The small business marketplace is very much like the consumer marketplace. It's so vast as to be overwhelming. Companies that succeed have found their most powerful marketing campaigns are those that target a specific segment of the market and speak directly to its needs.
One of the fastest growing segments of the small business marketplace are independent professionals. They describe themselves as consultants, freelancers, moonlighters or hired guns. They purchase hundreds of millions of dollars worth of computing, office supply, telephony, insurance and other SOHO-related products each year.
Todd Lappin, Guru.com's Director of Content since July '99 is one of the foremost experts in how to craft a message that truly resonates with this particular segment of the small business market. We contacted him to find out how marketers can be more successful in this space.
Q: How are independent professionals different from the rest of the small business marketplace?
Lappin: From a marketing standpoint, historically they've been lumped in with small business or SOHO. Those labels are completely inappropriate and counterproductive when you're figuring out how to talk to them.
It's because there's a big difference between saying you want to be in the business of marketing your skills independently, and saying you want to be A Business. Those two don't have a thing to do with each other.
In fact gurus are small businesspeople who are in complete denial about being in business at all!
They don't call themselves entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur is somebody who wants to build a business -- who has some fantasy of having a little empire for themselves. Gurus are totally in it for lifestyle reasons. That is the thing you have to understand, or you'll miss the boat entirely.
Q: What works and what doesn't when it comes to appealing to this marketplace?
Lappin: Marketers are constantly trying to appeal to these gurus as small businesses, and this totally turns them off. They hate messages like, "Make extra income in your spare time" or "Here's how to grow your business" because the business part is the part they don't like.
Gurus are very practical. They understand they are in business obviously, but that's not really what turns them on. They have three core values you must appeal to:
1) Freedom -- the freedom to choose your own destiny, to allow your passion to be expressed in your work.
2) Balance -- striking a comfortable balance between work and life.
3) Control -- I don't want my fate to be tied to the fate of some corporation. I want to work on my own terms and be able to make as many of my own decisions as possible.
Q: How did you get so close to this marketplace?
Lappin: I've talked to hundreds over the past year. I write the Guru.com newsletter so my personal email address goes out to almost 200,000 people in every one. I get a lot of feedback!
Plus we've done plenty of offline events all around the country in a bunch of major cities -- LA, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Seattle, Washington DC.
Q: Wow, what did you learn from meeting these people in person?
Lappin: Gurus tend to be extremely unpretentious, laid back people. A lot of 'characters.' They network naturally because they live or die by that, because historically they had to get by on word-of-mouth.
I've never heard anybody say they do it for the money! They say, "I love my work, I'm more passionate, and guess what? I also make more money." That's as opposed to, "I want to make more money." That's what a small businessperson would say.
Gurus strike a better balance between who they are and what they do for a living. It's a coincidence that you tend to make more money because you do better work.
They are also really comfortable with uncertainty. They are risk takers. In that sense you can say they are entrepreneurial.
Q: How are the independent professionals you call gurus different from the SOHO marketplace?
Lappin: It's the same population ostensibly. It's become a marketing term associated with people who need staplers and personal printers. The term has blurred the line between a business and the spiritual aspirations of an independent professional. So it hasn't done anybody much good in terms of connecting with that audience.
Q: What marketing message works to reach independent professionals?
Lappin: Guru.com did a print magazine campaign that emphasized people working at home, but they were maybe sitting around the coffee table, or talking on the phone while standing on the back porch. The response we got was overwhelming! It wasn't "I completed my presentation because of this bubblejet printer." That's a reality, but not the part of their lives they really identify with.
So if you want to reach them, you need to connect to the three core values. The printer will help you with the presentation and that sets you free. If you can take it one step further, it gets you somewhere. The presentation is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.
Q: What are the demographics of this audience?
Lappin: Men and women in their 30s-40s, but there's outliers. They tend to congregate in three broad areas -
1) Tech, IT and Web
2) Creative industries like marketing
3) Business consulting
So metaphorically it's the geeks, the black turtlenecks and the button down oxfords.
However there's a great degree of horizontal consistency. They might not dress the same but they are the same. There's an incredible amount of consistency of point-of-view and aspirations ... what's success and what life's supposed to be about. Freelance marketers, java programmers and business consultants are coming to realize that they have more in common each other than they do with their counterparts in a corporate gig.
So, you have an audience that's never been spoken to in the way they like to be spoken to before. When you connect with them it's overwhelming!
We do a thing called Guru Haiku. We encourage gurus to write haikus about their lives. It's staggeringly revealing about what these people are thinking about all day. It's told us an awful lot.
I don't think it makes much difference where the people are from or what they do for a living. In those poems they say I love my freedom, and I'm a little worried about where the next paycheck is coming from. They write a lot about their pets. "The cat's sitting on the keyboard" or, "the dog is my only officemate." They also talk about how much happier they are.So, there's incredible consistency regardless of geography or profession. The only difference is the geeks also do technology haiku.
Q: What sorts of companies should be targeting this marketplace specifically?
Lappin: Domain name registrars, health insurance, getting paid means collections services sometimes, personal technology, online access. You could also move pretty seamlessly into lifestyle-orientated stuff like clothing (although they lead Gap lifestyles and they're anti-fashion people in some ways.) Travel services would do well -- I imagine they do three-day weekend trips a lot.
When you get a feel for the lifestyle aspect of their approach to work, you begin to understand what services these folks need most and how to connect with them. Just remember, it has absolutely nothing to do with entrepreneurship or small business!
Small business is the last thing these people want to hear about.