Some small business marketing advice from the playbook of Microsoft

The tragic death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs earlier this year has created an outpouring of articles and stories about the life and style of this brilliant man. From his early innovation with personal computers to the contributions his vision made to mobile devices later in life, Steve Jobs is surely a man to be emulated and an inspiration to any businesspeople struggling to find their place in the market.

However, what some people tend to forget is that there is another visionary who is still among us who has arguably done more to influence how people interact with one another and do business. Bill Gates and Microsoft may not be as stylish and snappy as Steve Jobs and Apple, but they represent much larger changes to computing and business that have impacted quite a few more people. Consequently, while there is much to be learned from the creator of iPhones, iPods, iPads and MacBooks, there are equal or greater lessons that can be gleaned from the largest computing company in the world. Small business marketers in particular should take note, as Microsoft was not always the behemoth it is today.

Becoming a standard
While Apple computers are very popular among a subset of people including students, designers and those concerned with fashion, the fact remains that many more companies use PCs and Windows operating systems than they do Apple and Mac OS-based machines. According to MacTrast, only one in 10 commercial computers is manufactured by Apple. Even more tellingly, Small Business Trends reports that only 5 percent of small businesses use Macs.

Small business owners should see this and understand that though Apple products are flashier and appear more frequently in media, Microsoft is responsible for the reliable devices that do most of the work. While branding and image are important, providing quality products and services (and convincing consumers of this in marketing materials) is often more important. Don't worry about slick advertising campaigns. Instead, find ways to share the facts about superior goods and services.

Tailor to customers' lives
A common gripe about Apple is that their products don't allow for much customization. In contrast, most programmers and open-source users choose PCs to create their new programs. Small businesses should never deign to tell people how they should live and what they should look like. Instead, take a page out of the book of Microsoft and highlight the importance of a consumer's life and choices. Marketing materials, whether online or in the real world, should indicate that customers know how to conduct their lives better than anyone else and that goods and services can be tailored to fit these choices.

Avoid niches
Unless a company is highly specialized and caters to a very small market niche, it is not a good idea to seek out a very unique group of customers. Unlike large corporations, which can research every last detail about consumers, small businesses should aim to transact with every person they can. Microsoft products, unlike those made by Apple, don't have a certain demographic in mind when they're manufactured and advertised. Instead, businesses, budget-conscious customers, seniors and the young can all derive equal value from their goods.

Give back
All of the praise given to Steve Jobs is entirely valid and deserved, but it obscures the fact that Bill Gates is perhaps the greatest philanthropist in history. He has pledged to donate almost his entire fortune to charity before he dies, which shows a deep respect and love for humanity. Of course, small businesses can't make the same claim, but they can go out of their way to show how indebted to a community or customer base they are. Contributing to charities and nonprofit organizations not only strengthens the ties that bind organizations to individuals – it also makes choosing one company over another worthwhile for socially conscious customers.  

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