Small and medium businesses (SME) by definition do not have a lot of resources for marketing; and the traditional marketing channels, as we all know, can be quite crowded and expensive. But the arrival of digital technologies and digital channels has changed the rules of the game. It has created new, non-intrusive pathways for accessing prospects and customers; and once they come in, it has enabled novel, hassle-free purchase experiences. Digital marketing done right can be extremely powerful, effective and inexpensive. Chings Secret, Sweccha, Zesty Bites, Harshil Jewellers are great examples of digital marketing done right.
In recent years, several brands globally have consistently dropped their TV and print advertisements and increasing their Digital Marketing spends. However, India still has a lot of catching up to do. A 2017 KPMG Google study on the digital adoption by Indian SMB/SME shows that a staggering 68% of Indian SMEs are completely offline and only a meagre 2% are digitally engaged.
While the marketing principles have remained the same in the new digital economy, the new technologies along with increasing access to devices and broadband has opened up new ways of reaching and staying in touch with customers; to the extent businesses also get access to their personal lives, their tastes and preferences. These are extremely relevant for B2C businesses. This offers a tremendous opportunity for SMEs to remain on top of their customers’ changing needs and preferences and respond quickly by personalizing their products. And all this at a cost that is relatively affordable.
The key to doing marketing right in the new digital age remains the same as before, i.e. understand your customer needs and purchasing-behaviour, care deeply about how they interact with a product or service and why they choose to do so. Following that, the key is to use words, pixels or frames to tell stories that appeal to the customer base.
The digital/social channels – from corporate blogs to online forums like Quora, from Facebook to Twitter and from Pinterest to YouTube facilitates a direct conversation with customers at a scale which is unprecedented, opening doors to deeper engagement, sometimes even in vernacular content. It can mean a simple yet persuasive blog inviting comments, or a regularly updated Pinterest board telling a story with pictures, or email newsletters or even an active WhatsApp group. On the other end of the digital maturity curve, digital marketing can mean running search and display ads on Google, creating gaming apps for brand engagement, creating viral videos, re-targeting, setting goals and tracking ROAS, CRO and User A/B testing or using AI/ML to serve personalized pages.
However all these initiatives should spring from a common marketing strategy centred on a core message the business wants to convey to its customers. Measuring and analysing the data from digital initiatives and interactions is highly recommended, even for companies starting off on their digital marketing journeys. At the same time, Digital Marketing need not be technically overwhelming or involve an upfront expenditure, unlike what many SME entrepreneurs imagine.
For B2B businesses, digital marketing presents great opportunities as well. Today’s buyers and procurement departments do not search for products or parts by looking at registers or catalogues. They start with Google. And local businesses with authentic and updated content on website and other social channels (e.g. videos on YouTube, articles on Linkedin) have higher a chance of being discovered, generating qualified leads in the process.
Personally, I am not a fan of paid ads and increasingly many businesses are finding the space crowded and expensive. I would not recommended paid media for small businesses unless they are in a niche domain with few competitors in the region. Small businesses also need to be aware of agencies engaging in negative and intrusive techniques to reach customers who may not have opted to participate in a campaign. I believe that any invasion of customer privacy and use of negative techniques in digital marketing needs to be avoided at all cost. All such efforts can hurt the company and its brand image, and prove counter-productive in the long-run.
Digital marketing, especially social marketing also presents a threat – the threat of exposing a business’s weaknesses in front of its customer base, potentially tarnishing a reputation built over years. And this has held many companies back from marketing on digital channels. The secret to manage reputation online is to be honest and sincere and to communicate early and effectively.
Traditionally, SMEs were run behind closed doors and high-walled factories and establishments. Today, this is no longer true. Customers care about how businesses are being run; for example, are its processes environment-friendly or does it employ child labour? Having said that, no business is perfect and SMEs are prone to challenges across functions – from manufacturing and supply chain to customer services. When something goes wrong, the best way to manage an escalation on a social platform for example, is to step in, accept, apologize and attempt to set it right, while in full view of the audience. Reputation or Crisis Management done right has brought dividends to businesses and brands.
Digital Marketing is not always easy; and not always inexpensive. It needs a well thought out omni-channel strategy. It needs talent like marketing strategists, analysts and content creators. It needs constant attention to social feeds and frequent communication with online communities. It needs the ability to jump at opportunities to drive online conversations (without losing any time). It needs the ability to pull in influencers and subject matter experts at the right time to weigh in with their opinions or creations. Importantly, it needs a digital re-wiring of the entire organization and systems.
It is a long term commitment that needs executive bandwidth and leadership. That can only arise from a realization deep down that the way of doing business has changed and changed irreversibly.
There is no alternative to going digital – businesses can only choose to look aside and prolong the process. However, once the power of digital marketing is harnessed, it can bring positive transformation across the organization thus leading to growth in all measures of business and brand performance.