Content Strategy for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)
One of the most fascinating elements of our social fabric is the ubiquitous Small and Medium Enterprise (SME)—small and agile businesses that serve as the backbone of our economy. Despite being nearly exterminated by the industrial revolution 300 years ago, SMEs have continued to thrive over the years. In fact, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) web site refers to SMEs as “…the backbone of the US economy and the primary source of jobs for Americans…” According to the United States International Trade Commission, in 2007, US SME exports amounted to $306.6 billion and SMEs employed roughly half of the 120 million nonfarm private sector workers in the United States in 2006. The sheer employment potential of an average SME and the role it plays in our daily lives is incalculable.
SMEs serve as a vital support system providing a wide variety of customized services at competitive prices. Small grocery chains, auto service stations, small legal firms, PR firms, and coffee shops are all examples of small and medium enterprises. We rely on them all the time. Many of them are staffed and run by entrepreneurs with a strong will to write their own destinies. A bulk of these businesses are content being compact and self-sufficient. This is largely due to the fact that their size gives them an unenviable advantage—agility. SMEs adapt well to change and innovate more rapidly than large enterprises.
Contrary to popular notion, SMEs don’t live off the scraps thrown to them by larger players. In fact, many of them provide top-quality goods and services at competitive prices. However, to remain agile and competitive, SMEs need to market their goods and services better. The advent of Web 2.0 and social media seems to have been a mixed blessing. While the enterprising ones have been quick to use social media streams like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Yelp, the others don’t seem to have moved beyond word-of-mouth advertising, simple web sites, and traditional marketing. Large enterprises, on the other hand, have responded quickly to the change by cutting down on traditional marketing and reallocating funds for setting up large social media and community teams.
In this article, I’m going to focus on a specific SME segment—the true SMEs—businesses that intend to remain small and niche. I’ve done this for two reasons. First, true SMEs form the bulk of the SME segment. Second, true SMEs need more help. Unlike the ones that intend to grow and expand, true SMEs lack the savvy and skills to promote themselves. This article begins with a description of content strategy, what it is, and what it is not. I follow with a description of the factors that need to be considered when developing a content strategy. The article ends with a content strategy for true SMEs, which I call the “Glass Pane” strategy.
What is Content Strategy?
Content strategy owes its popularity to Web 2.0 just as information architecture owes its popularity to the Internet boom of the 90s. In fact, content strategy has almost become synonymous with social media. It is (incorrectly) perceived as a means of choosing the right mix of social media tools to market a product or service.
Simply put, content strategy is an integral part of business strategy. It deals with creating awareness about products and services in an effective manner. It is a means of attracting and retaining customers by delivering information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format. The goal of a good content strategy is to improve the profitability of a business and NOT to merely deliver content efficiently.
Factors that Define Content Strategy
In most companies, including SMEs, attracting and retaining customers is the exclusive purview of the sales and marketing departments. Traditionally, these departments rely on rich media like glitzy advertisement campaigns and slick marketing literature to achieve their objectives. Thanks to Web 2.0, the cost of producing high-quality content has come down. There are several web-based tools that allow you to create web sites, edit documents, pictures, videos, and sound clips all by you for free or for a small price. Social media have added a dramatic twist to this by democratizing information. Customers can now compare products and services in the open. As a result, good products and services end up selling better irrespective of their advertisement campaigns. Web 2.0 and social media have opened up a cheap and almost limitless supply of free marketing and sales opportunities—for all. A small player can now potentially grab a major chunk of the market by building a great product and marketing it virtually for free on the Internet. This is an example of a good content strategy in action.
Not all SMEs seek phenomenal growth. Many of them might not even be capable of enduring the stress of expansion. In fact, expansion might be detrimental to their existence. So, while Web 2.0 and social media might be great for small companies looking for rapid growth, they might not work for SMEs intending to stay small and agile. To develop a good content strategy, one needs to study and analyze a business before suggesting a content strategy. Here’s a list of factors that need to be considered when developing a content strategy.
