Last week I was on a panel at the Local Search Summit with Sarah Smith of Facebook. I asked her about their platform strategy for small business and she responded that besides advertising they weren’t really focused on SMB Apps. The FB Platform has been a big magnet for developers writing consumer apps, and while there are definitely some business-oriented apps out there, it’s pretty slim pickings.
Anyone who is selling marketing services to large #s of SMBs has some sort of “dashboard” strategy – they want their dashboard to become the central place where the SMB manages all aspects of their web marketing, and potentially all online aspects of their business. It’s an enticing idea, particularly if you can get developers to create apps for the dashboard to expand its functionality beyond what a single company could offer.
Salesforce.com appears to be the leading candidate for this type of play as they already have a pretty big customer base and a large number of apps being developed. But I think there are other players out there who could rival them.
I have always thought this was MerchantCircle‘s endgame. They have amassed a large number of merchant relationships over the past few years – they claim over 800,000 businesses have claimed their profiles and they just announced a deal with Web.com to add another 100,000 business relationships to their service. MerchantCircle has made a nice business out of selling cheap subscription services (e.g. add a blog to your profile page) to a lot of merchants. They are one of the few IYPs out there that seems to be primarily focused on creating a SMB community. Their forums are not enormous yet but they do get some activity. If they can come up with a lot of little reasons why a business should come back to their site I think they could start attracting developers to build apps for their system. Their recent deal with Demand Media to sell SMBs content for their websites is kind of a precursor to such a system.
What about the Yellow Pages co’s? I have had any number of conversations with reps from big yellow pages companies on what the strategic options are for them. On the consumer side I have always thought that the yellow pages api strategy could help them enormously by getting their data and advertisers all over the Web as a complement to the burden of having to build and maintain a brand. But their strongest asset has always been their relationship with the advertiser. The challenge is no one publisher has a lock on enough advertisers to make their system attractive enough to app developers, and most of these publishers have their hands full managing their current web efforts, so execution on this kind of thing would be tough.
That’s why I think we are going to see some entrepreneurial types come out with a syndicated version of the SMB platform that publishers can plug into their existing systems. I have spoken with a number of start-ups that are tinkering around the edges of this idea. If one of them can get traction with such a system it has big potential.
Of course there’s always the argument that SMBs will never bother as it’s all too complicated, but like all things in Local there’s a big prize awaiting the person who figures this one out.