The ‘Moral Imperative’ Behind Small Business Marketing

SMB local

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.

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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.

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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.

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13 Responses to “The ‘Moral Imperative’ Behind Small Business Marketing”

  1. Mike Blumenthal says at

    Having run a family business for many years, one that was started in 1938 and that we closed in 2001, I came to the realization that the structural issues confronting small local businesses were profound and could not be fully offset even if the small business overcame the knowledge gap. 

    T & C’s, credit issues, employment issues, inequities in in our relationship to laws, unequal enforcement of regulatory issues all put the business at risk and were not able to be overcome. That is to say nothing of functioning in the unregulated market and the benefits of scale. These would not have changed if we had been more savvy. 

    At one point I thought too that it was a moral issue but have since come to believe that it is systemic and given how rules and regulations are currently set there is a huge headwind that the small business will continue to face and will all too often drive them to either closure or debt servitude. 

  2. Street Fight Daily: Uber’s Billion Dollar Round, Local’s Moral Imperative | Street Fight says at

    […] ‘Moral Imperative’ Behind Small Business Marketing (Screenwerk) Greg Sterling: There is a “moral” dimension to helping SMBs succeed with digital marketing. If […]

  3. Ronnie Somerville says at

    Couldn’t agree more. 

    But I think is a confluence of factors that are coming to the aid of small businesses:

    1) Digital tools are ubiquitous and cheap. (There are many many small businesses that miles better on Twitter than Walmart.) 
    There is a generation that knows how to use them. They are now opening their own businesses, (or taking them over from their parents.)
    But there is so much that they often don’t get right:  citations, menus, mobile friendly sites….

    2) The local sourcing movement in food and restaurants will move out into other areas.

    3) 3D printing manufacturing and peer to peer delivery systems will be a boost.

    But there is much we can all do just now….. eg we sell our loyalty and data tools but we give our advice on best practice for free.

    Ronnie Somerville, Swipii

    PS … your Xmas presents from small businesses 🙂

  4. Rob says at

    Greg, I think you’re absolutely spot on with this but I can’t help but wonder if large publicly traded national marketing companies will ever have the ability to really help champion the local small business. As others have said before local does not scale. For me this is at the heart of the issue and will make it hard for these companies to really step forward and embrace this mission while also mollifying their investors. The bright spot for me could be the “hyperlocal” (horrible term I know) movement. In this area we see other small, local to the market, entrepreneurs working to highlight/help other local small businesses.  I guess for me, the moral imperative you speak of, will have to come from champions from within the actual local communities. I sure hope they do, as I too, am loathe to live in a world so dominated by Walmart and Subway.

  5. Colin Pape says at

    Great post, Greg. You really nailed it.

    Local businesses offer so much more to our communities and to consumers, but they’ve been marginalized, particularly in the past 20 years by big box stores and chains that leverage huge marketing spend and repetition of brand to steal buyer mindshare.

    The internet could be the way to finally level the playing field and shift society’s focus away from price and globalization and back to quality and service, but unfortunately, so far, it’s offered just more of the same.

    It’s not intentional, but the allure of quick scale and huge spend is too much for search giants like Google, directories like Yelp and discovery platforms like Facebook to ignore, and so they end up catering to the same big businesses that have marginalized local business and communities. Why deal with a million little guys when you can sign 100 national accounts in a fraction of the time?

    The same is true for many of the traditional media companies that distribute big box flyers and promote Walmart as being local. Easy money is hard to say no to.

    It is still possible to create an environment online that supports local businesses, but it takes a serious commitment to the cause and a willingness to take the higher, but much harder, road to scale. Creating and maintaining many small relationships takes lots of work and passion.

    Fortunately, there are groups like BALLE (, Supportland ( and my organization,, that are making progress on the mission without wavering from our ideals.

    It’s a massive problem/opportunity, so it will take time, but thanks to people like yourself raising awareness, there seems to be a growing recognition of the benefits of local businesses, both to shoppers and the communities we live in.

  6. Greg Sterling says at

    Rob: Agree . . . probably not. Small designers, webmasters and others are probably in the best position to help these guys. Also some of the larger players have “conflicts of interest” in terms of what they’re selling.

    Mike: I’m sure you’re right. But I think “we” shouldn’t give up.

  7. Mitch Rezman says at

    For me the moral imperative side of small business has been a marketing gold mine for me & our company. We sell pet supplies specializing in the exotic bird category. It’s a complicated subject but suffice to say pets that have feathers and can fly are significantly different than terrestrial fur covered ones.