- Business Goal
- Legal Considerations
Large organizations usually use content to maintain and expand their customer base. They maintain a constant barrage of information to remain within the “awareness-radar” of their customers. Expansion and diversification might often not be the goal of an SME. Many SMEs love their sweet spots for various reasons. I know an Indian gentleman who has been running an Indian restaurant in San Jose, CA, for nearly 35 years. It’s the same old building where he started, with faded old pictures and ancient flooring. Regulars swear by his food and make it a point to visit at least once a week. This restaurant neither has a web site nor a blog. The owner has no intentions of expanding and is very content with his customer base. But don’t get me wrong—intending to remain small doesn’t mean being complacent. Many SMEs are highly profitable and provide great work environments—simply because of their size. So, a content strategy that’s aimed at growing a business might not work for a business that wants to remain small.
Melanie, a technical writer in a software startup, complains about working extra hours because her boss refuses to hire an additional writer, citing budgetary constraints. However, the same boss pays double her salary to a contractor who writes whitepapers.
Sound familiar? I’m sure it does. Getting businesses to understand the importance of content is not difficult, but getting them to pay for it is. This is especially true for small businesses. You might be able to convince a small business owner to shell out top dollar for a good advertisement spot, but maybe not for a blogger. Try to understand why the business owner prefers one content type over another.
Executing on a content strategy is not easy, especially if it requires the content developer or curator to learn a new tool or technology. If you are wondering why the cool coffee shop that you go to doesn’t have a web page, it’s probably because Chris, the owner, is not very familiar with computers. So before pitching a cool content strategy to a small business owner, stop and think whether the owner will be able to do that task herself or himself. Small business owners often tend to be hands-on people. You will find it hard to convince Chris to hire an assistant so he can spend a few hours a week updating a blog. Small business owners understand technology and its benefits, but if they can’t do some of it themselves, they might not adopt it.
Smart phones have become the ubiquitous mode of communication. They are indispensable tools for those seeking to remain up-to-date. Such people have a low tolerance for stale information. Their opinions of a business are based, almost entirely, on the quality of their online presence. So, if for example, the information on a web site is dated or inaccurate, they will not bother to visit that place again. Now this can be pretty hard on entrepreneurs especially because they are constantly multitasking. Little do they realize how poor a reputation they are gathering due to incomplete or inaccurate online information. So before recommending social media to an SME, check to see whether they can keep their social feeds up-to-date.
Understanding local laws is key. Some of the content that organizations create might seem ineffective but might be legally required. As a content strategist you need to be aware of such content. It could include warning messages on products, license agreements, compliance information, and so on.
Content Strategy for SMEs
Defining a content strategy for an entire business segment is tricky. One size never fits all, especially in the SME segment where companies have the widest range of goals, competencies, revenues, markets, and business strategies. The strategy described here is best suited for true SMEs—businesses that intend to remain small and occupy a niche.
If I were to describe this content strategy using a metaphor, I’d call it the “Glass Pane.” The metaphor represents a single transparent interface between the business and the customer. The Glass Pane essentially means having a single web portal for communicating with customers, unlike most large enterprises that have multiple web sites and pages on most major social media sites. Multiple sites usually work well for large enterprises because they have the staff and budget for maintaining a large and diverse web presence. It might, however, not work for SMEs, especially small businesses. The “Glass Pane” strategy is not just about maintaining a single web portal. It’s about using that portal to develop user community. This strategy is illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The “Glass Pane” Strategy
Building the Single Information Source
The key to effective information delivery is efficient storage. For information to be delivered to the right people, at the right time, in the right format, it needs to be centrally stored in a location that’s easily accessible to all employees—especially those responsible for communicating with customers. Building a central information repository takes time and money, but don’t skimp. A solid information repository is the best foundation for your business in the information era. To set one up, you might need to do all or some of the following:
- Get a Content Management System (CMS)
- Move all your content into the CMS
- Hook up all employees to the CMS
- Link your web site to the CMS
Getting a Content Management System
If you are on a tight budget, I’ll recommend an open-source CMS. They are free, versatile, and can scale in the long run. While you might need professional help in setting up a CMS, there is a lot on information on the Internet on setting one up. If you already have a web site, ask your service provider if they offer a CMS. If they do, take it. That will save you the hassle of setting up and maintaining one yourself. What’s more, they will back up your data. Some of the most popular open-source CMSs are Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress.
