Small Business Marketing - The Coffee Shop Principle - Joel Arndt
Business Blog,  Open Sky Copywriting

Small Business Marketing – The Coffee Shop Principle

Whether you like it or not, you don’t have a business without the right attention.

Small business marketing fails when trying to grab everyone’s attention all at once. It’s like being in a coffee shop, shouting at everyone to buy your product. It can work if someone there is desperate for what you’re offering. But mostly you’re going to piss people off.

Some business owners dump resources into a disruptive marketing model that places their brand in the middle of their customer’s experience (commercials, display ads, etc.). The idea is to scare, entertain, or impress the customer. The value of the disruption has to be greater than the frustration of being disrupted.

It’s effective when you have millions to spend, but when marketing a small business, or when you’re self employed, it’s not practical to compete with large corporations in this model.

Wouldn’t you rather add value to your customer’s experience? Don’t you want your marketing be positioned as an asset versus being positioned as a distraction?

Small Business Marketing Wins With Permission

Seth Godin coined the term “Permission Marketing.” You offer something in exchange for the customer’s contact information. Instead of saying, “Look at our product!” you’re saying, “Here’s a quick solution you can use now. Want more?”

This attitude attracts higher quality leads than the disruptive model, or “interruption marketing” as Seth puts it. Small businesses can’t afford to waste money on reams of useless leads. Tom Hopkins, author of Selling in Tough Times, says that qualifying potential customers sets you up for success better than a winning closing strategy. When you have a customer’s permission to send them information, you have their attention and their interest. Now you get to educate them on your solutions. In time they become perfectly qualified customers.

However, permission marketing is popular now. Everybody is giving out free stuff for email addresses or phone numbers. Customers get emails from people they don’t remember giving their address to 6 months ago. They aren’t interested in the companies they gave their info to anymore.

So what’s the solution this time?

Become the Best Resource for Answers

It’s one thing to look for a business you know can solve a problem (like a mechanic, plumber, electrician, caterer, etc.). However, much of the time, people are looking for answers (how do fix a dripping tap, how to change the in my car, etc). This is where small business marketing shines.

Think about how people search for answers. The Yellow Pages used to be the go-to resource to find a business, but when they wanted answers, they went to the library or to the newspapers.

The internet is the perfect fusion of the newspaper, the library, and the Yellow Pages.

The two biggest tools people use when they want answers are Google and Youtube. They also ask their friends on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Social networks are search engines for inspiration, opinions and advice from people they know and trust.

Many businesses treat social media as another channel for promotion. It can be, but that’s a shallow use for a something that equates to a digital coffee shop. Again, that’s like standing and shouting in a place where people just want to chat or enjoy their reading.

The Coffee Shop Principle for Small Business Marketing

Sit down, chill out, and have a conversation with people.

In The Art of Social Selling, Shannon Belew comes right out with the secret to selling on social media – building relationships. This translates to all aspects of small business marketing.

If you want people to know you’re there, stick a sign outside the coffee shop saying, “Let’s talk taxes. Ask me anything. Some answers will surprise you. Join me at the table by the counter.” It’s an invitation. You still have get their attention, but you’re not clamouring for it. And you’re offering something valuable. (Granted, if you actually did this at coffee shop, you’ll better if you have the shop owner’s permission first.)

The conversation is wide open on social media, though. It’s like the coffee shop just opened up for you to sit down with anyone and join the dialogue. So you could hypothetically sit down at a table of friends talking about tax season woes and offer some insight to make their lives a little easier. They would thank-you for it instead of glaring you down.

Make it Easy to Be Found

The coffee shop principle doesn’t end at social media.

If you sell gardening products, offer gardening tips on your website. When someone searches Google for “How to grow tomatoes,” your blog or video on the same topic is served to the searcher as a solution.

You are contributing to the conversation the searcher has initiated. The winners on social media are the those who contribute the most useful information to the conversation. It’s the same with search engines, but instead of you sitting down at the customer’s table, they are coming to find you because someone they trust told them where to find you.

With Google, you just need the information on an easy to read website. There are technical steps you can take to make it easier for Google to recognize the questions you’re answering (called Search Engine Optimization). Ultimately Google rewards practical and useful content.

This isn’t a passive small business marketing model. You have to find the questions your customers are asking. That means you’re out there, talking to people, hearing their stories, finding out what ails them most, and packaging your expertise in an attractive way.

This is passive in the sense that you aren’t standing on the side of the road, wearing a mascot costume, waving frantically to get attention.

You still have to earn attention, but you’re doing it by becoming a part of the conversation your customers are already having.

Find the Right Coffee Shops

Keep marketing, but find the quiet markets. Find the spaces that aren’t cramped by hundreds of the vendors shouting at people, trying to push samples into their face.

Find the “coffee shops” your ideal customers inhabit. Find blogs, websites, Facebook Groups, Twitter chats, LinkedIn Groups, and discussion forums where people have the kinds of conversations you want to be a part of.


When you help someone, they will give you permission to help them again and again. When the help they need crosses into billable time, they won’t have a problem with handing you money.

You built credibility and trust with these people, but more importantly, you built value in their eyes. And you did this through building a relationship, not by clamoring for their attention. They are willing to pay the price because they know what you offer return is worth it.

This is the Coffee Shop Principle.




If this all sounds legit and you found yourself nodding at certain points, share it with your self employed friends and other small business owners. If you take issue with anything I’ve just said, comment below. Better yet, if you have a story of the Coffee Shop Principle in action, lay it out in the comments. I love stories of small business success, whether big or small.



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