If the playing field is level, how come we’re running uphill?

Much has been made of the notion that the internet has changed the marketing landscape, evening up the playing field for small businesses who can now use social media and inbound marketing to compete head-to-head with the big companies. football players running uphillThe argument goes like this. In the old days of traditional marketing (i.e. advertising), the company with the biggest budget won. It took money to break through the advertising noise and get attention. Small companies with small budgets were very limited with what they could do. In the new age of inbound marketing, everything has changed. Now, potential customers research before they buy and a savvy small business is just as likely to get discovered as a multinational corporation.

Great argument, but I’m skeptical. Part of the idea is valid. Unlike conventional (outbound) advertising, success with inbound marketing isn’t really dependent on the budget. It is certainly possible for a small concern to run a successful inbound marketing program and to achieve the same percentages of growth as larger enterprises. And, because small businesses are inherently more maneuverable, there may even be the potential for SMB marketing programs to outperform larger competitors (in terms of percentage growth), especially if the small business is operating in a narrowly defined or a local market.

It’s also very true that the complexion of marketing has changed. Adobe recently published a study entitled Digital Distress: What Keeps Marketers Up at Night that sheds light on marketers’ comfort levels with the new environment. The study included both digital marketers and marketing generalists in large, medium, and small businesses. Of the respondents surveyed, 76% agreed that marketing has changed more in the last two years than in the previous 50.  Other data indicates that there’s no intellectual oligopoly in this brave new world. According to the study, most digital marketers have no formal training. 82% learn OJT, and both small and large company marketers are learning as they go. 61% believe that digital marketing is mostly trial and error. Confidence in measures is equally lukewarm. While big companies may have more access to data, only 54% of respondents are confident in their ability to measure results.

So, theoretically, the inbound marketing playing field is level. It’s a great theory, but it isn’t really playing out well. Small businesses aren’t keeping up. Most of the small business owners that I talk with have great intentions, but their marketing efforts aren’t really any more successful than they were in the good old days when they budgeted what they could for advertising.


Why aren’t small businesses more effective with inbound marketing? What’s holding them back? Economies of scale may still be a factor. The existence of marketing staff and management in larger companies gives them an edge. Larger businesses have people and time that can be tasked to both traditional and new age marketing efforts. Time and manpower issues can challenge smaller businesses, but they’re not insurmountable problems. It’s very possible to distribute the effort among the team, and a lot can be accomplished with some focused effort.

firecracker in waterI believe that it’s focus, or lack thereof, where most of the difficulties for small business originate. Large businesses have an advantage here – the plans, policies and methods required to keep the machine running are built in.  Small businesses are much more likely to operate on the fly. Most don’t develop marketing plans. In many cases, marketing isn’t budgeted. Campaigns are launched sporadically when funds are available, and frequently marketing channels aren’t coordinated. Creativity may also be a problem, but lack of consistency is a more critical issue. The result from a lack of focus is predictable. Small business marketing is like a wet firecracker. The fuse may fizzle a bit, but there’s never an explosion.

It’s an Opportunity

What’s needed in most small businesses is a consistent process for creating and sharing content, listening, measuring and adapting the program. The opportunity is there, it’s just that the discipline is lacking. Small business owners may recoil at that word. It’s harsh to our ears and may even bring unpleasant images to mind. For me, the recollection is of Sister Barbara, one of the teachers at the Catholic High School I attended. She was a disciplinarian with a temper and also an unfortunate speech impediment that produced a whistle when she admonished me to “sssstay in your sssseat young whippersssssnapper!”

But I digress, that’s not the kind of discipline that is required for small businesses to succeed with inbound marketing. Small businesses need help in 3 areas:

  1. Planning – It’s critical to have a plan that includes objectives, strategy and tactics, timetable, budget, and measures. Without a plan, any program will lack purpose and accomplishments will be accidental.
  2. Process – This includes how ideas and content will be generated, who will be responsible, which measures will be analyzed, and how adaptation to the process and the plan will occur.
  3. Consistency – Dependable execution of the process is probably more important than any other aspect. It takes some time to generate momentum from an inbound marketing process, and traction is easily lost if the effort is intermittent. Success depends a lot on engagement in online conversations. Results are not immediate and consistency is required.

Without belaboring the point further, what this all means is that small businesses must commit to a disciplined approach if they are to succeed with inbound marketing. Discipline is the dry powder that leads to the big bang. The playing field really is more even now than it has been in the past 50 years; but small businesses need to learn some organizational lessons that larger businesses already know.  I have some more ideas along these lines. If you’d like to read more about the opportunity for small business, DP Marketing has produced a free white paper: Big Company Marketing on a Small Company Budget.  The white paper includes tips on planning and developing a process for marketing along with stories and a short case study for illustration.

Small Business Marketing White Paper

Free White Paper

Download the white paper by clicking the link, the image, or the sidebar ad. (Yes, we’d like you to download the white paper.) Please feel free to contact DP Marketing if you’d like to talk about a marketing program for your business. There’s no risk – the first conversation is always free and we normally generate at least a couple of ideas that you can use immediately.