7 Tactics Big Brands Can Learn From Small Business Saturday

November 23, 2015

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With Thanksgiving approaching, you’re no doubt in the homestretch making preparations for peak shopping season and the mad dash of holiday shoppers it brings.

While your efforts may lie firmly with Black Friday, the consumer holiday depicted by your local news team as swaths of turkey-stuffed patrons throwing ‘bows for the best deals, 24 hours later marks the largest shopping day of the year for “the little guy.”

What is Small Business Saturday?

Small Business Saturday was founded by American Express in 2010. It’s a celebration of small local businesses that is all about urging consumers to shop in local establishments in order to keep the money circulating in their own communities. And shoppers have been happy to oblige.

Perhaps this day of purchasing “small” conjures nostalgic feelings about keeping commerce on “Main Street.” Or maybe shoppers just want to avoid the full-to-bursting parking lots of the day before. Either way, folks are turning out in droves for Small Business Saturday and the tactics used to make this consumer holiday a success are worthy of analysis.

Whether your business is a small-scale storefront startup, a mid-sized multi-location brand, or a large national corporation with multiple retail locations, looking into this campaign could help you gain increased local interest and make more connections with prospects.

Whatever the size of your business, Small Business Saturday helps you get reacquainted with your initial starting line, the moment the gun went off, and where your race has led you so far.

How Small Business Saturday Started

Looking for a counterpart to the big box retail shopping holiday of Black Friday and the e-commerce shopping holiday of Cyber Monday, American Express conceived Small Business Saturday in 2010. It is meant to be a shopping holiday that reminds consumers to allocate a portion of their gift-giving funds to local businesses that keep their communities thriving.

American Express initially promoted through spots on national TV and the radio as well as some premium advertising inventory on Facebook, doled out to small businesses who were also AmEx account holders. The theme of their pre-launch marketing was centered on encouraging holiday shoppers to spend money at small brick and mortar establishments. American Express also offered rebates to new customers in exchange for event promotion.

Press coverage included over 1 million likes on the Small Business Saturday Facebook page and 30,000 tweets with the #smallbusinesssaturday hashtag. The Mom and Pop shops of America jumped on board as well. According to a study by Constant Contact, more than a third of small B2Cs have participated in Small Business Saturday. The results are hard to deny: a survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses found that $14.3 billion was spent by participating consumers on Small Business Saturday in 2014, up 2.1 percent from 2013.

7 Tactics to Help Build Your Brand

Tactic 1: Personalized Customer Experience

Tailor special sales to fit your customers

In honor of Small Business Saturday, many independent retailers cater deals and promotions specific to what they know their clients best respond to.

For some, this may mean an “enter to win” giveaway; for others, a portion of sales to a local charity. Many go the traditional route of a percentage off or an item free with purchase.

The possibilities, of course, are plentiful. The key to their success is dependent on doing the legwork to find out which option suits the businesses unique customer base, and what will encourage shoppers to show up or persuade existing clients to increase their basket size.

Here are a few examples of how some businesses took this idea:

  • Last year, the Albion Merchants Association in Albion, NY organized a Shop Local Raffle for Small Business Saturday. For every $5 a shopper spent at participating locations on the day, they were entered into a raffle for a $100 gift certificate valid at any of those same retailers. The association knew that a low price point for entry would encourage consumers to spread out their spending across multiple locations throughout the day.
  • Independent retailers rolled out tons of promotions in Hattiesburg, MS in 2014. One downtown shop offered a “Buy-one-get-one-half-off” sale for clothing and accessories while the local comic book shop gave away $10 gift certificates to those spending $50 or more.
  • And these two businesses offered a percentage off sales while also advertising their ties to a local charity which helps homeless mothers and their children and offers job training. They made sure to note how proceeds will be helping the greater good.

Offering your customers a personalized experience can help set your brand apart. A fun sale that gains notoriety helps create brand alignment for your customers, and it’s an easy way to gain the reputation of having your shoppers’ best interest as the core pillar of your promotional endeavors.

No incentive this year for Small Business Saturday

Unlike in past years, American Express will not actively incentivize Small Business Saturday in 2015. This creates a great opportunity for big brands to create their own incentives, encouraging consumers to join their credit card or loyalty programs.

Last year, AmEx allowed cardholders to receive a $10 statement credit up to three times when they spent $10 or more at a small business. You could easily institute a similar incentive. Because many consumers already associate Small Business Saturday with this sort of benefit, it would be an easy promotion to explain and sell.


