SOHO Summit Shines Spotlight on Homebased Business Owners

Soho Summit: A Meeting of Unlike Minds

Corporate marketers converged on Carlsbad, California, by the hundreds in early June to catch a better glimpse of this emerging--and puzzling--consumer group. The SOHO Summit is an annual conference designed to introduce companies to the SOHO movement.

For companies targeting an audience estimated at upwards of 26 million--if you include entrepreneurs and corporate employees who telework from home several days each month--it's an enigmatic group, said Terri Lonier, a principal with Working Solo Inc., the New Paltz, New York-based company that stages the Summit.

In fact, Lonier created the Summit for exactly that reason: to add clarity to a market that's huge but hard to understand. "For companies, the big take-away [from the Summit] is the clarification that they need to get inside the minds of at-home workers," she says. "For a lot of people, that's a big leap."

It's not easy. What this group has in buying power--$100 billion, according to IDC Research--it lacks in cohesion and unity. One called it a group of 26 million unique individuals.

With a new small business launching every 30 seconds and many at-home workers and teleworkers leaving the home office to return to the corporate workplace, Ray Boggs, vice president and lead researcher for IDC's SOHO team, calls it "a moving target." But with two million more people joining the ranks each year and more than 25 percent of U.S. homes sporting home offices, the dynamics are changing, Boggs says. Any consumer goods company with an office-oriented product can't afford not to be here. "This really gets into the mass market, true consumer kind of opportunity," he says.

It's an opportunity for the taking. Morgenstern admits she--like many small- and homebased business owners--are loyal to those companies that are loyal to them. It all starts with an understanding between the two. Know the audience--how they think, where they're going and what they need to get there--and then provide it to them, says Casey Hughes, a consultant with SmallOffice.com.

It's important for corporations targeting the SOHO set to build camaraderie and community between themselves and the home officer, Hughes says. How do the best companies open this door of opportunity? "Ask," says Hughes. Some of the best dialogues start--and continue--with two-way communications. Use comment forms on Web sites, electronic newsletters that solicit feedback, and customer service departments staffed by reps who really care and are given the right information to respond to callers' questions. "With the SOHO market, the conversation is the medium," Hughes says. "Engaging them in conversation creates a new channel of distribution."

Jay Conrad Levinson, author of the Guerrilla Marketing book series, agrees. Corporations often have unrealistic expectations when it comes to marketing to an audience as large and diverse as the home office set, he says. Marketers need to show commitment to their target audience. They need to create the right messages and measure how well their products and messages are received emotionally by the customer. They need to engage their customers in more dialogue to gauge what they need in products and services.

Between 70 and 80 percent of repeat business is lost because there's no follow-up, Levinson says. Companies need to convince small businesses that they're committed to providing the products and services they need to be profitable. "What makes marketing work? Commitment," explains Levinson. "[Successful marketers are] willing to show what commitment can do."

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