SMBs Need to Study, Not Mimic, Successful Digital Strategies

Doesn't it seem like every small and midsized business must be online to have a shot at being profitable? When you look at the recent business lore, from Dell's profitability selling refurbished computers through Twitter to Gap's experimentation with social media to increase foot traffic and sales, the logic seems to dictate following the actions of big corporations online. Do what they're doing and what they have done.

So now every small business is seeking profits with every digital marketing tool introduced. Does adding the latest and greatest social media tool bring a profit?

Not automatically.

Yet many small-business managers believe implementing many of the newest tools and applications is the strategy for their businesses. Users understand features, but they confuse using the features with solving the business pain. This makes the value of social media and digital marketing more slippery than wet soap.

Moreover, recent business successes feed the misperception. Blogs and SaaS-based startups, from the Huffington Post to Klout, have scaled large numbers of followers and users through social media. Many businesses blindly try to emulate such scale, even using shortcuts in many cases. I have seen one or two companies offer the chance to purchase Facebook fans, in the same spirit as purchasing links. I can't imagine clean engagement data if the seed is a highly biased large group.

SMB managers and owners may learn a lot about what to do and what not to do studying how large businesses use social media. But how a business derives true strategic value from any tool, social media or otherwise, is based on the alignment of its business model with customer access to its offerings. Analytics can remind the business how well it is maintaining that alignment.

Understanding where customers are online dictates the choices for leveraging digital strengths, whether they're assets, resources, or employees. Food trucks have used Twitter to tell regular customers where in the neighborhood they'll be located. Twitter makes sense for a mobile business that wants to share location information and galvanize customers.

A small business also has to be willing to think beyond scaling traffic and consider how it can serve nonconverting traffic. This does take a diagnostic effort -- reviewing Web analytics results, running an A/B test, or conducting an online survey. The review can help you decide which additional actions can attract customers and which cannot.

Knowledge of your capabilities can guide measurement efforts, as well. As Tom Davenport and Jeanne Harris noted in their book, Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning:

Having a distinctive capability means that the organization views this aspect of its business as what sets it apart from competitors and as what makes it successful in the marketplace... Without a distinctive capability, you can't be an analytical competitor, because there is no clear process or activity for analytics to support.

Examining nonconverting traffic can require considerable effort and dedicated time, a scarce resource for SMBs and corporations alike. But it can be beneficial in revealing new ideas that, when refined, can help a business excel.

Understanding strategy for an SMB also is essential given the fragmented attention of today's Internet user. The Internet has become a hub for people to discover businesses and services. But with so many methods for that discovery, it is clear that small businesses must refine their use of social media in ways that best work for their strengths.

That's why small businesses should be cautious about emulating another company's social media use outright. It is an expression of strategy, not necessarily the strategy itself.

Pierre DeBois, Founder, Zimana

Pierre DeBois is the founder of Zimana, a small business analytics consultancy that reviews data from Web analytics and social media dashboard solutions, then provides recommendations and Web development action that improves marketing strategy and business profitability. He has conducted analysis for various small businesses and has also provided his business and engineering acumen at various corporations such as Ford Motor Co. He writes analytics articles for and Pitney Bowes Smart Essentials and contributes business book reviews for Small Business Trends. Pierre looks forward to providing All Analytics readers tips and insights tailored to small businesses as well as new insights from Web analytics practitioners around the world.

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  • 10/18/2011 11:22:29 AM

Amen, Pierre. In fact, there are some larger companies that could learn a thing or two about this as well. The right tool for the right job. Such a simple concept, but so very important.  Thanks for the post.

You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/18/2011 12:51:57 PM

Well written post and I enjoyed reading it.


Thoughts? Comments?   

I think SMB are no different, in a way, than Art Students.  


For example, you can go to Art School, learn the formulas that worked for great masters (translate that to .. gulp ... Klout ..gulp and some of the other you mention ... gulp) but what worked for them doesn't seem to work for you.


And even if you could take someone elses formula, it never looks genuine, more of a one off than anything else.   


Yet we know that some things seem to work better than others - studying every day seems to produce better grades, painting every day seems to produce a better artist (though some will dispute that - including me) and looking at what successsful brands do in social media tactics would seem to point the way to what an SMB should do for itself, or with some help, should they want to go that way.


But as you point out - that doesn't really work so well - the examples big brands have applied doesn't work for your corner bodega, or just about any small business.


So, let's look at what we can learn from the big guys, the ones that could succeed, and step back and look inside ourselves, and identify what we can do that is inheritly of value to our customers, and maybe, can be shared, and let's start there.


Sound like a plan?


Re: You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/18/2011 1:46:59 PM

Sounds like a good plan, indeed. Thanks Marshall.

Re: You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/18/2011 10:04:01 PM

Hi Marshall,

Well, I've never heard small businesses compared to art students in this context, but in a way, I think you have something here. It seems to me that, whether being done by large or small companies, mere copying of technique in analytics or business model simply is not sufficient to gain success. Well thought out analytics strategies are just that, well thought out. One company or organization may not use the same strategy as another simply because they are after different answers, different data. So imitating technique can only really be beneficial if you plan to evaluate the underlying strategy as well and find one that has resonance for your business.


Re: You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/19/2011 10:38:19 AM

Exactly, Shawn. While business and data principles may remain the same, each situation is different.

Successful digital strategies
  • 10/19/2011 12:47:17 PM

Pierre great post I have worked with businesses that feel they need to emulate large business practices without fully understanding how it pertains to their marketplace. It truly is key to develop tools most suited to the needs of the business rather than just copying something that sounds cool.

Re: You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/20/2011 8:55:51 PM

Thanks for the article. It's easy to follow the herd and fear being left out of social media when it may not be an entirely good fit for the business. 

No matter what the business is, it still comes down to the four Ps; product, price, promotion and placement.  Social media can help put a human face on a business, however it really depends on the product (i.e. corn) if it really needs that. 

Re: You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/20/2011 9:17:33 PM

If anything, can't SMBs be more nimble and creative with social media efforts than large companies, with their many layers of review and their lean toward conservative approaches? A SMB owner/manager can hand off the social media efforts to an ambitious and eager associate, and let them run with it.

Re: You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/21/2011 5:00:42 AM

Hi Broadway,


Yes, small businesses can be more nimble with social media, but they should also take care to be strategic, even if the marketing effort is handled by the enthusiastic associate. The most successful social media examples required some planning and a sense of integration - otherwise social media is deployed without useful goals - the results become unaligned with business objectives. 

Every business is trying to create the success like that of Dell and Best Buy. Due to the open ended nature of digital platforms, each business will have to tailor their usage and effort.  The good news is the number of options now avaialble make selecting the right combination of tools complicated but possible.

Re: You always have to be introspective, know yourself, before going into any endeavor, including SM
  • 10/22/2011 6:48:09 AM



I hear you. The product/service is the source of social media ideas that are appropriate for the business and its objectives.  Social media is not a means to an end. I think this aspect is why some companies "get" that Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, but are hesitant in implementing social media. The "what to do" is not always immediately clear unless the product is consumer good or something easily sold online.  Strategy has to be unique to be valuable - hard to be unique if your imagination for a medium is the same as everyone else.

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