Summit Snapshot: Data Drives Small- and Mid-sized Business Online, It’s Imperative that Regulation not Short-Circuit Consumer Connections

August 17, 2021

Big Idea: Entrepreneurs are finding audiences on digital platforms to stimulate commerce, revenue and jobs – helping consumers discover new products and services. This dynamic ecosystem must be protected from defaults that limit discovery and engagement.

Responsible data usage and growth of small- and mid-sized businesses go hand-in-hand. This is according to a panel of entrepreneurs that addressed delegates at Digital Advertising Alliance’s Virtual Summit 21: What’s Next. 

According to the Census Bureau, there are well more than 200 million U.S. adult consumers – all of whom have with unique wants and necessities, and with nearly 16 million-plus small- and mid-size businesses (NAICS Association) with their own fortes to boot -- a growing number of which are leveraging an online presence to attract and grow customers. 

In such a densely populated realm, it’s tough for consumers to know all of what’s out there, let alone which businesses are best suited to their particular needs. That’s where data and advertising come into play. Simply put, that’s how businesses can bring their front doors to their true customers. In this Summit panel, three small business owners shared firsthand experiences in how they leverage social and digital audiences (and data) to act quickly and efficiently, tell unique stories, and connect with customers -- but they warned that certain marketplace changes are posing a significant threat to their ability to keep growing.  

The panel included Henry Bennett of Bennett Orchards (Delaware), Rebecca “Becky” Bowman of Kailey’s Monogram Boutique (South Carolina) and April Polk of JaeLuxe (Ohio) -- and was moderated by David Grimaldi, DAA Board member and executive vice president, public policy, for Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Available Data Enables Entrepreneurs to Act Quickly and Cheaply

Your average small business has more limited budgets to devote to advertising and reaching new customers. Things can change dramatically for smaller businesses at a moment’s notice, and traditional advertising often lacks the flexibility and cost structure to roll with the punches, according to panelists. 

Henry Bennett of Bennett Orchards (Delaware)

Consider an anecdote from Henry Bennett of Bennett Orchards. Not long ago, his family farm had a spectacular crop. Normally, a glut of peaches is an excellent thing, but “we were worried about them falling on the ground, we thought we had met demand and didn’t know where they were going to go,” he explained. “I ran a targeted Facebook ad, we spent $20... the next morning, we had 300 cars come first thing in the morning, and completely picked that out, moved the crop, got customers for life. That was my a-ha moment.” Essentially, the Bennetts were at risk of mountains of peaches going to waste, but thanks to $20, 20 minutes, and a well-placed digital ad, the farm sold everything and created long-term value for their company. 

April Polk of JaeLuxe (Ohio)

JaeLuxe founder April Polk also found herself in a pickle. Having been laid off and with a baby on the way, she elected to launch a startup -- with fashion products to move but not the means to hire an ad agency for her online business. She elected to “dabble with $5 and $10 ads, and [with] a lot of those ads I was getting 40,000 customer reach, 50,000 customer reach and I was selling out of my product,” she reflected, also relying on Facebook. April concluded that “this actually does work. And I don’t need to hire anyone to do this… what I’m doing and what I’m seeing is actually working for my business.”

Financial and temporal constraints may be real, but with smart, reliable and responsible data sources, these constraints can be overcome. With a little time, money, and know-how, every small business can apply data intelligence to get real results, the panel reported, as long as targeted audiences and consumer discovery are enabled.

With Online Connections to Customers Comes the Ability to Tell Stories

Stories are powerful tools. Discussing product or service benefits is all well and good, but nothing compares to a story in terms of forming meaningful connections -- and digital content and delivery enables rich storytelling.    

Bennett Orchards has its own tale to tell. “...[H]ow we raise our crops sustainably, how we use mating disruption… to disrupt the mating practices of harmful insects,” Bennett said. “That’s something that you can’t really tell in a 20-second interview or TV ad, and you definitely can’t tell in a newspaper ad. But you can hammer that in with Facebook, and you can touch on that and then retouch on that in your scheduled strategy.” To convey its story, Bennett Orchards chose digital platforms which it felt is better suited to its own strengths, even though Bennett initially had to win his father over to “this digital thing.”

Threats -- When Big Tech Unilaterally Restricts or Public Policy Misses the Mark

Digital marketing and commerce have helped small- and mid-sized businesses achieve unprecedented prosperity in spite of the limitations imposed by the pandemic, but they cannot be taken for granted. IAB’s Dave Grimaldi stated that Congress is considering new privacy laws, which if not tailored correctly can jeopardize the very way these entrepreneurs all do business. “There is a gathering storm around the way that you all use data,” he continued. “[For] Lawmakers, legislators, and regulators, your stories are critical to the survival of the way data is responsibly used in the eyes of government.” 

David Grimaldi, DAA Board member and executive vice president, public policy, for Interactive Advertising Bureau, moderated the SMB panel.

Rebecca “Becky” Bowman of Kailey’s Monogram Boutique (South Carolina)

Such ideas have already taken a toll on Kailey’s Monogram Boutique founder Rebecca Bowman’s ability to drive traffic to her own website. In light of recent privacy-related developments [iOS data collection restrictions], she said she pulled back on her advertising -- and it directly hit the bottom line: “my social media [had] dropped 75% of my views, just by not being able to use Instagram and Facebook ads the way I had in the past.” If Bowman is unable to drive traffic to her website via digital methods due to changes like this, she, like many others, will have to find a new route that may not be nearly as efficient, affordable or effective.

Targeted advertising has proved itself a key to growing businesses as a whole, from the minute to the herculean. Inexpensive flexibility, depth in storytelling, and intimate knowledge of the audience have precluded the necessity of spending large sums to hire ad agencies and invest in traditional advertising. But this time of plenty could have an expiration date, and it’s up to industry players to educate consumers, business owners, and lawmakers alike on why targeted advertising is so effective and indeed so important. 

Thank you to Paul Lozaw, summer associate with DAA, for his editorial support with this post.

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