Should you decide to incorporate your own incentive-based promotion, make sure you assess the impact and value of prior promotional efforts and create an incentive that allows you to capture a bigger percentage of your customer’s wallet share, while also fostering a sense of loyalty and appreciation toward your brand.

It is essential that your promotion attracts the type of customer that will become a repeat customer instead of simply offering a freebie that might be abused by opportunistic consumers.

hamburger burger on plate small business saturday

Small Business Saturday Isn’t Just for Retail

When we think about Small Business Saturday, it is easy to exclude types of business that don’t fall under the umbrella of traditional retail. However, regardless of the size and nature of your business, there will always be a unique opportunity you can bank on in order to connect with shoppers and your local community. Restaurants, hotel chains, and service providers can participate in Small Business Saturday, too.

Tactic 2: Co-marketing Initiatives


Customers don’t need to have any knowledge of or affinity with a pre-existing brand to identify with Small Business Saturday. American Express laid the groundwork by creating a brand entirely devoted to Small Business Saturday and the idea of shopping “small.”

Your branding efforts can include a website or a landing page, social media pages and posts, logos, catchphrases, color palette and even hashtags.

All of these small steps work together to create an extremely recognizable brand, one that is completely independent of American Express itself, as well as any of the small businesses who stand to benefit from participation.

Many local retailers struggle with simply being seen, standing out in the fast-paced, high-cost world of modern advertising. Associating themselves with this new brand provides a completely new audience.

If your company is larger and lack of brand recognition is less likely, you can still explore co-marketing initiatives that allow customers to recognize you in a completely different way. Working with trusted partners to build a brand unique to this partnership or group enables the possibility for separate (but equal) brand recognition from consumers. A new customer may relate to this secondary brand in a far more powerful way.


When a small business signs up to participate, they’re encouraged to begin promotions right away. Consumers are in the midst of planning their Thanksgiving festivities and many factor in holiday shopping as a key component.

Small businesses make sure they’re a known option when folks are deciding which stores they’ll be hitting up in the post-Thanksgiving frenzy. Many send out an email reminder about their participation while others hand out flyers about Small Business Saturday promotions or even coupons to everyone who comes through their doors.

While it’s easy to cash in on flash sales, joining forces through co-marketing initiatives will allow you to implement this early promotion technique. Because your incentive is cooperative and recognized as separate from your business, it doesn’t carry the connotation of the self-promotion tactics that customers can grow to resent when played out by big brands.

Check out: “The Numbers You Need to Know on How Online Reviews Influence Holiday Shoppers

Social media inspiration

The National Federation of Independent Businesses found in 2012 that 67 percent of businesses participating in Small Business Saturday offered deals and discounts for the day.

Just hopping on the Small Business Saturday Facebook page and having a scroll through it can give you  marketing ideas that you can implement.

Your marketing team may be focusing a ton of effort on social media in terms of customer engagement and sharing your brand’s story. But could they be missing out on options to use the platform in other powerful ways? Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow you to connect with like-minded brands and businesses in the public sphere.

Fun initiatives

Many small business/merchant associations and downtown initiatives choose to up the ante on Small Business Saturday by planning and executing a sort of scavenger hunt experience for shoppers. While this provides an awesome shopping experience, it also spreads the love throughout the community and encourages consumers to visit as many businesses as possible. And they’re rewarded for doing so!

Smaller, more rural areas, lacking the benefits of “Main Street” or a convenient centrally located downtown, sketch out treasure maps to highlight businesses and the deals they’re promoting. All it takes is a few business owners teaming up to pull off a fun, experiential shopping trip.

Last year, 30 businesses in Kenosha, WI teamed up for a Small Business Saturday scavenger hunt. The community competition gave shoppers one point for a correct scavenger hunt picture (a certain item for each participating store) and two points for every $25 they spent at a participating location.

Meanwhile, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, a game of bingo was played! Shoppers strolled through downtown, collecting stamps from participating stores on their Small Business Saturday Bingo card. Those who received three or more stamps were automatically entered to win a gift certificate.

Big co-marketing initiatives and events like these certainly take time and effort to pull off. A lot more planning and cooperation is needed than when you execute an in-house promotion. But think of all you stand to gain from borrowing new knowledge and skill sets from others. Imagine the benefits of a spotlight when you’re standing on someone else’s stage.

Tactic 3: Leveraging User-generated Content

Encouraging Social Media Participation

American Express encourages shoppers to post statuses and pictures to social media about how and where they #ShopSmall.

