by Sean Donahue, Editor
Elizabeth Williams, Director, Business Verticals, Rogers Communications, admits that her team's approach to small-business marketing used to be lacking. The large telecom company simply divided their market into two sectors: Enterprise clients and consumers.
But this approach ignored the unique communications needs of smaller businesses, like retail stores, trucking companies, landscaping companies and consultants. In 2007, slowing growth in the enterprise and consumer market forced the company to take a closer look at these small companies.
Williams was tasked with developing a marketing strategy to attract businesses with fewer than 100 employees -- but in the "sweet spot" of 20 employees or fewer. In the process, she learned that reaching small businesses requires more than just a few changes to marketing copy.
"You really have to retool to serve the market," says Williams. "I think we underestimated what that looked like at the beginning."
After more than three years of trial-and-error, the team's efforts are paying off. Williams estimates the company's small-business customer base has grown 30%-40% since 2007. More importantly, she and her team have discovered several elements of successful small-business marketing.
We asked her to share her advice for other big-company marketers trying to attract small-businesses. Here are seven key lessons: Lesson #1. Create dedicated small-business sales and marketing teams
Small businesses present a dilemma for marketers, says Williams. In some ways, they act like consumers, but they expect to be treated like businesses.
This combination of attributes requires a unique focus from sales and marketing. Williams recommends creating dedicated teams that do nothing but serve small business:
- Williams' marketing team established a small-business unit to make sure they were targeting these companies properly. The small-business team also worked with the product management group to develop new offerings for small businesses (more on this project below).
- The team also created a dedicated call center for small business support. Previously, small businesses were required to call a consumer support line for assistance.
Instead, the team trained a special group of representatives, specifically to handle calls from small-business customers. They also gave the reps new scripts to follow when customers called in threatening to cancel service.
By addressing the typical concerns that cause small businesses to cancel accounts, such as billing problems or spotty service, the team has reduced its churn numbers 2%-3% a month for the past 18 months.
In fact, the ability to speak with a live customer service agent is now the centerpiece of the team's new small-business marketing campaign (see Creative Samples below).
"We're not doing 'price and device,' anymore, which is how we've always marketed to small businesses in the past," says Williams. Lesson #2. Create products specifically for small businesses
One of the most difficult tasks when retooling to serve small businesses is creating products for that market segment. Too often, Williams says, companies simply add a few bells and whistles to a consumer product, or strip features and functionality from enterprise products, and expect small businesses to buy.
Instead, her team worked with product development managers to convince them the small-business market needed its own line of products and service offerings. For example:
- In 2009 the company launched the first landline phone system specifically for small businesses.
- Williams' team convinced product managers to change pricing plans for small businesses, including flat-rate roaming for business owners that travel frequently.
"A lot of marketers think, 'Oh, small businesses are cheap -- they don't want to pay for anything.' That's not true at all," says Williams. "They will pay a premium for services, as long as they see the value of that service coming out of the back end." Lesson #3. Partner with other large companies
It can be hard for any single company to reach the vast array of small businesses in a meaningful, affordable way. And other corporations might have more relevance -- or more market share -- among small businesses than you do, says Williams.
That's why she recommends partnering with other large companies on small-business promotions. For example, Rogers helped create an organization called "The Committed to Growing Small Business Coalition" which includes other large companies such as HP, Staples, Citi, and Intuit:
- The group developed a speaking tour that featured business experts from sponsoring companies discussing key issues in small-business operations, such as finance, procurement and technology. Although the presentations were purely educational, a local sales representative from Rogers would attend each event and have the chance to speak with prospects about their communications needs.
- The group also hosts "conversations with corporations" -- a program that lets local small-business owners visit one of the sponsoring companies to ask top managers questions about important business topics.
"There's a huge hunger for education among small businesses," says Williams. "This is a chance for them to be face-to-face with trusted brands." Lesson #4. Contribute to small-business support organizations
Besides education, small businesses also are desperate for assistance developing business plans, assembling teams, or securing funding, says Williams.
For that reason, she recommends getting involved with the groups that help entrepreneurs start or grow their businesses, such as:
o Local chambers of commerce
o Business incubators
In exchange for funding these groups, the team often received speaking engagements or other ways to increase their visibility with their small-business constituents.
The company also created its own venture capital fund, Rogers Ventures, to directly fund high-tech startups. Lesson #5. Develop local, grass-roots marketing programs
Most small businesses think of themselves as "local" businesses, and want to work with other local organizations, says Williams. So it's essential for a large company to stress its local connections in each region.
One way to do this is through grassroots marketing initiatives tailored to the specific interests of the small businesses in each market.
For example, Williams' team identified regions of Canada in which they hadn't seen much traction with the small-business community. They developed unique local events to reach out to business owners in these areas:
- In St. Johns, Newfoundland, they appealed to the region's love of music by hosting a party for small-business owners at a local bar. They hired a popular local band, provided free food and drink, and got several hundred local business owners to attend.
"People said, 'Wow, no other company has ever done this...' so we connected. We have credibility," says Williams. "We're going to do it again next year."
- By contrast, the teams' effort in Ottawa was more staid: They sponsored a small-business education program for recent immigrants that was created by the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation. Lesson #6. Publicly recognize small businesses
Making a highly visible connection between your brand and the small-business community can also build credibility with this market segment.
Williams' team played off their company's entrepreneurial roots (founder Ted Rogers built his giant company from a small radio station/cable operator) to create an annual award program to honor innovative businesses that have fewer than 20 employees. The "Innovations@Work" program names three winners a year, which are then profiled in the national business magazine, Profit
"They get a write-up in a magazine read by 100,000 people, and afterwards I've had winners call me to say 'You've transformed my business,'" says Williams. Lesson #7. Buy from small businesses
"The ticket to success for many small businesses is just one big, corporate customer," says Williams. "If they can just get in the door with a company like Rogers, they'll succeed."
Unfortunately, most large corporate procurement systems make it almost impossible for smaller companies to become vendors. Yet giving such businesses a chance to sell to your brand is another way to turn them into customers.
Williams and her team are continuing to push their offices to do more business with small, local companies, but she admits that it's a significant challenge. Changing corporate procurement rules, like developing new products or creating new marketing teams, doesn't happen overnight.
But these long-term, organizational changes are required to make significant inroads with small companies, says Williams.
"A big business that's truly serious about cracking the small-business market needs to take a very hard look at how they work themselves."Useful links related to this articleCreative Samples from Rogers' small-business marketing efforts
Members Library -- How to Market to Small-Medium Businesses -- Follow These Five Lessons from Proven Campaigns
Members Library -- Marketing to SMBs, Part II: New Data on What They Want NowRogers VenturesThe Committed to Growing Small Business CoalitionInnovations@WorkRogers Communications