Unpacking the Twisted Thinking of Small Business Self-Service Online

Share this:

For years, media and tech companies have waxed eloquently about the incredible value that forms when you get small businesses to “self-serve.”  Translated, this most often means: “Get the business owner to do the content creation job, and I’ll use their content to create my service. Then, once everything kicks in, they will be rewarded.”

Historically, 9 times out of 10, the business has not engaged, and the start-up betting on self-serve learns to pivot or takes its place in the LBS graveyard.

There are signs of a shift towards acceptance of DIY service models, but before everyone gets too excited (or naïve), let’s go a little deeper.

So, what’s been the problem?
As always, it’s a mix of things.  Most commonly, small businesses are just fundamentally strapped for time.

Think about how businesses have pared down their costs to weather the economic storm over the past 3-4 years.  Commonly this means the owner is putting in very long hours just to keep afloat.  They have a lot of things bearing down on them every hour of every day. Before you criticize a business owner for not engaging with your hot product, ask yourself: is your product really good enough to convince them to spend less time with their family?

Occasionally, the business owner is indeed intimidated by the technology or — more viscerally — paralyzed by the fear of feeling dumb or inadequate. There is growing evidence that technology intimidation is indeed a generational barrier.  New-generation business owners have grown up unafraid to try technologies, and realize the potential for technology to be a smart competitive asset. And, we’re finally seeing signs, as noted by BIA/Kelsey, that self-serve is on the brink of breaking through.

It’s also really important to remember that most business owners are really masters of their craft, not technology-literate by vocation. So, just because a 30-year-old fitness center owner is comfortable tweeting and managing their own Facebook page does not mean they feel comfortable — or ever want to — put their time and energy into designing their own promotions or writing a blog post every week. Don’t mistake comfort for confidence. Just because they feel comfortable, does not mean they feel confident in making well-informed decisions against the dizzying array of choices for their marketing dollar and personal attention.

Let’s not get sucked into thinking of self-serve as the panacea for all that is frustrating in in LBS; technology comfort alone will not drive scaled merchant participation.

The Contribution-Reward Problem
A major barrier to scaled adoption still looms right around the corner. If your product involves the owner investing their time and hoping that they get some results for their effort, you’ll be facing the next hurdle in self-service.  Seeing a clear return for investing their (very) limited time is the fundamental hurdle most self-serve products have yet to effectively address. Just because the business owner is open to taking a key role in participation does not mean they will.

Reverse Thinking:  Reward > Contribution
In the development of our merchant services promotion platform at Closely, we banged our collective heads against the Contribution-Reward problem. Then we stepped back, and listened carefully. Here’s what we heard, and where it took us.

The pattern we kept observing had three parts:  One, merchants feel pressured to jump in; two, there is a treadmill-like feeling of helplessness in just keeping up; and three, businesses often experience mixed results when they do jump in.

So the business owner feels increasing pressure to act, but the most urgent feelings center on feeling more in the know and especially, more in control.

The Control Motivation
Feeling “in control” is the most central need with merchant behavior. How can they feel in control of how they drive results with technology; how do they know if they are out-performing competition; and how do they know if customers are satisfied?

One restaurant owner told us of his routine that he spends over two hours every day checking what his competitors are doing, what consumers are posting on their social pages, checking in on Yelp reviews, hunting for what deals and offers are happening.  A wellness business owner showed us how analytical she has become in assessing promotions and seeing how she measures up versus other deals in her market.

The control motivation is about how they are performing in their marketplace. You’ll notice there is no mention how the business is stressed out over how well worded his profile page is, or how the sharing bonus on an offer will contribute to the click performance of her promotion campaign.

In our case, this led us down a product path to create a new mobile application that begins the engagement process by providing the business manager with a live stream of what is happening around them.

Delivering focused, contextual information into the hands of the owner creates an initial feeling of relief, followed by a growing desire to engage and control their performance.  Reward first, and then pull in the self-service engagement.

Deliver Value and Continually Improve Engagement
The sooner we get past thinking of self-serve as if the small business owner is anxious to assume the role of “content author” or “ad campaign designer”, the sooner we’ll get on with building products that engage.

The driver of control is not about content production – it’s about the information they need to give them a better sense of control – and earning your way up to then gaining their participation.

This may not be a traditional view of “self service,” but it feels like a much more effective foundation upon which we can truly scale our way towards that goal.

Perry Evans is the founder & CEO of Closely, Inc. a Colorado-based start-up focused on reinventing small business promotion marketing for today’s live, mobile social world. Perry has led the formation and development of several local media and technology businesses over the past 15 years, including MapQuest, Jabber and Local Matters. He is an active advisor to mobile start-ups LocalMind and Forkly, is a mentor in Montreal’s FounderFuel, and is a Board Member of the University of Colorado’s Deming Center for Entrepreneurship.