Ann HandleyWith Small Business Saturday on the horizon, we reached out to a few business owners and experts to get their insight into running a business and online marketing. Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a co-founder of, a pioneer in digital marketing, and a influencer.  As the world’s first Chief Content Officer, Ann Handley spoke to us about how small business owners can rethink the way their business markets themselves online.

Q. What are some of the benefits of being “small” that a business owner can leverage to beat out the “big” guys?

A. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons of all time is by Peter Steiner. It depicts two dogs – one is seated in front of a computer, typing. He comments to the other, seated on the floor, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” I think that’s true of small businesses, too: On the internet, no one knows you’re small. In other words, you have the same sales and marketing opportunities that your larger competitors have.

And at the same time, you have an opportunity the big guys don’t. You have the passion of an owner or manager who puts their heart and soul into your business. Big companies can’t come close to that. That might sound too soft – like a nice-to-have, not a real asset. But in my experience it’s a huge differentiator.

Q. Is there a common place where you see many small business owners go wrong when they start to market online?

A. Two things; first: they scatter their efforts across many different channels and opportunities instead of focusing on one, consistently.
Second: they get impatient. Great marketing is a slow game. Building a business takes time.

Take a long-term view of your business, not a quarter-by-quarter view. (That’s another advantage small businesses have, by the way.)

When you think of your customers long-term, you make decisions that create more sustainable relationships. And that in turn creates a more sustainable business.

Q. We all know those emails or websites that “look” like spam, but what are some strategies you’ve see business owners do to demonstrate their credibility?

A. Two things: don’t be invisible. Don’t let your company not have a face. Put yourself front and center. Get on video – especially if you’re the owner or founder or main shareholder. Let your customers see you. Let them look into your eyes. Let them see that this is a real business with real people.

Secondly, have a strong tone of voice. If you mask the logo on your web site, do you sound different? Or do you sound like everyone else? Continue this exercise across your social media and all your marketing – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or whatever best suits you – as well as email and direct mail, if you use it.

“Everything the light touches is [content],” to quote the Lion King. Make sure everything your audience comes into contact with feels like it comes from you.

Q. With so many places for business owners to turn for online advice, how do you recommend they cut through the noise in order to make an impact?

A. Small businesses can create content that helps them stand out from the crowd by viewing content as an opportunity to connect with the audience at a deeper level. Be a resource to them.

View your marketing not as company-centric messaging, but as an opportunity to create a squad of like-minded people who share a passion, cause, or mindset.

Q. When working with new business owners, what are some tools or steps you use to come up with a digital strategy unique to their business.

A. First: Hone customer empathy. “Empathy” is one of those words (like “transparency” and “authenticity”) that is quickly earning a spot on the marketing buzzword Bingo card. It’s overused and (often) abused.

But it’s truly the heart of all great marketing (and great writing).

Frame your marketing and your bigger story in a way that offers real value for the customer. Create marketing programs based on real insight, not just hunches or (worse) clichés.

Talk to your customers. Read what they read. Do the necessary work of hoarding data and research so you can do more than just put yourself in your audience’s shoes: you should also be in their socks, shirts, pants, and hats.

Heck, try on their skin and walk around in that for a while. Because before all else, you need to have a deep understanding of your customers (and their problems, hopes, dreams).

All successful strategy is rooted in empathy for the customer.

Q. Can people expect to get results from purely organic campaigns these days or is it pretty much required that they have an ad budget for a campaign?

A. This is a tough question to answer in general terms – because a lot depends on the caliber of the audience you’ve built.

I’d hate to say the ad dollars are “required” – that feels a little too categorical for me.

But I’d plan to amplify marketing programs that do resonate with your core audience with additional ad spend.

In other words: Don’t start with dollars. Instead, see how a program resonates before putting budget behind it, or before expanding it further.

Q. Online-to-offline. Any examples of companies doing a great job driving traffic to their physical store through online campaigns?

A. Andris Lagsdin has a small company outside of Boston called Baking Steel that manufacturers and sells flat metal baking surfaces. I love to cook – and somehow I wound up on his newsletter mailing list.

Last March, he ran a contest promoting a new product he called the Mini Griddle. He invited subscribers to comment on his blog post with a recipe idea: What would you make with a Mini Griddle?

I entered the contest, on a total lark. My recipe was for an avocado-egg breakfast sandwich, and I wrote the entry like a Craigslist ad:


Two perfectly cooked fried eggs seek companionship for cozy living snuggled within the borders of 7 Sprouted Grains toast….”

I won the Mini Griddle.

But I also went and took a pizza baking class at Baking Steel’s test kitchen – which, it turns out, was about an hour south of my house. It was one of a series of regular classes Andris holds.

I also bought a Baking Steel pizza steel for my brother, who also loves to cook, as well as some accessory items (a Baking Steel pizza paddle, a case of a specific brand of tomatoes that Andris recommended).

I am a fan for life. And it was Andris’s newsletter/blog content that hooked me.

Q. What tool/strategy do you think will make the biggest impact in 2017?

A.Having a content marketing strategy. I’m not being flip. Gone are the days are just trying a bunch of random tactics to see what sticks. Smart businesses are taking a much more strategic, thoughtful approach. (Thank Cheez-its.)

Q. Who are some of the influencers who have made a large impact on how you think about online marketing?

A. David Meerman Scott’s seminal New Rules of Marketing and PR changed my thinking about marketing when I read it a decade or so ago. It’s still a great read – and if you hadn’t read it: DO IT!

Seth Godin remains an inspiration and long-time personal hero.

My journalism teacher Charlie Ball taught me the fundamentals of journalism, including two important lessons I carry with me still: you can’t make something too simple to understand and, Remember that no one has to read this. Those two aphorisms apply to journalism. And they also apply equally well to modern marketing. They have long been my personal guideposts in both journalism, marketing, and in life.

If you want to read more interviews with business owners and experts, or find more information on how to prepare for Small Business Saturday, visit our guide.