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.

My ideal client

7 signs we’re the perfect match

I believe in the power of a sharp positioning. That means knowing who you want to work with/sell to, under what circumstances, and why. That may sound arrogant, but it really isn’t – because if you’re considering hiring me, you need to know this, too.

A good positioning goes both ways. If you’re an ideal client for me, then I can provide bulls-eye expertise and you’ll get maximum value out of hiring me. If you’re too far removed from that sweet spot, I can try my best and might still disappoint you.

That’s not to say that we can’t work together unless we’re a perfect fit. But if you’re in the business of selling things, then you know that there’s a wide spectrum of customer-vendor relationships. Some sales are easy — and feel exciting for both parties — while others drag on, and doubt keeps lingering. The buyer is constantly worried they’re not getting their money’s worth, and the vendor is losing the will to live.

Nobody wants that. I’m looking for businesses who are excited to work with me, and you should look for the same in any vendor. I get excited about companies who are eager to move the needle with their Marketing story. I know I’ll do my best work when I’ve spotted a content/messaging situation that I can find a solution for. And it gets even better when I sense my clients trust me because they like my approach. It’s a bit like dating actually – if we’re both really keen, I just know it’ll be great.

So, at the risk of being swiped out of your consideration set within the 3 minutes it’ll take you to read this, here’s what my ideal client looks like:

1. A B2B tech or services company

Your company sells complex products or services to other businesses. I’ve been planning and writing for B2B tech for most of my career and I have a ton of experience in that weird, niche-y, unapologetically geeky, and often awfully corporate space. I work with small and big tech companies, startups, and agencies, so I get to observe market challenges and trends, and how businesses are responding to them. I get to see different creative approaches and develop ideas for cutting through the noise. And, when I work with agencies, I catch glimpses of new and shiny digital marketing tools and how smart digital marketers are using them for B2B. All of that is the strategic capital I’ll bring to the table when we tackle your specific challenge.

TL;DR: if you need help selling handbags on Insta, I’m probably not right for you. Might buy one, tho.

2. A startup or scale-up

I work with a few B2B agencies here in London and help them with content strategy for demand gen, lead gen and ABM. But to be honest: my favourite client is a direct one, i.e. a tech company that needs help with positioning, messaging, and content.

I’m ideal for startups and scale-ups because I’m really good at this – but cheaper. They get the niche expertise they’d usually only get from a specialist B2B agency – but I can offer it for less because I don’t have the overheads of those guys.

Full reveal: that also means I can’t offer a full-service marketing program that includes design, development etc. But you may not be looking for that (yet).

That is to say: We’re a great fit if you need a B2B tech marketing pro, but don’t have an agency budget. Or: if you have design covered, but need help with the positioning, messaging and content side of things.

3. A degree of marketing maturity

I sometimes work with startups that haven’t yet hired anyone to help with Marketing – like a digital marketer, a marketing manager, etc. That doesn’t technically stand in the way of my work. I can still develop a positioning, messaging and content strategy for you. But as a business you’ll get less out of it because you don’t have the resources to get those messages in front of the right eyeballs, to manage campaigns and measure them, and to own your marketing data.

So if you’re not ready to professionalise Marketing to some degree, that’s a bit of a red flag for me. Of course, I can help you create content, write your website, etc. But B2B tech is all about your niche, and these days, you need someone who knows how to reach that niche digitally. I really don’t believe businesses should outsource that data and knowledge anymore – they’re huge assets that are worth owning. Digital marketing is a completely different skillset from mine, and there’s no way any magic will happen if we have spot-on messaging but can’t marry it with the kind of targeting a good performance or digital marketer can engineer.

In short: Hire someone smart to manage your marketing performance for you and I’ll come running.

4. You’ve identified a positioning, messaging or clarity problem

The best situation for me is one where my client knows they need help with messaging. Maybe because your funnel is leaking. The fish aren’t biting. You’re diluting your sales stats with bad leads. I’m running out of water-based metaphors…

I’m right for you if your website is unclear, or your prospects don’t understand what you do (or why they should care), or how your offer is different from vendor X. That’s kind of my bat signal.

If your message is hunky-dory, and your content is already hand-delivering salivating, money-clutching SQLs into your Marketing Automation system, you don’t need me. You need an IPO consultant or something.

5. You appreciate the power of content

I believe that great content will help you sell. And it works when you’re proud of what you know, and willing to share that knowledge and all those opinions that got you to where you are.

If you believe in offering up your expertise to customers you respect, then we’ll do great work together. Because we both know they’re smart people who’ll see through thinly veiled, value-free pseudo-content in no time at all and will penalise you for it. But they will reward you if you help them solve a problem.

If you’re willing to invest the time and resources into letting me find your content sweet spot, your angle and your message, I can help you go to market with something unique.

Content is a long(ish) game, but it’s worth it. If you think you can hack your way to success without being useful, entertaining or honest, then we’re not on the same page. You’ll end up disappointed because I can’t give you the quick fixes you expect from me.

6. You’re willing to invest budget into content creation

This follows from the above. If your content is going to be worth anything, it’ll cost ya something. Good B2B tech writers aren’t easy to find. It really helps if you can add visual zing to your smart words, too, so you’ll need some switched-on designers as well.

I know how daunting this may sound, but it’s money well spent. And ultimately, whether you consider my strategy a success or not will depend on your ability to translate it into assets and tactics. I can build a great plan – but it will fail if we can’t execute on it. I’d just rather be upfront about that.

If you only have a budget for strategy, but no resources for execution, you’ll probably think investing in my work was bloody useless. If you’re worried about exploding costs, let’s talk upfront.

7. You’re up for trying new things

If you’ve worked in B2B tech marketing, you know how boring it can be. Unfortunately, for many businesses, the default MO still is to talk about important-but-inherently-unsexy things like efficiency, productivity, compliance and the like in bureaucratic language that makes absolutely no-one feel anything at all.

If you understand the power of non-generic language, and the energy that empathy, good copy and smart thinking can transport, then we’ll get on. And if in addition to that, you’re up for experimenting with channels and formats, and ready to try out what works and what doesn’t, then I think I may have found a keeper.

That is to say the B2B rulebook isn’t entirely stupid, but a few of its top rules are. If you’re undogmatic about them, we’ll love working together.

Is there… is there anyone still here?

Yes?

Then you’re either up for challenging me on some of the above (please do!), or this must be fate ❤️. In either case, I think you should get in touch this minute.