The resulting posts showcase participation at a variety of small businesses. Getting the word out about the hashtag helps crowdsource content used to promote the event. Using social media in this way sparks interest and helps grow Small Business Saturday, but also the overall idea of shopping at independent retailers as something special and worthy of sharing with social media followers.

Identifying ways your customer can engage on social media is a no-brainer for marketing teams in 2015. But pinpointing something with a lasting effect, such as #ShopSmall, can prove a bit more difficult.

Consider the roles the customer plays when shopping or dining with you. The Small Business Saturday hashtag established viral efficacy because it identified the action the customer engages in, not an action or descriptor of the business or even the American Express brand. In doing so, individuals are more likely to show off their unique experience as it pertains to “shopping small”. They would be far less likely to show off their purchase hauls with the hashtag #SmallBusiness or #AmExSBS than with #ShopSmall.

Tactic 4: Rely on Customer Feedback

Initiate Online Relationships

Over the lifespan of Small Business Saturday, entrepreneurs have grown more and more adept at guiding customers to connect with them online.

The simplest way they achieve this transfer of offline to online is in-store. Initiating online relationships, whether through Find us on Facebook flyers, table talkers with Yelp QR codes, or bag-stuffing business cards, while the customer is still in the store is key.

Businesses of all sizes struggle with balancing online and offline promotion. Regardless of size, you can find inspiration in small businesses when you’re looking to bridge the gap between the real world and the Web. In-store promotion is especially helpful if you’re looking to build up your online reviews and brand reputation. While you may not be able to dictate what people are saying about you, you can at least point them in the right direction toward the best places to talk.

Encourage Reviews

More than just a springboard for online connection, small businesses’ in-store efforts also include encouraging customers to leave reviews.

Many savvy entrepreneurs frame this action as specific to the event. They can ask participants for reviews about Small Business Saturday as a means to make the same day bigger and better next year. Those who enjoyed the special aspects of the day (promotions, sales, shopping for a cause) are far more likely to post a review than the average day-to-day shopper. They may even go so far as to offer some useful constructive criticism alongside a 5-star review!

Asking for reviews or conspicuously promoting your Yelp presence during the course of a special Small Business Saturday activity is a fantastic way to garner positive reviews. Your staff is likely more excited and minding their Ps and Qs due to the importance of the day. You’re probably running sales or deals that customers can’t get elsewhere or on any other occasion. Maybe it’s just a special feeling in the air of celebration. Whatever the case may be, happy customers can mean pleasant reviews for your company. Capitalize on these special instances and you’ll be turning up your positive online reputation in no time.

Analyze Review Trends and Adapt for Next Year

One great aspect about small businesses? Small staff. Once a small business encourages and then analyzes their reviews, they are intimately aware of what the reviewer points out and trends that may unfold. The staff member reading the review may very well be the person behind the great customer service that’s detailed. They may be the person who can make the decision to change certain protocols or adapt sales tactics to better suit customers’ desires. Simply put, reviews are noticed quickly and can be dealt with immediately.

For larger teams, it’s important to get relevant information into the correct hands. Have strategies in place to document the information and make adjustments. Keep track of trends and send them up the flagpole. Speak with staff “in the trenches” to gain clarity about items or issues brought up in reviews. If you’re not on the ground floor, operationally speaking, reviews can act as a wonderful crystal ball as to what is really happening day-to-day. Small businesses know how powerful this is. You can, too.

Engage with Customers on Social Media

By now you can clearly see that social media marketing is a huge factor in the success of Small Business Saturday.

Social media is a very affordable platform. With the help of Small Business Saturday’s existing audience, you can have widespread visibility across a variety of platforms. You are also emboldened to create whatever messages you see fit. For local retailers, this often means a very realistic, humanized brand voice.

Take great care on social media to remain authentic whenever you’re communicating with your clients. Your audience is not just a means to a sale!

Converse with each customer with the respect they deserve as humans. Resist the urge to give rote, scripted responses as this can come off sounding robotic. The more off-the-cuff, versatile, and personable your communication is, the more realistic and humanized your brand voice will be. This is a very small change big brands can make in overall communication plans but one that will have big results.

Tactic 5: Cause Marketing

Promoting Values Not Products

Through Small Business Saturday, American Express is promoting a value, not a product or a person or even a specific business. This event has set forth a specific value for participating businesses and customers alike. And that value is simple: Shop Local.

This way, a deeper connection is formed between all involved. American Express and the Small Business Saturday brand can communicate this value on websites and all other communication channels. Small businesses can champion the cause in their own marketing efforts.

