Singing The Praises Of Small Business Saturday

More than mere marketing, Small Business Saturday has become a movement that unites consumers, cities, and even politicians to focus on "shopping small" and celebrating everything that makes small businesses special. Here's how American Express conceived the idea and why FedEx joined the cause.

It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Small Business Saturday is the most successful marketing campaign of the decade. Since its debut in 2010, this unique program has increased sales of participating small businesses, generated billions of PR impressions, garnered over 2 million Likes on Facebook, attracted loads of vocal partners, and even received the unanimous support of the notoriously divided U.S. Senate.

To gain a deeper understanding of how this quintessential example of “marketing as service” came into being, I spoke with Scott Krugman, spokesperson for American Express OPEN, the team behind Small Business Saturday, and Denise Yunkun, who handled this program for FedEx. And while Krugman and Yunkun provided lots of great information, it wasn’t until I revisited the lyrics of Madonna’s 1983 hit “Holiday” that I discovered an admittedly silly but somehow relevant means of singing the praises of this remarkable program.

If we took a holiday… Back in the fall of 2010, “[our customers’] biggest need coming out of the recession was more customers, which got us to thinking about what can we do to help small businesses,” explained Krugman. Big box merchants had Black Friday and online merchants had Cyber Monday, so the AmEx team thought, “Let’s give small businesses their own ceremonial kickoff to the holiday season.”

Took time to celebrate… “A lot of conversations were happening about the importance of small businesses to the economy and the ‘shop local’ movement was going strong,” noted Krugman, so Small Business Saturday was “the right message at the right time.” “We knew through research that 98% of consumers wanted to support small businesses,” he added, “so we wanted to take that support and turn it into sales.”

Just one day out of life… Remarkably, the first Small Business Saturday moved from concept to execution in a matter of weeks. AmEx “had skin in the game” by providing free Facebook ads to merchants and a $25 rebate to AmEx customers who shopped at small businesses. And while AmEx hoped that small businesses would take ownership of the movement, the short planning cycle that year made it tough. “I would say Year 1 was probably more about claiming the day,” Krugman said.

It would be so nice… Calling attention to small businesses and giving them a shopping day of their own “was like catching lightning in a bottle.” “We knew it could be special,” remembered Krugman, “but it blew the expectations out of the water.” And in year 2, “there was such a groundswell of grassroots support that it went all the way to the White House.” Small Business Saturday became part of the lexicon and even inspired its own Wikipedia page (which was not set up by AmEx!).

Everybody spread the word… Hoping for viral success, AmEx integrated social media from the start. Noted Krugman, “In just that first year, we saw 1.2 million people liking the Small Business Saturday Facebook page;” Facebook Likes then grew to well over two million in 2011. Twitter also played a part: “We saw 30,000 tweets with the #SmallBusinessSaturday hashtag,” remarked Krugman. Combine all this social activity with over one billion PR impressions and it’s no wonder that Small Business Saturday was the fastest-rising Google search term over that time period, according to Krugman.

We’re gonna have a celebration… With more time to plan the 2011 Small Business Saturday, AmEx created a comprehensive marketing tool kit for small businesses that they could use free of charge. Explained Krugman, “We knew the amplification of the 'shop small' message on the day was crucial, and that meant making special offers around it. So that’s where the SBS tool kit comes into play.” The toolkit was downloaded by hundreds of businesses that then created thousands of in-store signs, emails, Facebook banners, and more.

All across the world/In every Nation… While Small Business Saturday is primarily a U.S. phenomenon, AmEx went out of its way to make the program inclusive. Any small business around the country could participate, and consumers were encouraged to shop small with any form of payment; AmEx’s CEO even was quoted as saying, “I don’t care if you use cash.” This laissez-faire, card-agnostic approach helped Small Business Saturday become a movement that is far bigger and more enduring than the founders could have imagined.

It’s time for the good times… After the initial success, AmEx upped the ante and in “year 2 the program grew exponentially,” said Krugman. Part of this growth came through the addition efforts of partners like FedEx who supported the rising movement with ads and offers of their own. “Having more corporate partners who built a broader-based coalition and reached out to small business owners was key,” concluded Krugman. FedEx, for example, distributed 40,000 $25 AmEx gift cards to consumers via their Facebook page in 2011 and is doing that again in 2012.

Forget about the bad times... AmEx figured out a long time ago that if they helped small business grow, they would earn their enduring loyalty and trust. Small Business Saturday is just the most recent incarnation of this enlightened approach. Explained Krugman, “At this point, it's the expectation that we find innovative solutions for small businesses that help them thrive--when they’re doing well, we’re doing well.” Echoing this sentiment, FedEx’s Yunkun added, “aligning to support Small Business Saturday makes good business sense for FedEx as small businesses are such important customers.”

One day to come together… Very few marketers would have the courage, let alone the wisdom, to let their creation take on a life of its own, but that’s exactly what AmEx is trying to do now with Small Business Saturday. Krugman reflected, “We might have given it to them [small businesses], but they have taken it and made it their own. It’s their day and that’s what makes it genuine, and frankly, that’s what makes it successful.”

To release the pressure… Lest you think this movement just sort of happened organically, American Express kick-started the program with advertising and a press conference at city hall with New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and AmEx CEO Ken Chenault. This inauguration, in turn, generated a lot of the PR mentioned earlier. “It was a unique-enough concept that it got a lot of curiosity and a lot of pick-up,” explained Krugman. “This is one of those campaigns where the message was so compelling and the reason for doing it so genuine that people wanted to take part in it.”

We need a holiday… While your brand may not be able to create a holiday for your customers, don’t be on the borderline about marketing as service. If you think about marketing as an opportunity to deliver value, not messaging, your customers and prospects may just become crazy for you. And if not, I’m sure you can find another Madonna song for inspiration: simply open your heart, keep it together and then, express yourself. And if that doesn’t work, feel free to check out my full interviews with Krugman and Yunkun now on TheDrewBlog.

[Image: Flickr user David Mason]

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