SME Marketing Channel Preferences Revealed

SMEs.  There are close to two million, they generate half of the UK’s GDP and employ 60 per cent of the private sector workforce.  Moreover, they’re big buyers of B2B products and services.  Just ask Sage who’s built a £1.4 billion business on the back of them.

SMEs are a potentially significant opportunity for many B2B marketers then, but how best to open a conversation?

 This was puzzling me so I asked 450 buyers of B2B services within SMEs to imagine a prospective supplier wanted to engage with them.  How effective, the question continued, would different communication channels be in grabbing their attention?

Their answers provide clear guidance on where best to target marketing resources.  Below are some highlights and if you’re interested in delving further, PowerPoint charts of the findings – at an overall level and exploring differences by SME size and sector – can be downloaded here:  SME marketing channel preferences

An overview

The fourteen channels explored fall into four categories based on their effectiveness.

  • Prioritise – channels with the highest impact
  • Deploy selectively – channels without mass appeal but effective amongst many
  • Think carefully – channels disliked by the majority but appealing to a minority
  • Handle with care – channels that may alienate as many dislike

And there are six specific learnings – outlined below – which will help ensure marcoms have the best chances of breaking through.

Focus on digital channels for maximum impact

First, prioritise two digital channels – search and email.  Two thirds of SMEs (68 and 64 per cent respectively) say these are the best routes for a prospective supplier to reach them.

Second, seek the implicit endorsement of trade media.  A similar proportion of SMEs, 62 per cent, report that suppliers producing editorial content in trade titles are likely to get on their radar.

Reflect on the value of ‘face time’, ‘broadcast’ and ‘passive’ channels

Third, if the goal is to grab the attention of SMEs, contemplate the likely ROI and appropriateness of seven channels which are consumed by some, but ignored by an equal or greater proportion.  Specifically:

  • Four ‘face time’ channels – conference speaking (minus 24 per cent when negative responses subtracted from positives), seminars (minus 23 per cent), trade shows (minus 18 per cent) and networking (minus 12 per cent)
  • Two ‘passive’ channels – directories (minus 25 per cent) and trade advertising (13 per cent)
  • And one ‘broadcast’ channel – direct mail (6 per cent)

These channels may work for your particular target audience or a segment of it.  On the other hand they may not.  Knowing what camp your prospects fall into then is critical.

Avoid telemarketing and use social media appropriately

Fourth, use telemarketing very selectively, if at all.  Almost all SMEs (82 per cent) report that this is not an effective route to engage with them.  Importantly, a significant number has a strong aversion with almost one half (45 per cent) reporting it to be completely ineffective in reaching them.

Fifth, use social media channels by all means, but don’t necessarily expect them to gain the attention of SMEs.  58 per cent of SMEs report that blogging is not at all effective in engaging them; 67 per cent say the same of tweeting.  Now that’s not to say social media doesn’t have other valuable roles.  Take blogs.  This channel may not grab attention, but is of value further down the sales funnel in supporting brand positioning and demonstrating expertise.  It also of course has SEO benefits.

Adopt a segmented approach

And finally, adopt a segmented approach.  SMEs are not one homogenous group.  Rather, in most product categories they can be clustered into distinct groups based on behaviours, preferences and attitudes.  This means that for maximum impact, brand, offer and message need to be designed with specific target segments in mind.   This segmented approach should also drive channel choice.  For example, one in ten (10 per cent) state that direct mail is very effective in reaching them, but one fifth (19 per cent) report the opposite.  So for maximum impact, couple the general guidelines above with an understanding of your target segment’s unique preferences.



Differences by SME size

With segmentation in mind, how do channel preferences differ by size of SME?

Let’s consider the opinions of four different sizes of SME – medium (50 – 249 employees), small (10 – 49), micro (1 – 9 employees) and sole traders (just little old them).

The most notable difference is apparent when medium sized businesses are compared with their smaller cousins.  As we progress up the size chain behaviour changes.

Common with other SMEs, search and email remain central to accessing medium sized SMEs.  However, it appears that the larger end of the SME market tends to consume more channels.  On balance, decision makers within medium SMEs rate six channels as effective in reaching them.  Sole traders, micro and small SMEs rate just three.  This suggests that the larger the SMEs you’re targeting, the more an integrated, multi-dimensional approach to marketing communications matters.

Larger SMEs also differ in two other important respects:

  • You should try and meet buyers face-to-face.  Three fifths (61 per cent) report that networking is an effective means of accessing them (contrasted with 42 per cent of small, 43 per cent of micro and 36 per cent of sole traders giving the same answer).  Likewise, 59 per cent of this segment also consider trade shows to be effective (as opposed to 45 per cent of small, 39 per cent of micro and 28 per cent of sole traders)
  • Thought leadership and being part of their professional community will position you favourably.  For example, conference speaking is classified as effective by 57 per cent.  This is more than double the number of sole traders giving the same answer (22 per cent) and far ahead of micro (34 per cent) and small SMEs (45 per cent).  Similarly, advertising in trade press appeals to two thirds of this audience (69 per cent) which contrasts with sole traders (59 per cent), micro SMEs (55 per cent) and small SMEs (51 per cent)

Differences by industry sector

Channel choice should also be driven by the industry sectors being targeted.

We explored differences in opinion between five sectors – Financial Services, Marketing & Media, Business & Legal Services, Retail and ICT.  Doing so reveals two important similarities:

  • Search continues to have universal appeal (as does email in all sectors other than Retail)
  • Four channels – telemarketing, tweeting, blogging and SMS – are seen as ineffective across the board

In other words, by sticking to the general principles outlined earlier, you can’t go too far wrong.  However, if targeting the Financial Services, ICT or Retail sectors, the following should be noted for maximum impact:

  • SMEs in Financial Services have a clear preference for knowledge and network based marketing.  When compared with the typical SME, this audience is more open to trade articles, networking and seminars (71, 64 and 58 per cent respectively rate these channels as very or quite effective)
  • SMEs operating in the ICT sector are also noteworthy in their desire for knowledge.  The single most effective channel in the eyes of this audience is trade articles (66 per cent)
  • Retailers seem to be avid consumers of trade media.  68 per cent rate trade articles as effective and a similar proportion, 63 per cent, say the same of trade advertising.  However, unlike other SMEs, email marketing is much less likely to be effective.  One quarter (28 per cent) of retailers tell us it is completely ineffective in reaching them