Thanks American Express... but Not for Small Business Saturday

They've created an annual event with their company's name all over it. But that doesn't mean that a small business can't benefit from Small Business Saturday. All you need to do is focus on the marketing. And learn from the masters at AMEX.
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We had Black Friday. We had Cyber Monday. For God's sake, now someone's even come up with Giving Tuesday. And in the middle of it all was Small Business Saturday. Does anyone care? I'm a small business owner. And I do. But not for the reasons you may think.

Now in its third year, Small Business Saturday is supposed to celebrate small business. It's a day, according to the official website and American Express (the official sponsor) to "show your support for small businesses and the communities they help to keep thriving." Hooray for small business! Hooray for American Express!

So was it successful? Eric Markowitz at tried valiantly to justify it reporting that "... this year, about 500,000 small businesses around the country participated in the event, which attracted some 100 million consumers." Please remember that "participating" means putting a sticker with American Express' logo on your front door and hoping for the best. And as for the 100 million consumers let's just say that the data gathering process behind this number is... well... suspect at the least. The Census Bureau says that there are approximately 235 million people in this country over the age of 18. That means that almost half of them were shopping at small businesses last weekend all because of Small Business Saturday. Astounding! Let's not worry about how many of these consumers were planning on shopping anyway, OK? It's Small Business Saturday! Hooray for small business! Hooray for American Express!

Fortunately, that same Inc. blog didn't put my hometown Philadelphia in the top ten cities that were interested in Small Business Saturday. Gasp! Does this mean we don't care about small businesses? Are we mostly MasterCard users? No. This means that we in Philadelphia are smarter. We have more common sense. We see Small Business Saturday for what it is: a promotional event for American Express. And wow, what a success it was. For American Express that is. Small Business Saturday received unprecedented national media attention... for free. Interest has grown significantly every year. People are writing about it in The Huffington Post. Stickers with American Express logos are on the doors (and will remain on the doors forever) of hundreds of thousands of small businesses... for free. Even the president took a painfully awkward shopping trip with his daughters to a Washington small business so that he could mark the occasion.

American Express also pitched in. Besides building a new website and shouting out its love of small businesses in ad campaigns, the company also offered selected cardholders a $25 coupon to buy locally from a small business. The cost of this offer: $2.5 million. Look, I realize that American Express earned $1.25 billion in the most recent quarter alone. But it's still a nice gesture, OK? Of course, a moratorium on transaction fees for the day may have had a bigger impact with their small business customers but hey...just saying.

Can we admit that Small Business Saturday is not a success for small business? We have charities and nonprofits and other good organizations doing good things. No sane person buys from a small business just to show support for small business. People buy because they want something and not because it's Small Business Saturday.

But Small Business Saturday is a success... for American Express. And good for them. They successfully promoted their brand to small businesses, and the community of bloggers and experts and media around them. They got more consumers to use their cards. They've created an annual event with their company's name all over it. But that doesn't mean that a small business can't benefit from Small Business Saturday. All you need to do is focus on the marketing. And learn from the masters at AMEX.

How about creating your own event? You don't have to go nationwide. You don't have the budget. So stick to the community. Pick a charity. Pick a local hero. Pick a local organization that does good, like firefighters or ambulance workers. And do what American Express did: sponsor it yourself. Put your company's name on it. Declare a day in its honor. Host a picnic, a breakfast, a movie night, a dance party. No need to re-create the wheel. American Express has already done it. Say this is how people can "show your support for ABC organization and the communities they help to keep thriving." Sound familiar? You're the good guy. You're the altruistic business person. You're not doing this for you. You're doing this for the benefit of the community. Yes! Just like American Express!

And just like American Express, promote the hell out of it. Hire a few part time college kids to tweet, post, blog and publish. Send out press releases to the local media. Then do it again. The first year, like Small Business Saturday, interest will start slow. But keep doing this every year. Promote it earlier and earlier. Use this promotion in your company's communications throughout the year. Build up excitement for your event well in advance. Not sure? Ask yourself, "what would American Express do?" You'll find the answers there. In no time at all you'll be the owner of an annual event that creates its own buzz, like Small Business Saturday.

What will this cost? Not as much as you think. Of course, you don't have the ability to spend .00001% of your overall marketing budget like American Express does on Small Business Saturday. But make this a part of your marketing budget. You'd be surprised at how little the expense will be once word of mouth catches on and others piggy back on the experience because they want to bask in the glow. That's what so many big retailers did for Small Business Saturday to show "their support." Your event can create the same level of participation.

Small Business Saturday is silly. Thank you fellow Philadelphians for not being duped by what's obviously just a promotion and a way for politicians to show "they care." But please give a nod to American Express. They pulled off a marketing coup. Go ahead... put their sticker on your door. Not in honor of the event. But out of respect for that person in their marketing department who came up with this brilliant idea. The lesson here isn't about small business. It's about marketing.

A version of this blog appeared in The Philly Post.

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