There are a lot of people I meet in technology who want to talk less about about the money-making side of the businesses than about the “social good” that their companies do or contribute to. I see this as part of a larger human desire to have a positive impact on the world.
Whenever I encounter this sentiment I find it very interesting. And I share it.
A couple of years ago at an LSA event in Las Vegas I was doing a joint presentation with Neal Polachek called the “SMB State of the Union.” The theme of the presentation was the discrepancy between SMBs survey data and “behavioral” data — what they’re saying and what they’re actually doing.
Surveys tend to paint a rosier picture of the SMB world than the data gleaned from crawling the web. Accordingly, most small businesses are simply not keeping up with the market — and it’s largely unreasonable to expect them to. Technology change is happening too fast for even the most sophisticated brands and agencies to adapt to.
At the end of the LSA event presentation I offered an impromptu pep talk to the people in the room. There is a “moral” dimension to helping SMBs succeed with digital marketing. If they don’t get it right they will fail and our economy will not only suffer but we’ll all be reduced to choosing between Walmart and Subway: giant corporations that don’t particularly care about communities and franchises that have no local character.
Last week I was in Chicago for a presentation and visited a childhood friend. My wife had earlier told me that our dryer had broken at home and he said that there was a great independent appliance and electronics store called ABT in his area. We went there and it was truly impressive. The selection but most importantly the staff knowledge was so much better than anything I would encounter at a chain or big box it was really striking.
Back in the SF Bay Area this weekend my wife and I were shopping for that dryer. We planned to visit Sears, Best Buy and Home Depot, the usual suspects. But based on my earlier ABT experience I did a Google search on my iPhone on the way to Sears. I was looking to see if there were any non big box stores like ABT in our area.
Scrolling through search results I found a family owned independent appliance store called Airport Home Appliance. My intuition was that we were going to have a better experience or at lease become better educated by visiting this store first. Conveniently there was one on our way. (The store has multiple locations.)
There was a mobile website but it wasn’t as easy as it should have been to find store locations and addresses.
The short version of what happened next was: we had a great experience with a very knowledgeable salesperson, we found a great deal on a washer and dryer, bought them and didn’t visit another store. And while Sears may have had some reasonably well-trained personnel I was anticipating little or no real help at Best Buy and Home Depot.
Had Airport Home Appliance not had a mobile-friendly website and not ranked well in Google search results I never would have found it and we would have been relegated to another mediocre big box experience.
Generally speaking the big boxes and Walmarts of the world don’t pay well or train their people well and experience high turnover. They’re being forced to look at these policies because of showrooming, but overall the shopping experience is inferior because of poor service. Airport Home Appliance has multiple locations and is large enough to be able to compete on price with some of the big boxes, so the company may not be typical. But it is a local business vs. a national chain.
These independents need exposure, even in their own communities. They need to be discoverable, get reviewed and rank in local search results. They need mobile sites and social sites. And in the majority of cases they’re not going to be able to accomplish these imperatives without a great deal of help. This is even more the case for truly small businesses with four or fewer employees.
National entities have massive advantages over SMBs when it comes to marketing, not least of which are their top-of-mind brands. I didn’t know about Airport Home Appliance. I would simply have gone to the stores I knew. There’s a big “discovery problem” for most local businesses.
It’s up to all the sales entities and players in the local/SMB ecosystem to genuinely help these business owners succeed — not just push “products” on them. There’s a lot of lip service paid to the “trusted advisor” role.
Yet that’s what these business owners genuinely need. And the economy needs them to succeed (lifestyle businesses or not) in order to maintain the vibrancy and diversity of local communities. Otherwise, as I said, the future is Walmart and Subway.