Time to think big with campaigns for small businesses

Sam Holl

MHP’s Sam Holl, a Director in Brand & Reputation, argues that both message and messenger are important to engage a ‘small’ business audience.

A few different studies from the start of the year show that small business confidence is on the up. I’ve always liked ‘confidence’ as an economic indicator because it looks at emotional intuition – essentially asking people to predict the future – but couched in rational factors such as earnings and profitability.

It’s especially relevant when applied to small business owners. As this Guardian article so wonderfully shows, entrepreneurs face significantly different emotional challenges (in a professional capacity) from people employed by someone else. Running your own business can be a heady cocktail of passion, optimism, vulnerability and self-doubt, which contrasts with the (apparent) practical simplicity of having a clearly specified job role and steady monthly earnings.

MHP’s own research supports this trend. We work with many clients who seek to engage, and sell their services to, the small business community. As part of this, we regularly talk with, listen to and learn from the audience in question.

In an online survey we conducted with 200+ small business owners, the results show that 70% started their businesses for emotional reasons, and 82% have a deep-rooted emotional connection with the companies they run. Interestingly – in keeping with the theme of confidence – this is a largely positive and bullish audience: the top emotions people picked out to describe their entrepreneurialism were ‘pride’, ‘happiness’, ‘excitement’ and ‘love’.

These findings back up those from The Networked Age, MHP’s study of the contemporary communications landscape conducted in partnership with UCL. The analysis gave us the three ‘New Rules of Influence’, guidelines which inform the work we undertake with clients.

Rule Two states that ‘influencers and passions spread ideas’, and this is particularly true of small businesses. To succeed with them you need to engage them on an emotional level – demonstrate shared values of hope and optimism, rather than just focusing on the price and practicality of the products you sell.

The considerations also apply to who is delivering your corporate stories, and how. Joseph Marks – one of our Networked Age research partners – recently released a book called Messengers which looks at ‘who we listen to, who we don’t, and why’. Among many other interesting nuggets, the book covers ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ messenger traits, and how these are received by different audiences.

Undoubtedly, in B2B comms, it’s far more common to see ‘hard’ messenger characteristics – including competence and attractiveness – being used. That’s a natural phenomenon because the subject matter being promoted is generally defined by the professional value it adds. But this approach omits one crucial factor – the fact that businesspeople are people too. And they will be just as receptive – more so if we look at the evidence – to ‘soft’ messenger traits such as warmth and charisma.

This all emphasises that communications campaigns are only as good as the insight which underpins them. Certainly, no two small business owners are the same – and the emotions they experience will vary according to where they are on their professional journeys. That’s where data analysis, one-to-one conversations and audience segmentation are invaluable.

They can also throw up unexpected trends to build campaigns around. I’ll never forget sitting in an SME focus group where one participant demanded that people stop using the word ‘small’ to describe the audience. In his words: “there is nothing small about my business, my business is my life”. As part of our research among his contemporaries, we found that 30% agree, and view the term ‘small’ as the wrong way to refer to their businesses.

So maybe there’s opportunity not only for B2B brands to be more emotional in their communications, but also to reinvent the language through which they communicate. After all, this is an audience whose hopes and dreams are as BIG as their commercial value.

The Networked Age