One third of small businesses end up in dispute with digital marketing providers | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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One third of small businesses end up in dispute with digital marketing providers

Digital marketing can be vital to the success of a small business yet one-in-three end up in a dispute with their provider, according to new research by the University of the Sunshine Coast.

And almost 70% of small businesses last fewer than 12 months with the digital marketing provider they choose.

The high proportion of disputes and the large turnover in providers has prompted the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman to provide a best practice guide for small business, released today.

The Ombudsman commissioned the study by UniSC researchers, which is among the first in the world to investigate the specific relationship challenges between small businesses and digital marketing service providers. This collaboration has produced the information checklists in the best practice guide.

Lead researcher, UniSC Senior Lecturer in Public Relations Dr Karen Sutherland (pictured) said the common reason for a dispute was a lack of open, informed and honest communication between small business and a digital marketing provider.

Dr Karen Sutherland

Dr Sutherland said a little due diligence from small business owners themselves could go a long way to avoiding problems.

Ombudsman Bruce Billson said digital platforms had fundamentally changed the way in which small businesses connected and sold to their customers and enabled them to reach a significant portion of Australian and international markets.

“A digital marketing service provider is a person or agency that you engage to help with your online presence," Mr Billson said. “But for too many small businesses this relationship can be unsatisfactory, and for one-in-three it ends in a dispute.

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

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

The study found digital marketing service providers often did not communicate risk; were not transparent with details about services, timeframes and results; and did not treat their clients as collaborative partners.

It concluded that a lack of digital literacy among small business owners prevented them from proactively asking relevant questions about the services being provided by digital marketing service providers.

Half of small businesses said that their providers pushed them to buy expensive and irrelevant services.

Dr Sutherland said most marketing providers were not out to “get” business owners, rather it was a matter of finding a provider that was best aligned to their business.

“Different companies have different capabilities. Some are used to working with bigger clients, bigger budgets and will want more control over a business’ 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.”

The best practice guides are available here. Small businesses who are in a dispute or need assistance can contact the Ombudsman at

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