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Cut the jargon to help get SMEs back on their feet

15 Jun 2020  |  Elizabeth Lane 
Cut the jargon to help get SMEs back on their feet

To help SMEs get the most out of digital advertising we need to make things simpler for small business owners, writes the IAB's Elizabeth Lane

200 odd years ago, at a low point in Anglo-Franco relations, Napoleon infamously referred to Brits as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. Whether he actually ever spoke the words depends on your Google source, but one thing is for sure, since the turn of the 21st century, it’s a reputation that the UK has very much been owning.

From the micro breweries and bakeries of E1 to the small town solicitors and florists of Aberdeen, SMEs are part of the fabric of our society and are essential to the national economy.

They might be small but, according to the Ad Association’s Ad Pays 7 report released last year, they make up a mighty 99.9% of all private sector business in the UK, employ over 16 million people and have a combined annual turnover of £2 trillion.

So it’s no surprise that supporting SMEs has been a high priority since COVID-19 hit the economy. In short, it’s in all of our interests to see the SME population survive and thrive - but according to results of IAB UK’s new study, ‘Powering Up’, 64% are concerned about the future of their business as a result of the pandemic.

The study explores how SMEs are currently using digital advertising, the benefits they feel it delivers and the key areas where more support is needed to help them maximise its value further - particularly during this period of non-existent footfall and rapidly pivoting strategies.

For the past 20 years, SMEs and digital advertising have played a significant part in fuelling one another’s growth. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has helped to establish the UK’s digital ad market as a world leader and given rise to a diverse and dynamic SME economy.

By democratising small businesses’ ability to advertise, digital channels give entrepreneurs the ability to harness targeted reach and run highly measurable campaigns in a cost efficient way.

Take the woman who started a now well-known handbag business at her kitchen table with £600, or the Devonshire farm turned organic veg box brand that has used digital to cultivate its customer base.

Now, as we emerge from the first phase of the pandemic and adapt to an uncertain economic landscape, our research shows that digital advertising remains central for the majority of SMEs - 60% are using paid digital advertising, of which 63% feel it provides a good return on investment and, of all SME advertisers (across any media), half say that digital channels are more important to their business at this time of crisis.

But while uptake of digital among SMEs is high and perceptions among the online-inclined are good, the study also shows that the pandemic has shifted small businesses’ outlook on marketing and identifies clear opportunities where SMEs can unlock more value from online channels.

Just take a look at the evidence. 70% of SMEs believe that communicating with customers is more important than ever and 58% are keen to diversify their communication strategy during the pandemic. Yet 40% are not using paid digital channels at all and, among those that do, the average amount of channels used is just 1.3.

In fact, one in seven describe their knowledge and ability to use digital as “not good” and, while social media is the most used paid-for digital channel, it also has the highest demand for more support on how to run a campaign effectively. Outside of social, online display and search are not widely used and knowledge of the value these channels can provide is low - fewer than one in five SMEs have used online display advertising in the past 12 months.

To help SMEs get the most out of digital advertising we need to make things simpler for small business owners. There is an appetite for more advice and guidance, but in a certain form. First of all, we need to cut the jargon and ensure that we’re using accessible, everyday language.

Digital advertising is complicated at the best of times, so anything we can do to minimise that is a big plus.

Secondly, the term SMEs covers a broad and varied range of businesses. To gain increased traction with this market, we need to tailor advice for business owners of all sizes and levels of experience. And lastly, digital advertisers need to collaborate as an industry to pull together expert insight from across the spectrum; allowing SMEs to understand the best mix of channels for their business in an interactive, objective and digestible form.

Now that we’ve heard from SMEs, it’s down to the digital ad industry to deliver. Over the next few months, we will be working with our members to help small business owners effectively harness online advertising and get the most out of the money that they invest. Just as digital advertising has played a central role in the growth of the SME economy, it’s now crucial to its recovery. Supporting that is in all of our interests.


Elizabeth Lane is head of research & measurement, IAB UK

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