Marketing Technology and the Future of Small Business

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Do you agree with the following statement?

Marketing is becoming more technical.

How about this one?

Small businesses are not very good at technology.

If you agree with those statements, then it follows that:

Small businesses are becoming not very good at marketing.

If you like having thriving local businesses in your community, it’s kind of a scary thing to consider. Peter Drucker famously said, “the business enterprise has two—and only these two—basic functions: marketing and innovation.” If a business fails at marketing, it fails at one of its primary functions.

Admittedly, I started with a couple of pretty broad generalizations. Let’s pick them apart and see if we can find some nuance.

Is All Marketing Becoming Technical?

I think it’s beyond argument that marketing is relying more and more on technology, especially software. But, does that mean that ALL marketing necessarily HAS to be technical? No. When people think of small businesses in their community, the corner store or dry cleaners often come to mind. These businesses usually rely on location and visibility to sell necessary commodities, so not being up to speed on the latest in online marketing probably won’t prevent them from attracting customers. But, that doesn’t mean that they can’t use tech to better serve their customers. This recent (very oversimplified) IBM commercial comes to mind:

But what about retailers that compete with online giants, or service businesses? This is where technology becomes essential. If you’re a retailer who wants to compete on price, you’re going to need a way to monitor your competitors and adjust pricing on the fly. If you’re selling expertise, or a relationship, you need a way to establish trust, and you need to manage the channels your customers use to research you. Knowing how to run your web site, do basic SEO, manage social media, and track progress with web analytics become pretty important. It’s not something that can be blindly outsourced, because you at least need to know enough to manage your vendors.

So the first proposition, that marketing becoming technical, is largely true. Certain businesses can engage their customers with minimal tech (though maybe not as well), but many can’t.

Are Small Businesses Bad at Technology?

By and large, yes. For example, Google estimates that less than half of small businesses in the US have a website.

marketing technology small business web site stats

My graph, data from www.gybo.com.

A majority of the ENTIRE INTERNET doesn’t even use a CMS (content management system). So, most small business owners are neglecting the web, and the ones who do use it are unlikely to be using a flexible, scalable, platform.

marketing technology cms market share

My graph, data from www.w3techs.com.

If you need more proof, here are some statistics demonstrating how digital tactics still lag more old-school approaches.

Small Business Marketing Technology: Haves & Have-Nots

Where does this leave us? While marketing will never be completely technical, a lack of technical skills will increasingly be a liability, if not a fatal flaw, for small business. And many small businesses are still pretty behind on the IT curve. In general, small businesses are getting worse at marketing. But, all is not lost.

Believe it or not, the playing field is actually becoming more level for businesses that are willing to learn to play the game. Two trends allow businesses who choose to engage with technology to act a lot like their larger competitors, while leaving those who do nothing in the dust.

Better Software

For many small business owners, “SEO” is a very technical concept. That’s because “consultants” trying to sell them services scare them by dropping terms like “title tags” and “XML sitemap.” How about this instead? Sign up for SEOMoz, read their beginner’s guide, and install an SEO plugin (e.g. Yoast for WordPress) on your CMS. Anyone can pick low-hanging SEO fruit like this; you can hire the expensive consultant later, and you’ll actually know how to work with them.

There are similar options for CRM (Zoho) marketing automation (Hubspot) and other important functions. These affordable, web-based, consumer-oriented applications give small businesses capabilities that were limited to huge companies only a few years ago.

Social Media

mosh posh facebookWe’ve all heard keynote speakers, talking heads and our moms go on about how social media is changing how companies interact with customers. But while big companies will always struggle to feel authentic and earn incremental sales, small businesses are much better suited to individual interactions and the impact can be (relatively) much larger.

I’m a big fan of what Mosh Posh Designer Consigner did to grow their business. From a small storefront in Tampa, they established themselves as the “The World’s Most Liked Consignment Store” on Facebook (over 78k and counting) by finding great products, posting them on their Facebook page and fulfilling orders manually over the phone. They’ve grown into a full ecommerce operation, but the pic on the right (click to enlarge) is a typical exchange from 2011, when they were still getting started.

After using Facebook to build an audience and prove their concept with some initial sales, I bet it was a lot easier to justify investing in an ecommerce platform. And if it hadn’t worked out, so what? They risked little capital and could have easily pivoted to a new strategy. Ten years ago, Mosh Posh would have either had to set their sights lower or maybe go through the hassle of managing dozens of eBay listings. Not anymore.

How Small Business Owners Can Embrace Marketing Technology Right Now

Marketing technology is a rabbit hole, but it’s an awesome one with a ton of upside. Throw yourself in by asking a few simple questions about your business.

Do I have a website?

If not, get one.

Is my website on any kind of platform?

It’s critical to build your website with a strong CMS. Popular CMSs like WordPress, Drupal and even Tumblr make it easy to update content, even if you’re non-technical. They also have existing integrations with other pieces of the web (social media, analytics, etc.) so you don’t have to build them yourself.

What information am I collecting on my customers, and where does that data live?

Maybe you’ve got a web form on your site that users fill out, analytics software collecting data about your traffic, or even salespeople manually entering customer information into a CRM system like Salesforce. Try to take an inventory of the individual  (e.g. Salesforce records) and aggregate (e.g. Google Analytics) data you have, and figure out where it’s all being stored.

How am I acting on my data? How could this be improved?

If you’re copying data from an Excel contact list and sending an email via Outlook, you’re doing email marketing. You might think about using dedicated software like ExactTarget or MailChimp to make things easier. You may have Google Analytics data, but do you know how to use it to make your site better? If not, go read Avinash Kaushik’s blog and buy his books.

Things would be SO MUCH EASIER if…

Are there any pieces of information about your customers that you wish you had? What about connections among the information you’re already collecting? Here are two examples from my own experience:

  1. A real-time feed of data from our CRM tool to our email marketing software so that we didn’t have to manually load Excel files every day, and so we could trigger communications in real-time
  2. Pulling campaign tags from Google Analytics into our CRM tool, so that we could tie campaign interactions to individual customers

Got a few ideas now? Great. Now you’ve got learning to do. Check out this graphic from ChiefMarTec.com for a list of tools that might help. Google aggressively. Follow experts on Twitter. The marketing technology universe is just past its Big Bang and is expanding fast. You don’t need to understand the whole thing, but small businesses who engage with it are the ones who will win. Have at it.

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