Living in Northern Colorado, I don’t pay much attention to Washington, D.C. But recently I watched congressional hearings that unnerved me a bit, and I am concerned that Congress is preparing to inadvertently hurt millions of small businesses including those that employ 1.1 million Coloradans.
Since 2010, my company has helped hundreds of Colorado small businesses improve their digital marketing. Our clients and many small businesses use Facebook, Instagram, Google, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and other platforms to identify potential customers, deliver valuable content, and reap the rewards of new business. Digital marketing works very well for both businesses and consumers. So what is the problem?
My eyes opened wide a few weeks ago when I watched Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify in Congress. It was obvious that our elected officials who interrogated him mean well, but it was even more obvious that some in Washington have very little idea of how Facebook works, or how well it works for millions of American small businesses. I suspect they know equally little about how Google works and how much it benefits small business.
I understand why people (and Congress) are worried about companies like these having too much of our personal information and the risks of disclosure. Identity theft is a growing problem, and certainly the big banks and retailers have lots of financial information so they are frequent targets of hackers and data thieves.
But millions of small businesses operating on the Internet want nothing to do with your personal data — not even your name — unless you directly choose to share it. If Congress “fixes” the data privacy problem by regulating digital platforms and reducing their capabilities, I am sure that small businesses will be harmed far more than the giant digital companies as a result.
For small businesses — especially startups with very small budgets — today’s digital platforms offer inexpensive ways to reach prospective customers and learn which products, features and prices they value most. Should we sell one razor for $1 or three razors for $5? Will consumers like silver or black better? The bottom line for business is to identify interested consumers, learn what they value, and then offer that value or better.
Most businesses make a point of knowing their customers, communicating with them frequently and trying to anticipate their needs. New businesses are different because they need to test more, experiment in the market and then adapt offerings to consumer feedback. Digital marketing allows startups to do this quickly and inexpensively, and in doing so digital marketing dramatically reduces the cost of starting a business.
Traditionally, marketers have been able to buy advertisements targeting certain audiences. For example, ads might be seen in certain zip codes (based on a magazine’s circulation), heard by educated classical music fans (based on a radio station’s audience), or seen by well-paid office workers commuting to downtown (based on traffic pattern data). Digital marketing works the same way, but the interaction between digital platforms and consumers are more frequent and more detailed, though still anonymous.
Let’s not forget that digital marketing also creates efficiencies for our best efforts. In 2013 after my brother’s suicide, in just a few weeks I raised more than $5,000 for a suicide prevention organization from people whom I had never met. Their digital data trail allowed me to reach them, tell my brother’s story through video, and solicit contributions for an organization that is close to my heart. Today, with improved technology, I could raise much more money in much less time — just as charities and politicians do using the same techniques as small business.
If Congress goes after Facebook and Google with aggressive new regulations, I know those companies will hire lawyers, hire programmers, and find a workaround that keeps them strong and profitable. America’s small businesses will not have those resources, so many will struggle or shut down. That would be a sad and painful consequence for the American economy and those businesses, as well as their employees and all Americans who value our communities and our neighbors.
Jeremy Howie is CEO of Enlightened Marketing LLC, a digital marketing firm based in Northern Colorado. He is a founding member of the Connected Commerce Council board of directors and a member of the Facebook Small Business Council.