It’s never been a better – or easier – time to operate a small business. Sure, big box stores and shopping malls still dominate many local landscapes. But the tools available to small business owners have never been more powerful.
And this trend towards entrepreneurism is only going to continue expanding.
Even if you’re not a small business, there are lessons to be learned. Organizations from non-profits to government entities can set themselves apart from the competition by taking a page from the small business playbook.
The small business trend: What it means for you
To be sure, there have been times when small businesses had fewer competitors. Just ask anyone who ran a local hardware store before Home Depot moved in sometime in the 1990s.
But the days of large corporations dominating their smaller counterparts are disappearing further into the rearview mirror with each passing day.
Here’s why larger organizations now need to be paying more attention to their smaller counterparts.
The democratization of sales and marketing tools
Running a business used to have high barriers to entry. You’d need to find a physical location, jump through all the legal hoops and worry about hiring staff – not to mention the difficulty of getting the word out about your products and services. Marketing used to be limited to high-cost, generic options like advertising in a newspaper or on the radio.
These days, those are all optional.
Want to open an online store? It’s simple. You can do it in a day. Want to reach a specific audience (say, men aged 24-29 who are interested in the Ottawa 67s) with ads? Facebook can get you up and running in an hour.
There’s no denying that these tools are also available to larger competitors. But the playing field on which small and large businesses operate has never been more level.
That means that, for larger organizations, they can no longer ignore smaller competitors.
The ability to reach global audiences
Small businesses used to be captive to geography. A brick-and-mortar store, confined solely to selling to local customers, used to be the only way for entrepreneurs to enter the business world.
The entire world is a marketplace. Small businesses can sell to anyone across the globe.
The internet is rife with cases of businesses selling goods and services globally.
It’s not that small businesses never used to go global. It’s just that they used to have to outgrow their small business label to do so. Now small businesses can cater to niche markets in locations across the globe – all while staying small.
Any business can now sell anywhere. This means that, for larger organizations, the level of competition has now increased.
It seems, to me at least, that the trend towards big box stores and shopping malls reached its apex sometime in the 1990s. Since then, audiences have become more aware of, and interested in, small business – to the point where they now go out of their way to patronize local coffee shops, merchants and restaurants.
Consider: Bridgehead, an Ottawa-based coffee shop chain. The business (in its current iteration at least) started out with one location on Richmond Road in 2000. Now it boasts 20 stores across Ottawa and an army of fiercely loyal customers, thanks in part to its commitment to local growth and fairly-traded, organic coffee.
People still shop with larger brands, of course. But now audiences want to interact with businesses that reflect their values.
Knowing your audience has always been important for organizations of any size. But with the rise of the small business trend, it’s never been more important.
Some of the largest companies now help small businesses
The rise of small business isn’t all about increased competition. There’s also a slew of new opportunities for larger organizations to service them.
Amazon. Shopify. MailChimp.
What do all these (somewhat) large organizations have in common? They all count small businesses as a significant part of their customer base.
Amazon allows any organization to sell its goods around the world, removing the need to set up and run the infrastructure to do so.
Shopify allows entrepreneurs to quickly and easily build their own online stores. More than 600,000 businesses – big and small, but mostly small – now run the platform.
MailChimp helps businesses of all sizes send emails to audiences. It has 14 million customers in 200 countries.
They’re just a few examples of how small business is suddenly big business for a lot of companies.
What your business can learn from small business counterparts
The small business trend isn’t just for entrepreneurs and start-ups. There are lessons for everyone – from large corporations to non-profits and government departments. Here’s how you can use the small business mindset to get closer to your audience.
Lesson one: Personalize
Too often large companies think they can get away with offering its audience a depersonalized message. But stock images, impersonal calls to action, and generic nurturing campaigns no longer speak to audiences in the same way.
Sure, audiences are online. But they’re savvier than ever. And they won’t accept messages that fail to connect with them (see: Pepsi, Kendall Jenner et. al.).
High-value, personalized messages will be key in maintaining an intrigued and responsive clientele.
One of Banfield’s clients, Hydro Ottawa, recently launched a campaign to ensure they’re approaching individuals in the community in their preferred language. The organization has shown respect for their clientele by recognizing how bilingual the audience they serve is.
By no means is Hydro Ottawa a small business. But it’s still been able to use lessons from its small business counterparts to its advantage.
Lesson two: Open your doors
Not every small business has a physical location. But for those that do, it can become an important means of connecting to audiences.
Many small businesses are now putting on events, publishing behind-the-scenes content and sharing more about how audiences use their services. Posts on social media about how audiences are using and interacting with products results in organic and authentic marketing that’s impossible to recreate with the same level of authenticity.
It creates an atmosphere of familiarity that audiences can easily return to time and time again.
What is it about your space, your business, your services that you can present to your clients in a unique way?
The National Arts Centre, to borrow an example from another Banfield client, demonstrates this. Its recent renovations have created more public spaces, which has given everyone access to the NAC building even if they’re not “paying customers”.
Lesson three: Connect to your community
We all operate our organizations somewhere.
Even if you work at a business that has customers millions of miles away and rarely interacts with local audiences, you still operate in a particular location.
The advantage that small businesses (at least those that have brick-and-mortar locations) is they regularly interact with those communities. They get to know their audiences face-to-face and even see them outside of a business context.
For larger organizations, that’s an opportunity to connect with local communities – either the ones in which they operate or the locations where most of their audiences are.
Work with a charity. Help out at a community event. Meet your audience face-to-face.
They’re all opportunities to better get to know your audience.
Connecting with your audience
Every organization wants to differentiate itself.
But too often we look to the world’s giants – Apple, Google, Walmart – for inspiration.
The trend towards small businesses isn’t going away any time soon.
So if you want to make your organization unique, you’d do well to look at what’s fueling their success.
And, where possible, replicating it.
Lucy Thériault is an Account Executive with Banfield Agency.