Exploring the state of small business advertising in 2019: Tangible trends without the ‘millennial’ hook

Settle down, one and all, for yet another piece of research which aims to study the habits of millennials, the mythical catch-all marketing category. Yes, someone who was born when Joe Dolce topped the UK charts is part of the same group as someone born when the Spice Girls hit the summit with Wannabe. But can this latest study tell us anything aside from tiresome platitudes?

In this instance, yes – but you have to look away from the millennial angle to find it. A new report from The Manifest – an off-shoot of B2B research firm Clutch.co – has focused on business size as well as age classification when it came to advertising and marketing campaigns with interesting results.

The research, which polled 529 small businesses across the US, explored the more innovative methods SMBs employ in an attempt to punch above their weight. Overall, two thirds (64%) of small businesses polled said they use social media regularly, compared with online (49%) and events (34%). Print (36%), TV (22%) and radio (22%) all got perhaps more of an airing than expected.

Yet the focus on personalisation and targeting is one which appeals. The study cites events management software platform Curate.co as an example of a business which is maximising its limited ad budget. Facebook dollars are strictly targeted to go to companies such as florists, caterers and rental companies. “We’re in a very niche market, so you have to go where the fish are,” said Curate.co founder Ryan O’Neil. “Traditional mediums are unable to allow me to specify who I’m marketing to.”

However, cutting the umbilical cord of traditional metrics can be surprisingly difficult. “Print, TV and radio have been around so long that there is an innate trust factor for a lot of people,” said Josh Ryther, senior partner at brand agency Deksia. “It takes more to produce advertising that’s TV, print, or radio – not just time but more people and more thought. On Facebook, I can click three times and run an ad with very little thought or strategy behind it.”

Let’s translate the unfortunately phrased ‘very little thought’ – you can almost see marketing managers recoiling in horror – as ‘opportunistic’. Historians may remember Oreo’s Twitter missive during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout as the start of such a trend whereby instant-hit campaigns can be waved through and, if done correctly, garner critical acclaim. Slate saw it differently. “So bowled over by Oreo’s display of basic social media competence were the nation’s business media that editors around the country raced to be the first to explain to an awestruck nation exactly how the company pulled it off,” it wrote.

Social media – and brand conversation specifically – has become infinitely more cynical since those salad days. Yet Facebook, despite all concerns, remains a vital platform for these small brands to breathe. 86% of SMBs polled say they use Facebook in some capacity, significantly more than YouTube (51%), Instagram (47%), Twitter (41%) and LinkedIn (32%).

Take Big Berkey Water Filters as an example. The company’s owner, Dan DeBaun, continues to see traction with Facebook advertising. “[Facebook] has a high potential for sales conversions [based on] ideal demographics for our products,” he said. “Many of these converting customers go on to share our ads with family and friends post-purchase. This becomes free advertising… that is highly valuable to us.”

When it comes to advertising channels, Google search ads, cited by more than half (53%) of small businesses, comes out well on top. Banner advertising (37%), video ads (30%), retargeting (28%) and influencers (24%) pale in comparison.

But what does the future hold? Two thirds (67%) of small businesses polled said they will begin using a new advertising medium in 2019. The majority will dip their toes fully in online and social media (29%), while others will go back to the future with print, radio and TV.

Ultimately, it’s an extension of the ephemeral social strategy. The report concludes that small businesses ‘need to always be willing to change their advertising based on what mediums are most likely to reach their customers.’ “In a world where there’s so much distraction, competition and noise, you want to be able to tell your story and convey value,” said Robin Raj, founder of design and brand management agency Citizen Group. “That often requires paid media to put out the content or message you want to convey, and it’s important to continually evolve this strategy and listen to your customers.”

So what of those pesky millennials? Writing for this publication last month Guy Hanson, senior director of professional services at Return Path, wisely noted a word of caution for catch-all campaigns. “Treating millennials as one homogenous group and neglecting its diversity is a flawed approach,” Hanson wrote. “For instance, students live by a different schedule to most consumers. Christmas isn’t just once a year for a student; it often comes three times in the form of a student loan instalment. A key section of the millennial demographic may be more willing to make purchases at a certain time.”

You can read the full report here.

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