a product recommender that helps them select the right company-provided device for key employees or templates for guidelines and agreements for issuing such devices.

The point is that there are all kinds of scenarios owners need to prepare for, all kinds of impacts COVID will have on their business. You don’t win by talking about the same high-level topics as everyone else trying to capture a very limited, frazzled mindshare. You win by focusing your content on the places where you, as a supplier, have unique and credible advice to provide, because you’re drawing on your own expertise in how customers buy and use your solution successfully, what preconditions of success need to be in place in order for your solutions to be used successfully, and what your solution enables your customers to do or accomplish.

A Final Note

Marketing is in overdrive right now, and you may feel like you’re running from one thing to the next with hardly a moment to take a breath. But there has never been a more important time for a test-and-learn approach to content, especially small business content, as customer sentiment is changing rapidly, and new COVID impacts are unfolding every day. You will need to iterate as you learn from customer feedback, and you should prepare your team for taking a faster turnaround approach to content development. Leverage social channels for testing where you can, run A/B tests on subject lines and phrasing where you can, consider short, open-ended customer polls to help ensure you’re not over-indexing on COVID content. At the very least, stay in line with brand values, stay consistent in your messaging, and listen to your customers.

***

If you want to speak with us about marketing to small business owners, or you want to learn more about what other brands are doing to iterate on their content during turbulent times, schedule an Inquiry with us!

 

Leave a Comment

1 Comment

  • It was easy to predict that Work from Home, or Shelter in Place, or however it was described in your locale, would result in a massive increase in digital communications.

    So many brands you never even knew you had engaged with suddenly panicked and emailed just for the sake of trying to win your attention – it made it harder for all marketers to be seen by the target market.

    As economies open up again, however, we’re finding that owners are engaging with direct appeals that are laser focused on their business situations. So we have adapted our communication to target fewer, but with a higher degree of personalisation, with good results.