Should You Market Like Chipotle or Be Conversational?

Small businesses should skip the thought leadership pieces in favor of playing up their local roots and focusing on product, personality and people.

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By Perry Evans

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Content marketing is a hot topic that means different things to different people. Small businesses interested in getting into the game need to define what it means for them, however, and their interaction with customers.

After all, the content marketing that draws the most press, analysis and advice is derived from the big thought-leadership model advocated by larger businesses interested in establishing themselves as a branded authority in their industry. Think white papers, blog posts, long-form contributed articles and so on. There's nothing wrong with that -- for them.

Related: 7 Favorite PR Wins to Inspire Your Startup to Score Serious Buzz

But a small company has no business taking this approach. For starters, it's just not natural for small-business owners to wax poetic on every granular issue affecting their type of company.

Second, this type of marketing is not effective if it doesn't add any real value to consumers as they decide whether to buy a specific product or service. Ask if a prospective customer really would want to read "thought leadership pieces." If the answer isn't a resounding yes, then it's clear what not to do!

Enterprise-style content marketing is designed around reinforcing a company's brand. Yet small businesses' brands are most often created by their customer's real world experience with the establishment and its service team. Focusing on success through thought-leadership style positioning feels awkward and misplaced.

Instead of the heavy content marketing efforts that work for a nationwide chain, small businesses need to concentrate their efforts on a more lightweight approach focused on natural conversations about their people, products and their personality. Conversational marketing is a natural extension of word-of-mouth, and small businesses have long considered this their most important marketing technique.

Compare, for instance, the different content marketing approaches taken by two restaurants where I live in Colorado: the methodology of a big chain like Chipotle and that of a chef-owned restaurant called ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro.

Related: Content Marketing Isn't Just for the Big Brands

Chipotle scored big points last fall with its "Scarecrow" campaign, consisting of a three-plus-minute video on the evils of corporate food sourcing in contrast with its local and sustainable philosophy, a sound track sung by Fiona Apple and a companion iOS game. The video went viral (and now has more than 13 million views), has been featured in Time magazine and The New Yorker among other publications and even has its own Wikipedia entry.

But what works for Chipotle may not work for ChoLon. Chipotle's menu is generally well-known, and its people are so vast and diverse that it's hard to focus on any single employee other than its very visible CEO.

Smaller businesses like ChoLon, however, have the opportunity to differentiate themselves with a localized focus on their products and people. ChoLon provides a great example of this in action. Its social media feeds (Facebook, Twitter) are almost solely dedicated to pictures of food -- that's bought at the market, being prepared in the kitchen, served on the plate and so on. This approach involves letting the products tell the story (like a good cook should). This practice fosters customer connections through these kinds of visuals. The feeds also follow the food-related events and travels that inspire the food that gets served.

All this is supplemented by occasional visual profiles of daily specials and a few words from the chef. These practices promote a great experience and pull consumers along into sharing, showcasing not only the product but also the people making it and the behind-the-scenes process of food preparation.

The best social-media contributions from celebrities show behind-the-scenes images of their daily lives, the stuff not seen every day. Small businesses should be no different. So skip the chin-scratching blog post and post an interview with the company's business owners or key employees. Share photos and reviews from customers. Focus on showcasing the company's service, style and quality in a natural, conversational tone. Offer a peek inside the company and invite interaction.

There's an unfortunate tendency to blindly push big-brand marketing techniques down to smaller businesses. By nature, as companies get bigger they focus their marketing more on the brand than on the product experience or the people. Small businesses create more impact by doing the exact opposite. Think like a person, not a big brand and project the experience being offered customers.

Related: A Restaurant Built (and Rebuilt) With Customer Loyalty

Perry Evans

Serial entrepreneur and CEO in internet and new media publishing.

Perry Evans is CEO and founder of Closely, a company that has developed a free mobile app called Perch that allows small business owners to discover what businesses in their neighborhood are doing to engage with local consumers via social sites, check-in apps, deal sites and reviews. He is also a founding executive of MapQuest, Jabber and Local Matters. 

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