Last reviewed 16 February 2015

Jude Tavanyar explores the challenges facing SMEs and how effective marketing, in particular, can help to gain competitive advantage.

There are currently some 4.9 million small to medium businesses in the UK and, more and more people, it seems, are drawn by the benefits of being their own boss and “going it alone”. However, even with innovative ideas and an energetic spirit of entrepreneurialism, the sad reality is that 30% of UK SMEs fail to survive longer than 2 years, and almost 50% will not be still in business 5 years after set-up.1

There are probably many reasons why this happens, but ineffective marketing activity is one of them. Nicky Forsyth is a marketing consultant who works with SMEs of all kinds, particularly specialising in supporting micro-businesses who need help to get started — often from scratch.

“Many people I work with need a flexible response to their marketing needs” says Forsyth. “Perhaps their business has been growing for a while without marketing activity but has suddenly reached a plateau and needs a boost, or maybe their marketing lacks focus and a consistent, purposeful approach.”

She considers that the two key reasons why many SMEs fail to market themselves effectively are — no surprises here — shortage of time and money.

“Smaller organisations often lack both, especially during their start-up phase. They therefore may prefer to focus on doing things that deliver immediate business results, like getting cash in the bank by pushing ahead with sales leads. That is quite understandable, but prioritising survival usually gives a short-term focus only. Businesses consequently overlook the important activities that will help to expand their reach and relationships over three to five years. Or they just lack the experience and the budget to employ a marketeer. And that can feel like quite a trap.”

Forsyth highlights some important tips for all small businesses who know they need to promote themselves, but do not know how to start.

“First of all, be sure you that your marketing and sales activities are 'joined up', that they are seen as part of the same discipline — developing relationships and converting client interest into revenue — and work in close co-operation and understanding”, says Forsyth. “While it is true that salespeople can have an instant impact on the profit line, without a marketing approach to expand your audience, develop a profile, and generally get your name and brand out there — there would be no leads for sales people to follow up.”

She believes that too many SMEs do not understand the importance of those responsible for marketing and sales activities working in tandem. “They’re different business requirements with distinct areas of activity, but they are inter-dependent. Sales people need to have clear, detailed information on the leads they pursue; marketing people must be kept informed about customer needs from sales conversations, or the marketing strategy will become rapidly out-of-date. For both areas of activity, the messages and ‘brand image’ conveyed needs to be consistent and carefully managed. This takes time, but it is vital and it involves regular, careful information-sharing.”

Time management and focused activity are at the heart of productive marketing, in Nicky’s view.

“In order to get the most out of the limited time you have for marketing — be focused, be consistent and keep going. I’ve worked with companies who, when they get a moment, do a Tweet here, an email there — but nothing sustained over time. They assume that’s better than nothing, but actually its preferable to choose one type of marketing activity — email marketing, say — and work with that until that process is established and you are ready to consider another channel. SMEs need to build their marketing initiatives steadily and focus on a few key messages that people come to recognise and associate with your business over time. It’s also crucially important to continue marketing activity, even when the business gets busy. Once you’ve created momentum, you need to maintain it, especially when things can easily slow down again.”

Another challenge for many SME leaders, she believes, is simply being spoiled for choice by the ever-increasing opportunities offered via online media.

“The digital world is changing so rapidly that people get a bit confused about where, and how, to start. But any business need to have in-depth knowledge of their product, their core messages, and their customer’s interests and needs, before they even consider which channels to use. If you don’t know where your customers like to 'hang out', on the Internet or in the flesh, you won’t be able to reach them with an exciting message that meets their immediate need.”

Once they know what they want to say, Forsyth advises SME marketeers to begin by building a list from their current contacts, do email marketing with a newsletter linked to their website. “After that, choose your channel according to your client — if it’s the man or woman in the street, Facebook could be your first step — for example. If it’s a business, you’ll need to explore the social media that type of business connects with, which might mean Twitter, Linked In or Google Plus.”

Social media may currently dominate the marketing scene, but Forsyth stresses that face to face connection should never be neglected. “PR via news releases, press events, networking groups such as the Chamber of Commerce – these might all become part of the marketing ‘mix’ over time” she says. “Finally, you have to get out there and meet people where they are. It’s as simple as that.”

Whatever the channels used in your marketing strategy, content – she believes — is key: “crisp messages with visual impact are highly effective. Building a profile for your business by joining discussion groups and professional online forums also helps you position your business as a ‘thought leader’ in your chosen field. It’s all about finding the kind of people you want as clients at a time when they are looking for your specific service or product. Which is, of course, why having a website that puts you at the top of search ratings is invaluable, and why your blog posts, for example, have to be inspiring, different, and much more exciting than those of your competitors.”

Setting clear targets, planning activities to reach them and measuring performance against them is essential. “Plan regularly — at least once a quarter — and be realistic and focussed in target-setting. You may have hundreds of Twitter followers, but if they are not relevant to your business – so what? Monitor where your leads come from, and follow up on them. Above all, try to keep your approach fresh. You need to constantly find new ways of doing things — running events, contributing to debates, establishing your profile and purpose.”

Forsyth believes that marketing needs to become a routine core activity for any organisation to thrive. “It’s a bit like brushing your teeth — if you don’t do it every day, you’re wasting your time. And if you’re inspiring and engaging, people will give you their attention for longer. It’s a real challenge to catch people’s interest in a very competitive world, but once you have it, stay relevant, stay tuned in to their needs, and give them what they want.”

Reference

1Federation of Small Businesses www.fsb.org.uk/stats,