Participants and shoppers can then keep the ball rolling, sharing their newly shared value through their own personal channels. American Express provides businesses with a detailed marketing toolkit to help with these efforts. Materials highlight the benefits to shopping small for the entire community and everyone gets the sense that, Hey, we’re all in this together.

While your business may not be described as small, there’s still ample opportunity for you to support “the little guy.” Explore ways you can support local businesses, startups, and independent retailers in your area. Marketing ties to your community is a win-win for all involved.

If this isn’t possible, brainstorm ways you can promote values with your customers and followers. Put these simple, palatable, and feel-good messages first and watch your customer-base get on board for the rest.

Check out: “3 Brands Doing Cause Marketing Right


Why Your Business Should Support Local

Why should your business support local?

  • With local business comes local character. Preserving the distinctive character of these one-of-a-kind businesses will prove mutually beneficial.
  • Small business select products based on their own interests and the needs of their customers, they’re not controlled by a national sales plan. You’ll be guaranteed a wider range of product selection and diversity.
  • You’ll help maintain a strong and sustainable community with a vibrant economy in place.
  • A marketplace of many leads to lower prices and innovation. Supporting a multitude of small businesses allows for this competition to unfold.
  • Getting goods and services nearby reduce your carbon footprint and allows you to tout a commitment to environmental sustainability.
  • You’ll recycle money into the local economy where your customers reside. Keeping your customers pockets heavy means they’ll continue to shop.

As a large business organization, you can indeed have it all! Promote local enterprises by including their offerings into your overall product and service portfolio. By doing so, you will cultivate a closer and more symbiotic relationship with your community and appeal to a wider consumer audience!

Tactic 6: Community-Oriented Marketing

Creating Community

Establishing a community helps create a ripple effect. American Express created a community with Small Business Saturday as the epicenter.

So their brand, value, and ideals penetrate outwards, impacting a multitude of retailers, consumers, and participants. They trust this community to carry out some of the work for them. Because all involved feel like part of the cause, and part of the larger community working as one, American Express and Small Business Saturday ensure loyalty and engagement with the public.

In a press release, National Federation of Independent Business CEO Dan Danner said, “In an uncertain economy, America’s small businesses have remained a beacon — creating good jobs and supporting the families they employ and the communities around them. We are very pleased that so many Americans sought to give back by shopping small this Small Business Saturday. We hope that support of small firms, retailers, restaurants and other independent businesses continues throughout the holiday season and all year round. Continued support of this vital sector is one important way to ensure our economy fully recovers and a healthy private sector is restored.”

Clearly, feelings of community garner positive results and reaffirm shoppers’ decisions as admirable ones.

Using Brand Ambassadors

American Express has also seen great success from deploying brand advocates to speak on behalf of Small Business Saturday.

These individuals enroll on the Small Business Saturday website and pound the pavement, so to speak, signing up small businesses to participate. They also recruit other Neighborhood Champions to help get the word out about #ShopSmall around their local communities. These brand ambassadors and neighborhood champions organize city-wide events and ensure word-of-mouth marketing. These individuals are key to getting locals to show up on the big day, both in stores and on social media.

If you’re looking to start building a strong network of brand ambassadors, consider the ways in which American Express has enabled these Small Business Saturday volunteers and business folk. They provide a ton of marketing and informational resources on the Small Business Saturday website. When a brand ambassador’s job is as easy as printing off flyers or uploading a special Facebook cover photo to their profile, they’ll likely follow through. Once you’ve laid the groundwork expertly. You just have to sit back, relax, and watch your message start to ripple out to larger and larger audiences.

Tactic 7: Geolocation promotions

Local Search Listings

It’s no secret that when people turn to search engines, they are predominantly looking for local goods and services. This is great news for Small Business Saturday!

And even better news? Many of these local searches lead to same-day purchasing. Small businesses lean on this trend by double-checking location accuracy across the Web. On the day of the event, they don’t want to be a needle in a haystack!

This is an important step for any business. Have a look at your business name, address, phone number, and hours on Google My Business, Yelp, and any other review or social media pages to make sure they are consistent across all platforms. Due to the shift towards location-based searching, maintaining optimized location information can prove immensely beneficial.

Location-Based Marketing

Small Business Saturday is a highly personalized endeavor, both for shoppers and businesses. Participating small businesses are provided templates to create personalized posters in line with the Small Business Saturday brand.

