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Marketing to Small Business

Millennials Still Want the Human Touch, Just the Digital Version

Millennial small business owners aren't looking for an array of social media channels to engage with a supplier; they still want to talk directly with a human but via digital platforms rather than on the phone

As they age, more and more millennials are setting up their own businesses, which immediately makes them a lot more interesting to the many marketers whose job it is to sell products to small business owners.

In some ways, millennial small business owners fit their demographic stereotype when it comes to how they engage suppliers, but not completely.

For example, in 2016 millennials used more supplier channels than ever – which is not particularly surprising, given millennials are likely to be more tech-savvy than their elders – but they didn’t opt for the channels marketers might expect. They didn’t choose the channels that would give them the most autonomous freedom but instead sought out live interactions with supplier reps (see chart 1).

Although this still includes more traditional direct channels, such as in-person at retail stores or over the phone, millennials also increasingly opt for direct digital engagements, such as e-mail or online chat.

Millennial usage of live supplier channels for research

Chart 1: Millennial usage of ‘live’ supplier channels for research  Percentage of owners using specified channel while researching business product/service; n=240  Source: CEB research December 2016

Whereas for older generations, the phone was seen as the easiest way to reach a supplier, millennials increasingly see the phone as one of the most intrusive forms of communication.

Written communications, on the other hand, are much less intrusive, as they allow people to choose the pace of interaction and don’t necessitate an immediate response. As such, millennial owners often prefer to e-mail or online chat to contact supplier reps when researching a new product or service, rather than just calling them.

Furthermore, millennial owners prefer all of these channels over and above a supplier’s social media channels, seeming to indicate that they are still seeking the same type of “private” and “personal” interaction with suppliers offered by retail stores and phone calls, rather than the more public social media channels.

Lessons for Small Business Suppliers

As millennials still seek direct and personal engagement with suppliers, clearly the human factor has not been completely removed from the equation, even in this increasingly digital age.

Owners, including millennials, still seek guidance and affirmation from suppliers, but are shifting this “live” engagement to their preferred digital platforms. Similarly, millennials are still looking for the one-on-one engagement with their suppliers, meaning that social media channels are not necessarily going to encourage as much interaction from them as direct and non-public forums.

Small business owners want to feel like the interaction is personalized and directly related to their own needs; essentially they still want the “brick and mortar” experience, but they want it online and on their terms.


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