Impact & Expertise

Press Releases

  • March 19, 2013
  • Small Businesses Lag Far Behind Big Companies in Digital Advertising

  • In Surveys, Many Small Businesses Say That They Promote Themselves Widely Online Through the Latest Technologies. But BCG Research Finds That They Actually Spend Their Advertising Dollars in Very Traditional Channels

Some Companies Are Seizing the Largely Untapped Opportunity of Bringing Small-Business Online Advertising into Balance with the Rest of the Industry

BOSTON, March 19, 2013—Twenty-three million small businesses power the U.S. economy. But these businesses are failing to keep up with big companies in the online advertising world, according to new research by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

A recent BCG survey of 550 small-business owners found that only 3 percent of their companies’ advertising budgets flows online compared with 15 percent of advertising budgets flowing online in the national market, which is dominated by large companies. Small-business advertising dollars are still primarily being spent on traditional marketing vehicles, such as Sunday circulars and coupon mailers. The findings are detailed in the article Unlocking the Digital-Marketing Potential of Small Businesses published today on

What’s more, the BCG survey found that many small businesses (defined as having fewer than 100 employees) are not fully aware of all the digital-advertising options available to them. And to the extent that they are aware of those options, they are often not sure what to do with them. This is why digital-advertising activity in the U.S. is driven by large companies.

“Most small businesses operate the old-fashioned way, with little recognition of the Internet as a channel or a source of leads,” says Sebastian DiGrande, a senior partner and coauthor of the article. “Many small-business owners are not even aware that they have an online profile that they could be actively managing on many popular sites.” He noted that only 15 percent of the small-business owners in BCG’s survey knew that they had a free Yelp profile, for example, and only 11 percent had already claimed it.

“These findings may come as a surprise, given the explosive growth that digital marketing has experienced in social media and mobile communications and the high percentage of small businesses that say they are promoting themselves widely on e-mail, websites, Facebook, and Twitter,” adds John Rose , a senior partner and coauthor. “In fact, our survey suggests that when it comes to actually spending their advertising dollars, small businesses continue to favor very traditional channels.”

Rose, DiGrande, and coauthors David Knox and Kate Manfred in BCG’s Technology, Media, and Telecommunications practice explore the challenges that digital content and online-advertising companies face to effectively serve the advertising needs of small businesses and to bring their digital spending into balance with the rest of the industry.

The authors also quantify the significant upside potential that some businesses have already achieved with their online presence. According to a second BCG survey of nearly 4,800 small businesses, companies that had a Yelp profile but did not advertise on the site nevertheless reported generating incremental revenue of $8,000 from Yelp annually—a kind of passive halo effect. The return is even more powerful for small businesses that actively shaped their digital presence through advertising campaigns on Yelp. The survey found that those companies achieved an average uplift in annual revenue of more than $23,000.

Providers of local advertising and marketing services online should take a few lessons from the survey to heart, the authors say:

  • Tailor offers and pricing strategies to the customer.

  • Embrace advocacy-based marketing.

  • Help small-business owners see the tangible benefits of online advertising and promotion.

“Companies that can redirect the billions of dollars of small-business-advertising spending toward digital marketing will unlock enormous value,” the article concludes. “And the opportunity benefits everyone: successful campaigns will simultaneously fuel the growth of small businesses and media and marketing companies—if both players can learn to leverage local advertising.”

Note: The survey, designed and analyzed by BCG’s Center for Consumer and Customer Insight , was conducted at the suggestion of local search firm Yelp, which contributed to the costs associated with fielding the survey by a third-party market research company. The survey findings and conclusions are solely the work of BCG.

A copy of the article can be downloaded at

To arrange an interview with one of the authors, please contact Alexandra Corriveau at +1 212 446 3261 or

About BCG’s Center for Consumer and Customer Insight

The Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Consumer and Customer Insight (CCCI) applies a unique, integrated approach that combines quantitative and qualitative consumer research with a deep understanding of business strategy and competitive dynamics. The center works closely with BCG’s various practices to translate its insights into actionable strategies that lead to tangible economic impact for our clients. In the course of its work, the center has amassed a rich set of proprietary data on consumers from around the world, in both emerging and developed markets. The CCCI is sponsored by BCG’s Marketing & Sales and Global Advantage practices. For more information, please visit

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About The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world's leading advisor on business strategy. We partner with clients from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their enterprises. Our customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organization. This ensures that our clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organizations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with 82 offices in 46 countries.

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