Small Biz Owners Voice Marketing Concerns at NYC Conference

At a conference yesterday in New York intended to educate local business owners about online marketing, a variety of merchants voiced their concerns about the number of marketing options available, and some talked about their different experiences with Yelp.

“It was my biggest mistake,” said Laurie Nicholson, co-founder of Raising Astoria, a small baby boutique in Queens, of her store’s decision to advertise on the online reviews site.

Nicholson was one of over 125 merchants who came to hear from representatives from GoogleYelpYextConstant Contact, Foursquare and others at the inaugural Online Marketing Conference at New York’s Rubin Museum, which was co-sponsored by hyperlocal network and Street Fight. (Nicholson also participated in a panel discussion.) The full day of programming covered a wide variety of services for small business owners, and focused in on some of the major issues that merchants face when it comes to customer acquisition and retention.

Not everyone in the audience was down on Yelp. Ismael Mosquera, owner of Gleam Salon in Morningside Heights, relies on the reviews company for the bulk of customer acquisition in the early days of his new business. “Nine of of ten of our new clients have been through Yelp,” said Mosquera, who has run paid campaigns on the platform. “It’s been huge for us.”

Part of Mosquera’s success with Yelp likely stems from the market his salon serves: a young, mostly student population in a relatively dense Manhattan neighborhood. Breaking through the noise is critical for the new businesses, and Yelp advertising provided the necessary differentiation that may have been lost in its free product.

One big takeaway from the event was that the needs of small businesses vary. By approaching the SMB market as an indivisible entity, some marketing companies tend to oversell — not only hurting their relationship with the client but limiting the business owner’s potential online spend elsewhere. All boats rise with the tide, and they fall with it as well. In the short run, Groupon’s aggressive sales strategy netted major growth, but the company’s rampant overselling ruined the reputation of the “daily deal,” and hurt the company’s ability to upsell existing customers on other better-fitting marketing services.

Contributing to the issue is the myth of the digitally dumb mom and pop shop — the idea that an aversion to technology among small business owners is holding back local marketing spend. Merchants recognize the power in services like social media, reviews, search, and deals to drive new customers and retain loyal consumers, but many still need to see the value in the paid products now being offered. Proving value is more than an analytics problem. It’s a sales problem as well.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.

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