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‘30% of small business tie-ups with digital marketers end in tears’


Digital platforms have changed the game but too often client and provider talk a different language, research by ASBFEO reveals.

By Philip King 12 minute read

One in three small businesses clashes with their digital marketing outfit and for 70 per cent the relationship ends within 12 months, research by the sector ombudsman reveals.

The study found digital marketers pushed expensive and irrelevant services onto small businesses, were opaque about time frames and results, and failed to communicate risk.

At the same time, small business owners lacked the digital literacy to ask the right questions about the services being provided, such as branding, website, search engine rankings and a marketing strategy.


The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Bruce Billson, said digital marketers neglected to treat their clients as collaborative partners and most disputes came from a mismatch in understanding what each party required.

“Digital platforms have fundamentally changed the way in which small businesses connect and sell to their customers,” Mr Billson said, “but for too many small businesses this relationship can be unsatisfactory, and for one-in-three it ends in a dispute.”

The lead researcher, Dr Karen Sutherland of Sunshine Coast University, said small businesses and digital marketers needed to talk to each other openly.

“There needs to be clear and honest communication about budget, the exact service being provided and setting realistic expectations for results,” Dr Sutherland said.

“Is the service for ad campaign management only? A website revamp? Who will own the website domain at the end of the contract? Will social media be required? If so, how much control will the marketing provider have over that social media account?”

“And most importantly, make sure everything that’s agreed upon is written into a contract.”

Dr Sutherland said due diligence by small business owners would go a long way to avoiding problems.

“Different companies have different capabilities. Some are used to working with bigger clients, bigger budgets and will want more control over a business’s marketing content – and maybe that’s not a good fit for you or your business,” she said.

“So make sure you form a clear idea of what it is you want and research prospective companies before you engage with them.

“Look at some of their previous work, reach out to former clients and see if it seems they seem like the right company for your needs.”

Mr Billson said ASBFEO had released a best practice guide that provided simple steps for small businesses to achieve better outcomes.

“Before you talk to a provider, identify the assistance you need and what you want the provider to do and what you want to do yourself,” Mr Billson said.

“And when you talk to a provider make sure you understand exactly what they will do for you and at what times and that you are both clear on the cost, including any fees or other charges, and for how long the agreement will apply.”

“Our guide gives small business actionable tips on receiving great service and building a real partnership with a digital marketing service provider.”

There was also a guide for digital marketing providers to better understand the needs of small businesses.

The study, among the first anywhere to examine challenges between small businesses and digital marketing providers, was commissioned by ASBFEO.


Philip King

Philip King


Philip King is editor of Accountants Daily and SMSF Adviser, the leading sources of news, insight, and educational content for professionals in the accounting and SMSF sectors.

Philip joined the titles in March 2022 and brings extensive experience from a variety of roles at The Australian national broadsheet daily, most recently as motoring editor. His background also takes in spells on diverse consumer and trade magazines.

You can email Philip on: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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