American Express has also created detailed maps to which business owners can add their local business. For shoppers, the Small Business Saturday website asks your zip code and tailors your experience based on your location, even providing a list of nearby retailers to consider supporting on the consumer holiday and all year long. Great care was taken to make each promotional piece highly customizable.

The greatest lesson you can take away from Small Business Saturday is this: providing personalized experiences to your customers is the future of great marketing. These personalized brand moments your customers experience are key to developing a loyal following.

Multi-location brands should look to the location-based marketing tactics of Small Business Saturday. Is there a way for you to tailor promotional materials to individual cities or communities while still maximizing brand alignment? Would it prove beneficial for you to tailor Web experience based on zip code? If you create a feeling of each location as a single entity with a unique identity, shoppers will experience the personalized experience they are after.

Take a look at what Foursquare has to offer. Once consumers have hit the streets to get their holiday shopping started, they will be tempted to use location-based apps to find geo-based deals relevant to their shopping district.

To make sure you are maximizing your geographically-based marketing, audit your Foursquare profile and ensure your information is up-to-date, your reviews are positive, and your promotions are attractive and relevant. Stand out from the crowd by taking a quick look at your competitors’ location-based marketing efforts. This is an area where large multi-unit business organizations can truly learn from small local shops. If you are not yet playing the Foursquare game, Small Business Saturday provides you with a great opportunity to jump on board.

#SmallBusinessSaturday Success Stories

Olives and Grace

To help participating small businesses, American Express partners with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Etsy, and the online planning site Eventbrite.

Boston retailer Olives & Grace followed suit. To promote their Small Business Saturday endeavors, the store takes to social media weeks prior in order to drum up interest. Using a mix of email marketing, Facebook shout-outs, and Instagram posts, store owner Sophie Madison has been able to get lots of people through the shop’s doors to #ShopSmall. With close to 10,000 followers on Instagram, she takes her social media reach seriously.

Distinctive Gardens

The garden center Distinctive Gardens in Dixon, IL partners with around three dozen other independent retailers in Illinois’ Sauk Valley region to promote Small Business Saturday.

The group of retailers formed Sauk Valley Shop Small and works to promote shopping locally year-round. Each year, the group creates a map to help shoppers locate all businesses participating in Small Business Saturday.

Distinctive Gardens, and all the retailers in their group, have seen an increase of traffic on the shopping holiday by committing to three simple tactics:

  • Offering “button deals” for any customer who comes in wearing a Sauk Valley Shop Small button
  • Small Business Saturday specific discounts and deals
  • A special event to be held in-store on Small Business Saturday (For example, in 2013, the company offered 50% off holiday wreaths and held an artisan fair with booths selling local wares; they also had special gifts and cookies on hand to give to button-clad shoppers.)

7 Tips Big Brands Can Implement for Small Business Saturday

  1. Publish materials, online and off, spotlighting the small businesses you support. Check your outgoing payments for goods and services to identify local businesses and use your channels to tell their stories. Don’t forget to include pictures of these fine local folks!
  2. If you sell local goods, invite the vendors or tradespeople who may not work in their own brick & mortar location to be present in one of your locations. Set up stations for them to hand out informational materials, sample or demo products, and answer shopper questions.
  3. Connect with non-competitor small businesses online to showcase your alignment with Small Business Saturday. Start with your neighbors! Look for independent businesses nearby and start building an online relationship through social media. Publish a post on Small Business Saturday spotlighting these great locations to promote traffic in your neighborhood.
  4. Run a sale or special on featured local items. Don’t normally carry local items or use locally-sourced food for your dishes? Bring some in for the occasion!
  5. Roll out some location- or community-specific merchandise. Think t-shirts that feature your brand along with the city name of the specific location or coffee mugs featuring the shape of a home state as well as your company name. Merchandise in this vein sell like hotcakes and reinforce feelings of community.
  6. Include any special details pertaining to Small Business Saturday in your promotional details about Black Friday. Whether you find ways to participate or not, aligning yourself with the core values of the day won’t go unnoticed.
  7. Promote small businesses through in-store merchandising. Create “small brand islands” by setting up tablescapes and end-caps specifically for your featured independently owned businesses. Highlight boutique-like products and give your customers the small business shopping experience they may crave.

How to Join the #ShopSmall Conversation

Regardless of the size of your business, you can learn a lot from the #ShopSmall movement and this burgeoning consumer holiday. Borrowing the most effective tactics from small businesses will help you to put your best foot forward. Careful implementation will help generate brand loyalty and a strong community bond. You might just find new inspiration to take your marketing efforts to the next level!

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