My SMB lightbulb moment

Why every marketer’s first job is to get rid of “not for me”

I’ve just finished a B2B positioning and content strategy project with a great client. Their SaaS product is pretty cool: it helps small and medium-sized manufacturers digitally track their production and collect data on everything they do. While I was working on it, I realised a very basic thing. So basic, in fact, that it looks incredibly dumb when I write it down. But it ended up being one of the key insights for our messaging.

It’s this:

If your product is for SMBs, you should say so loud and clear.

I told you it was basic. But: this dumb fact is really important. And the reason, I think, is that most small and medium businesses (SMBs) suffer from some kind of impostor syndrome. Or a business-world version of it. I’ll try to explain:

  1. Most SMBs think they’re too small to buy any of the tech that’s on the market. Because it’s not made for them, and likely too expensive.
  2. They think they’re not sophisticated enough to use it. Both in terms of digital maturity (especially in manufacturing, where a *lot* of stuff is still done by hand, on paper) and team resources (they don’t have IT departments, or IT procurement expertise. Someone in the business will make IT their job – in addition to the day job).
  3. They think they’re, well, special. A lot of SMBs have grown organically, figured things out themselves, learned along the way, made it work. They haven’t arrived at best practice. They’ve found a practice that works best for them. That creates a half-apologetic, half-proud sentiment: “we don’t now how we did it, but it seems to be working. We do things differently here and our processes are unique.” That means they’ll be wary of SaaS-y tech that’s not highly customised to them. “It can’t possibly work for us, can it?”
  4. They’re worried about the disruption it’ll cause. The thought of implementing new tech and teaching workers to use it causes them ulcers. Because if you break the process, it could take ages to put it back together. And that might well jeopardise their business.

All of these cause SMBs to believe that if they did buy a piece of tech, they’d probably be mis-sold an expensive solution, considered a minor customer by the vendor, be neglected by their customer service, and have to figure it all out themselves.

SMBs didn’t just make this up

I hate to say it, but they may not be wrong. According to the World Economic Forum, tech vendors are less willing to invest in development for smaller firms. It seems that for tech companies that are going after the enterprise market – which *disclaimer* I work with most of the time – SMB can be a bit of a dirty word. For them, visions are where it’s at.

Enterprise marketing loves a vision. Of consolidated, usable, analytics-ready data maybe, or of 360-degree customer insights; of processes so frictionless they’re positively slippery; or of raving brand advocates, and of employees with life/work balances so in equilibrium they’re dancing on their desks.

But underneath those visions are some big assumptions: for instance, that your prospects have IT departments who can dedicate resources to integration; that your budget can accommodate months and months of professional services engagements; that the project will be championed by a senior leader who’ll drive the change and communicate it successfully up to the C-suite and down into the business. In short: that there will be the people, processes and budgets to get rid of any obstacles you might encounter.

Needless to say, for a target audience that isn’t used to any tech ever being made with them in mind, the first thing vision-led marketing will do is drive them away. Because for SMBs, all of the above screams “It’s not for me. I don’t have any of those things.”

Lazy marketing can hurt your brand

I believe that the visionary style of marketing has become so pervasive, it’s the default mode for most B2B tech. I’m guilty of it, too. After all, it’s a lot sexier to talk about the great things you’ll be able to do eventually, than about the long, hard slog it’ll take to get there. It’s probably easier, too.

But, if we as marketers are really honest about it, by deploying the vision strategy, we’re systematically excluding SMBs, who aren’t shiny, slick and corporate. They’re often a little grubby, cobbled-together, and managing to stay in business successfully despite it all.

And they’ve come to believe that nothing out there is made with them in mind.

So, obviously, if you’ve decided that your best prospects are in the enterprise space, by all means, you should exclude SMBs from your business and marketing model. But if you’re trying to sell to SMBs (and the market potential is huge!), going all in on a vision, while ignoring their specific challenges from your marketing comms is simply not good enough.

You’ve got everything to gain

So what does that mean in practice? For me, as I was building out a messaging hierarchy for my client, it was this:

Unless we understand that there’s this barrier to tech adoption for SMBs, we can communicate all we want about the benefits of our solution to their business. How it will make them more productive, more efficient, more data-savvy, more competitive. But they won’t really listen until we can get rid of this huge doubt that’s still lingering in their minds. That this isn’t really for them.

So before we say anything else, we need to show that this product is made with SMBs in mind. That no business is too small for good tech. That they may have low digital maturity, and that that’s ok. That we don’t expect them to know all this stuff. That we can show them what their roadmap could look like, and that we’ll be there for them along the way. And that they’ll be able to afford it.

And if we manage to do that, we’ve got a real chance at a true differentiator, and the opportunity to open up a massive market of solid, no-bull-shit, and fiercely loyal customers. It may sound a little dumb, and very basic, but I’m convinced: when it comes to marketing tech to SMBs, “this is for you, as you are” beats a lofty futuristic vision every time.

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