Moving All Your Content Into the CMS
When I say all, I mean ALL. Information is the lifeblood of any business. It includes everything from strategic stuff like know-how to more mundane stuff like bills and invoices. The best thing is that most CMSs can store almost all popular file formats and tag them for easy retrieval. You could, for example, upload all your spreadsheets into the CMS and then access them from anywhere in the world. You could also encrypt confidential data and secure them with passwords. Once all your stuff is in one place, you can actually back it up on a regular basis with a single click of a button!
PS: If it helps, hire the librarian from the local community college to help you organize all your material. After all, a CMS is a library in one sense.
Hooking up all Employees to the CMS
Hooking up employees to the CMS is going to involve getting them to access it every day to file away every scrap of useful information they create or receive. This is not going to be easy, but your employees will love it once they find everything neatly filed away in one place. Make information sharing a norm, not a choice. Most CMSs support e-mail, chat, and other forms of communication. They are a great way to streamline processes and bring in some semblance of order.
Linking Your Web site to the CMS
That’s right, the best and easiest way to maintain a dynamic web site is to build it ON a CMS. That way, you don’t need to learn HTML and web design to update the site. Just update relevant bits of content and the CMS will take care of the rest. Even large enterprise web sites are built on CMSs.
Building the Glass Pane
In this day and age, every business needs a web site. It’s not a fad anymore—it’s your storefront, so design it like one. While appearance matters, content quality matters above everything else. Use the main page to focus on what your company does and what tangible benefits your products and services provide. Never skimp on the details. Keep your literature concise but comprehensive. Put yourself in the customers’ shoes and think of all the things that they would like to know about you.
Provide accurate contact details. Nothing annoys first-time customers more than not being able to get through to sales or support staff. If you don’t have the time and resources to receive calls or respond to e-mails instantly, mention that on the web site and set expectations clearly.
All in all, use your web site to describe your business, your products and services, and yourself as clearly as possible. Good web sites don’t come cheap. Splurge on a good designer. Make sure that you verify every scrap of information on your web site. Remember, the S in SME means small NOT cheap and your web site is your storefront. If you can afford it, get a mobile site developed too.
It’s very tempting to add social features like blog and Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and Yelps on the home page. Do so only if you have the time to keep these streams active. Pick a social media mechanism that is most relevant to you and stick to it.
If you Develop Products, Embed Content
Those developing products have the added advantage of using their products as marketing tools. This is almost like Advertising 101, but there’s a big difference. Place content where it is needed instead of producing documentation. Many manufacturers do it today. Installation booklets are fast getting replaced by bits of relevant information that are carefully placed on different parts of the product. So instead of switching between the installation booklet and the product, users can now get started quicker by following the instructions “on” the product. Use visual cues and intuitive design to make your products easy to use.
Build a Solid Community
Online communities are almost as old as the Internet, and user communities are almost as old as commerce itself. Building a community is not about building an online forum—that’s just part of it. Building an online community is all about allowing customers to share notes and educate each other. Social media portals like Yelp have made it easier for SMEs to advertise themselves and gather customer insights. However, a user community can be much more powerful than that. Make the community an integral part of your web site. Allow users to log on to your web site and leave comments, share insights, and possibly even save their own stuff like wish lists. Study e-commerce sites like Amazon. Personalization is key. Allow customers to interact with you seamlessly!
Content strategy is a not an esoteric management practice but a commonsense approach to strengthening a business. The impact of a content strategy on a small business can be quick and long lasting. It should therefore be carefully thought through before being executed. Glass Pane is a simple yet powerful content strategy for SMEs looking to compete successfully in the information era.
Citrix Systems, Inc.
Mathew is a content architect at Citrix. His key responsibilities are product design, content strategy, and information architecture. As a product designer and content strategist, he evolves ways to improve the adoptability and “stickiness” of Citrix products. As an information architect, he develops and maintains information models and taxonomies, and is currently developing an information architecture methodology. He is an ardent DITA evangelist and a staunch supporter of the open source movement. During his spare time, Mathew runs for charitable causes. He is also an avid traveler and photographer. Mathew holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a diploma in general management from Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.