Seven insights that will help you engage with small business owners

This is the second article in a two-part series by Jason Hill, head of strategy at OgilvyOne – this one looks marketing to small and medium business owners. The first, on reaching the top end of town, can be found here.

When marketing to business owners, it can be tempting to treat them as one big group.  But to do so is to miss the real human nuances that exist more than 725,000 businesses, employing anywhere between one and 200 people each.

It’s often argued that many marketers forget to treat business people as, well, people. But if that’s the case, it raises the question: how do you engage them?

Here, we look at seven insights that can help build customer engagement based on human motivations, rather than a simple understanding of their industry vertical.

There is more than one type of business owner

The most obvious types of small business are the small, typically one-man bands.  Invariably they get into business because of a singular passion – such as photography, surfing or clothes – and their business is purely an extension of the passion and it comes through in the way they deal with their customers.

Then there are the owner-managers, who tend to be more financially aware and operate larger businesses. Typically they work in the business, rather than working on it, having a number of employees to manage. Reflecting their structure, these firms tend to be more established with existing management structures and can often have multiple owners to engage.

The final group might be classed as classic entrepreneurs. They often have more than one business and are actively looking to grow and profitably divest where appropriate. They’re largely savvy and would be aghast at being considered novices or requiring help. In many ways this third group looks for firms that can help them grow or become more competitive.

The joys of ownership are often the flip-side to the hassles

For the first two groups (one-man bands and owner-managers), the late nights, early mornings, staff management, etc, are all very personal. If they don’t deliver or put in the hard yards, it’s their business that suffers.  It’s why so many small business owners (SBOs) find it so hard to switch off at night or while on holidays.

And yet, while acknowledging the pressure it places on them and their families, they also recognise the joy and pride of making something for themselves. When it comes to communicating using these insights, it’s consequently a fine line between dramatising a true insight and reinforcing some of the reality of business ownership that many would love to forget.

I am the business: CEO to chief bottle-washer

And that’s partly driven by the fact that many SBOs are typically required to perform multiple roles. More crucially, SBOs don’t have access to large internal teams of specialists in legal, HR or marketing, for example. Their success is largely down to their own guile.  But it also means they have large skill gaps. Put simply, most photographers don’t go into the photography business to manage their finances. Invariably it’s the cost of having the freedom to do what they want.

Know my influencer set

It’s for this reason that knowing and understanding the broader influencer groups is so important. Whether it’s financial advisors, tax consultants or lawyers, small firms rely on a number of outsourced firms to help them shape their businesses.

Similarly, they eagerly look to how others in their position are performing. Indeed, knowing how others, facing the same challenges as mine, have successfully solved a problem is so key that peer endorsement and case studies can play a big role in gaining the trust of small businesses.

Eat what I can kill

Ultimately whatever their motivation for being in business, small firms are dependent on selling. Managing costs alone will not create revenue. And, unlike medium or large-sized firms, they can’t rely on others to sell for them. It means that they’re invariably open to ideas that can help their cash registers ring. Or ideas that help them reach a broader audience and explain their story. And yet, this marketing ability is often one of the key areas where they lack direct skills or experience.

I probably earn more than you

It takes guts and commitment to run a successful small business. Consequently, one thing guaranteed to rile is talking down or patronising SBOs. For many, the decision to work for themselves reflected confidence in their own skills and abilities – something that’s much harder than working for the large corporates that typically try advertising to them. When you combine that with the fact that many SBOs make good money, there’s a real dislike for firms that fail to respect their acumen.

Make it easy for me to engage with you

When it comes to the practical realities of managing staff – buying stock, finding customers, managing the finances – it’s not surprising that advertising messages fall down the priority list. It’s not that they’re not important, simply that they need to be easy to engage with and to use. Some of the best ideas such as sending email diary invites as confirmation of attendance of an event, seem simple, but are greatly valued because they provide basic utility.


It’s true: business people are people first and foremost and should be engaged with as such. So when it comes to small businesses, understanding the different types of business owners and their different human motivations is therefore just as critical as understanding their industry vertical.