Five Lessons Google Learned About Selling to Small Businesses

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googleSoon, legacy media will meet the mobile majority. New research from BIA/Kelsey suggests that within five years local spending on mobile media will account for a larger percentage of local media revenues than both newspapers and radio. During a presentation at the research firm’s event in New Orleans Monday, company founder Tom Buono said that by 2019 mobile will rival even television, the perennially resilient cash cow of the legacy media industry.

The sharp increase in mobile spending will come in large part from a still-nascent small business market. Michael Boland, chief analyst at BIA/Kelsey, said Monday that spending by businesses with less than 100 employees, which accounts for a little more than 11% of overall local-mobile revenues today, will increase nearly ten fold over the next five years. The firm estimates that small business will account for about half of mobile local revenues by 2019 — inline with their share in the wider local media landscape.

For Google, the shift to mobile presents an opportunity to learn from mistakes made during the desktop internet boom. The company has struggled to simplify its search management and marketing products, and confused many in the local search industry with the introduction of Google+ Local in 2013. But earlier this summer, the company released Google My Business, a long-awaited dashboard that allows users to update business information across its properties while also folding in paid search and marketing tools as well.

James Croom, head of marketing for the project, has spent five years in the company’s small business team. He said Monday that the new product builds on some learnings from the company’s Get Your Business Online effort launched in 2009 to drive business across the world to build websites. He says that the campaign — though successful for its scale — failed to materially change the course of a segment of small brick-and-mortar sellers that remained obstinate and reluctant to invest and maintain a digital presence.

Presence does not mean engagement: Within 18 months, the company found in many markets as many as 10% of the sites created we’re already down. “We saw this very wide perception among the small business we worked with that they were done online [once they built a site],” said Croom. “We hadn’t done a lot to help actually change the engagement of small business on the web.”

A lack of virality: Croom says the company made the error of lumping all small businesses together, marketing to them as a part of a general segment. He says the company quickly realized that by classifying businesses this way it was undermining one of the competitive advantages of  building a small business in a digital age — the niche. The resistance to segmented messaging not only led many small business to reject the company’s product, but also stymied any virality within the market. Business owners simply did not want to share with their competitors.

The myth of the non-savvy business owner (kind of): “We assumed that business owners were not very technical,”said Croom. “But the market is split: about half are very savvy and the other half are terrified.” That misconception led the marketing sales and marketing team to often dumb down the messaging and tactics in a way that some merchants interpreted as condescending.

Digital expertise doesn’t always scale: Most marketers assume that digital expertise tends to correlate with the size of the business. That’s not necessarily true, said Croom. He said that in many cases the newer, smaller firms realize that the only way to scale in a cost effective manner is to use the web while larger, more established firms feel less pressure to shift their existing marketing spending to digital.

15 minutes or less: Croom added that the company also misconceived the way in which small business owners managed their time. “We had this perception that small business owners were scheduled for busy in the traditional sense,” he told the audience Monday. “But the reality is that they do not have a concept of schedule. their entire life is interrupt-driven. Tasks over 15 minutes are never going to happen.”

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.