Adapting to changing consumer behaviour: Small business perspective
April 23, 2021
Getting to Know: Zahra Qureshi
July 12, 2021
Adapting to changing consumer behaviour: Small business perspective
April 23, 2021
Getting to Know: Zahra Qureshi
July 12, 2021

We have completed the first stage of the research project: Program Design, which aims to investigate the needs and challenges of underrepresented small business owners to help them pivot and grow their businesses online. The findings from this stage will inform the development of the BSBR Digital Marketing Training Prototype in the Stage 2 of the project.

Over 150 small business owners completed the online survey. Around 50 owners were invited to participate in the online focus group discussion and 26 were chosen to join the first round of our training program.

Here is the summary of our findings.

Owner Profile

During the Program Design stage, we conducted three data collection points: online survey, online discussion board and focus group discussion to gain an understanding of our target market so we can develop a training program that is responsive to their needs.

Our target market is underrepresented small business owners whose businesses have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and are looking to develop their digital marketing skills.

Our research findings revealed the majority of participants identified themselves as women, immigrant and racialized peoples whose employees are also women, immigrant and racialized peoples. Their median age is 43 years old. English is their first language. They are highly educated with 58% having a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 19% having a diploma. They also have high computer literacy with 81% rating themselves as intermediate or advanced level in Microsoft Office.

Business Profile

Almost all of the businesses (97%) are based in Ontario and the majority are from Arts; Educational Services; Health Care and Social Assistance; Professional, Scientific and Technical Services; and Retail industry sectors. Their current customers are based locally or in the same province, but they are looking to expand their customer base nationally and internationally.

Their revenue has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 77% of the businesses experienced a negative growth in their annual revenue with an average of 58% reduction. The rest had a positive revenue growth of around 162%.

Digital Profile

The research shows our participants are relatively new to digital marketing. On average, they have been operating a business website for 3.5 years, a blog for 0.8 year and an e-commerce site for 1 year. Regarding social media, they have been active on Facebook for 2.6 years, Instagram for 2.4 years, Twitter for 1.4 years, LinkedIn for 1.7 years, YouTube for 0.8 year and email marketing for 2.3 years.

They have a low level of online activities with an average of 2 updates per month. Most frequent updates are on Instagram 6.9 times and Facebook 4.6 times a month. Consequently, their online reach is low with an average 1,126 pageviews, 1,257 Instagram followers, and 427 email subscribers.

38% did not engage in any forms of online advertising. For those who did, Facebook and Instagram advertising were preferred (25%) followed by Google advertising (12%). For non-digital promotion activities, word of mouth was the most popular (65%), followed by store signage (16%), flyers (14%), and direct mail (11%).

Digital Knowledge and Skills

From the online survey, participants ranked social media marketing as knowledge and skills most important for their business, followed by content marketing, and digital strategy. They ranked influencer marketing and graphic design as least important.

Participants rated themselves mostly as beginners in all aspects of digital marketing with more intermediate skills and knowledge in social media marketing and content marketing.

In the focus group discussion, we asked participants to further identify the knowledge and skills needed in their business and perceived gaps in their current skill set. Participants’ feedback was tagged and grouped into learning paths, topics and elements, which will form the learning outcomes of the training program.

Overwhelmed by everything… find it hard to prioritize or implement any kind of growth strategy

Had an agency but low ROI and quality

Can’t analyze my target market properly

Have Google Analytics but what to do with it

Which social channels to choose to find my customers

Where best to spend my marketing dollars

The topics that are emerged as priorities with the most comments are:

  • Implementation and tactics: Technical how-to information (24% of the comments)
    Participants would like DIY information on how to implement the tactics themselves.
  • Strategy and Planning: Overall planning (16% of the comments)
    Participants need help formulate overall marketing strategy and plans that are purposeful, focused and result driven.
  • Strategy and Planning: Sales funnel and customer relationship management (12% of the comments)
    Participants have problems finding new customers, converting leads (social followers or email subscribers) to customers, and retaining existing customers.
  • Strategy and Planning: Target market, target audience and persona (11% of the comments)
    Participants would like to know who their customers are, where to find them and how to engage with them.
  • Strategy and Planning: Unique selling proposition (USP) and value proposition (10% of the comments)
    Participants have difficulties creating promotional messages, and developing content and stories around the messages.

Program Delivery

From the online survey, participants preferred the training program to be delivered online (65%) over hybrid (20%) and face-to-face (15%) with the recommended class length to be 2.1 hours and the proposed frequency of 2.6 classes per week.

From the online discussion board and focus group discussion, participants voted for 1.5 to 2 hours, twice a week as their preferred class length and frequency. Weekday morning sessions (39%) are preferred over lunch (19%), evenings (17%) and Saturdays (12%) or Sundays (13%).

To give them the best chance to succeed, participants suggested the program should:

  • Be flexible: offering alternative class times, video tutorials or recorded sessions for those who miss the class
  • Be hands-on: explaining the concepts, showing real and relevant case studies and examples, and working on assignments that are related to their own businesses
  • Be result-oriented: if participants can see results or progress, they will be more motivated to continue
  • Be accountable: sharing and commenting on each other’s work, learning from each other’s mistakes
  • Include coaching time: one-on-one or group sessions after class to help with homework and catch up with lessons
  • Offer technical support: especially when using software
  • Have learning resource available prior to class so participants can study in advance and use the class to discuss issues
  • Include resources like planners, workbooks, tools, and systems to help complete assignments
  • Have a peer-support system: class buddy, groups of similar businesses to help and encourage each other and networking opportunity
  • Encourage to experiment and not be afraid or worried about failing
  • Provide participants with constructive feedback from mentors and peers

Next Step

The first stage of the research project, Program Design, is completed. We are ready to progress to the next stage, Program Development. The research findings and insights on our participants and their learning needs will provide guidance and directions to develop our first training prototype, which will be launched in September 2021.

For more information, you can download the full report here.

Interested in Joining?

The application for the Alpha Group Training Program, which will commence in September 2021, is temporarily closed for now. However, space could become available. Please check back in September for further updates. The January 2022 Beta Group Training Program is fully open for applications. Click here to apply now.


[1] The World Bank (June, 2020). COVID-19 to Plunge Global Economy into Worst Recession since World War II. Retrieved from

[2] Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CWCC). (May 2020). Falling Through the Cracks: Immediate Needs of Canada’s Underrepresented Founders. Retrieved from

Sujinda Hwang-Leslie
Sujinda Hwang-Leslie
Professor of Marketing in Sheridan Pilon School of Business

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