Small Business is Big

Big brands are having no trouble luring shoppers in with low prices and extravagant advertising campaigns this holiday season, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday leading the way. Meanwhile, small, local businesses must find other ways to get an edge. Naturally, most small businesses don’t have the cash flow for pricey advertising spots, or the merchandise volume to justify huge price reductions, so what are these organizations doing to compete with the “big fish?”

Many are using grass-roots tactics like word-of-mouth marketing to capitalize on current trends and put the pressure on supporting small, local businesses. Let’s face it, local is trendy these days, and most small businesses are not shy about touting the intimacy and personal touch small establishments have to offer over their larger counterparts.

In addition to capitalizing on the small/local trend, many small organizations now have access to a larger audience, thanks to technology and the Internet. Farmers’ markets, for example, epitomize the small/local movement and are adapting digital technologies to reach consumers. And, according to a survey from MerchantCircle, 12 percent of small- to medium-sized businesses have used deal sites such as Groupon.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that small businesses may have some help from larger companies with a vested interest in their success…

American Express: “Small Business Saturday”

In addition to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a new shopping day was recently coined: Small Business Saturday (along with a whole host of other designated shopping days… but that’s a topic for another day). The Small Business Saturday campaign is backed by American Express, who introduced this campaign by incenting consumers with a $25 credit on their AMEX card for shopping at small businesses that accept American Express.

Yelp small business email campaign

Yelp is also helping to push small business shopping this year, and even sent out an email, urging shoppers to patronize local businesses this holiday season. So what does Yelp, a purported $1.5 billion company, have to do with small businesses? Arguably, small businesses are much more likely to find value in Yelp reviews and therefore reciprocate the publicity. Put it this way: a small clothing boutique is going to place much more value in online customer reviews (and be more adversely affected by negative reviews) than, say, JCPenney. Likewise, you’re more likely to see the “people love us on Yelp” sticker in a local coffee shop, compared to the more ubiquitous Starbucks.

Have your holiday shopping behaviors changed this year? Are you feeling personal convictions (or pressure from others) to support more local/small businesses? How have the marketing campaigns of Yelp, AMEX and others affected your choices? Sound off in the comments, or contact me on Twitter or email. Happy holidays!

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.


The Dark Side of Social Media

3819016262_e375b9791b_m "Hey, bub. Those are some nice reviews ya got there. It would be a real shame if something was to happen to them. Say they was to fall down some stairs or, you know, disappear…"

Companies large and small are still struggling
to cope with the realities of a world changed by social media. The power
of online review sites to make or break the reputation of companies and their services
is growing every day. Small and local businesses, in particular, can find
themselves at a loss for how to respond when they are object of negative
reviews on sites like
Yelp, UrbanSpoon or others. And as a recent Inc. Magazine story pointed out, there have even been instances of online acrimony between
business owners and unhappy customers leading to physical confrontations in the
real world

Now the East Bay Express has added another
, suggesting that Yelp uses their control over how both negative
and positive reviews appear in business listings to motivate those businesses
to pay for advertising. The story offers a number of examples in which business
owners claim that Yelp sales reps promised that negative reviews could be
buried or disappeared altogether. Other business owners noticed that their competitors who
advertise on Yelp seem to have a higher ratio of positive to negative reviews.

According to the story, Yelp’s CEO vehemently denies
the allegations and claims the manipulation of reviews isn’t even possible. But
in a way it doesn’t matter. The potential conflict of interest between the
operators of review sites and the businesses that advertise on them is enough to make many business owners feel nervous. The fact that some business owners are
willing to go on record saying they feel shaken down points to a fundamental
flaw in Yelp’s value proposition for businesses. Why would you advertise on site
where your harshest critics go to vent? Especially when, as the Express story
puts it, the only recourse for businesses to salvage their reputation “is by
paying Yelp — regardless of whether the reviews are true or false?”

Now, to be fair, companies can, do and should learn from the constructive
criticism that their customers post online. That is one of the most valuable
aspects of social media. But a few negative reviews have way of overshadowing
the positive. And there enough examples of reviewers taking a personal beef
online as means of retribution or just plain, mean-spirited snarkiness to make
the impartiality of these sites somewhat suspect. Add in that most review sites
are anonymous, and you have a recipe for mistrust and bad faith.

That’s where Sterling client AlikeList sees a
real opportunity. Their approach is simple: do away with the whole concept of negative
reviews. Build networks of friends and family who share lists of only those
businesses they like and you’ll end up with more relevance for end-users and
less stress for businesses. After all, if you’re searching for a plumber, why
waste time sorting through reviews of those that suck if you can quickly find the one that
people in your network agree is good? This approach offers a much more attractive opportunity
for businesses as well. They can market directly to customers who they know
like them or are considering doing business with them.

Photo credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0