    Our corporate mission is “we are an advocate for the birds” we tell people that we took the birds out of the sky which makes us responsible for the well-being yada yada

    Here’s where it gets fun – it has given me license to get in the face of every customer and potential customer. What’s really funny is the more I ramp it up the more my email  blog and social media readers Embrace it – here’s a simple example

    “The birdcage manufacturer whose cage “came apart” and your bird escaped in the middle of the night injuring herself with a bite through an extension cord – is not responsible for the injury.

    Saving $200 on a birdcage and not knowing your bird has the ability to chew through the wire, break some welds or walkout through a feeder door – is.

    Please don’t lay “this is a dangerous “fill in the blank” bird accessory” at the feet of the manufacturers. This all is on you – the caged bird keeper.”

    Taking the moral high ground is so much fun.

    Caveat: my experience with ABT is they overpromise and under deliver – twice

    Nice blog

  8. Mike Blumenthal says at

    Moral imperatives are nothing but an emotional sop unless tied with federal regulatory standards that create an even playing field or in perhaps even favor the small business. There is a precedent for that with something like the Robinson Pattman act that was passed in the 30’s to protect small business on the pricing front but an act that is no longer enforced. Moral imperatives do not put food on the table for small businesses. 

  9. Greg Sterling says at

    It’s a headline.

  10. Jim Froling says at

    Since my early days in the computer industry distribution channel I have been a champion of the “Mom & Pop” indy store. Many times they brought in my “off-brand” when the majors wouldn’t.  Until Mom & Pop did so well that the majors took notice and invited my company to the table.  Anxious to get in with the majors the company (choose from among several over 30 years), agreed to T&Cs that severely slanted the playing field to the majors’ advantage at the expense of Mom&Pop. I hated it.  The little guys made us successful.  Then we kicked them to the curb.

    It’s really about leverage.  Competitive or legislative.  Mom & Pop don’t have the time, money, experience, organization, etc. etc.,  to negotiate the best terms, a fair tax basis, reasonable regulatory conditions etc. etc.  They don’t have the leverage that the “big boys” do.  Still, SMBs employ more people than the Fortune 1000, pay higher taxes on % of income, enjoy far fewer gov’t sponsored incentives to grow and expand their business.  Fair?  No.  Sad?  Yes, but it is also natural (as in selection).

  11. Mike Blumenthal says at

    When I asked Senator Schumer why the government didn’t more to support small business with things like active enforcement of the Robinson Pattman act he noted that they would be doing so even less in the future (which is not). That isn’t natural, other than natural as a part of capitalism. If we can create capitalism, which creates an imperative to scale, then we can create effective alternatives as well. 

  12. Jim Froling says at

    “natural, other than natural as a part of capitalism.” is exactly what I mean. 

    Yes, effective alternatives are possible. Just improbable when faced with enormous obstacles e.g. lobbying groups, corp campaign contributions, PACs, etc. which create and support a very uneven playing field between “Big Guys” and “little guys”.

    Wouldn’t it be great if a large corporate entity, (like a Google, just for example) with deep pockets and lobbying clout would stand up and allocate resources to shine a light on the SMB plight in America on a national basis in prime time?

  13. Colin Pape says at

    @Jim – it would be great, but likely won’t happen. There are too many legacy ties to big business.

    However, what’s awesome is that we don’t need to change the whole world, or even the whole country. We only need to change our individual local communities.

    Eventually, we’ll have a critical mass of strong local communities that can resist the pressures of the old model and create new pressures to influence politicians and decision makers.

    It’s not so hard to fix up your own back yard – it’s a lot more natural than the false economic models of ‘free trade’, globalization and big business that we currently allow to rule the day.

  14. Dave Oremland says at

    Nice article, Greg.  I agree.  I also think Mike is accurate in the context that the economic environment dramatically favors the big guys over the small players in multiple ways.  In that regard, it would be nice to see the Pols do some things to favor the small players.   

    But alas.  I don’t see it.  The pols like the big businesses and the big $$ that feeds their reelection efforts.

    But…man oh man.  On an individual basis, when you find great local businesses, shout out their benefits via word of mouth and reviews.  BLAST IT.  REPEAT IT.  BLAST IT AGAIN.  KEEP DOING IT.  HELP THEM GET PUBLICITY.

    Do whatever you can to help those small sharp smb’s get business.

    …and then keep pounding away at the pols.  Sometimes that change happens quickly.  Sometimes it takes a long time.   But pound away at the Pols, while you speak well of the sharp, knowledgeable local smbs.

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