No business operates in a vacuum. No matter where you are based, your company is part of the local community — and it can easily be part of other communities, both online and off. It's tempting not to worry too much about the community, of course. The most important focus should be your business's success, rather than trying to integrate with your neighbors. But the two aren't mutually exclusive.
Your community and your customers are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there's likely to be significant overlap if you rely on local sales. If your business operates primarily online, you still have a community to consider, but you may not have the convenience of using geography to identify your community.
A Part of Your Community
Depending on your preferences, you can make your community involvement a part of your marketing plan, list it under public relations, or categorize it under something entirely different. But there are a few facts that make it an important process.
First, establish a reputation as a trustworthy member of the community. Your reputation is important for reasons beyond your income, but it doesn't hurt to remember that people prefer to buy from companies and individuals they can trust. They're more likely to trust someone they know, someone from their own community.
Second, community involvement can be crucial in a crisis. While it can be difficult not to be cynical when considering problems such as those BP currently faces, it's easy to see that the company is making use of every community connection it can to mitigate the problems it faces. In particular, the positioning of Darryl Willis as the face of the compensation process seeks to build a sense of connection. As Willis says in a recent radio ad, "I was born and raised in Louisiana. I volunteered for this assignment because this is my home. I'll be here in the Gulf as long as it takes to make this right."
No matter the strategy behind community involvement, being aware of your company's position in the community is a necessity.
Investing in Your Community
Since you must operate in your community, it simply makes sense to make your community a key resource for your business. That can require some investment and where you choose to invest your time and money can vary significantly. Some investments will bring you directly into the view of your customers. Some will help you build up the infrastructure you need in your community to cut your costs or to put your community in the position of needing more of your products or services.
Sales are typically the crucial question for small business owners. As such, you've likely put together information on where your ideal customers are most likely to be found. That same information can lead you to opportunities in your community. In some cases, you may find that you're looking at more of a donation than an investment — but if there is a return on your donation, such as more awareness of your company in your target market, you can have a much better financial benefit than a simple tax deduction.
Even relatively simple investments at the local level can help your business to cultivate situations in which your services or products are needed. A CPA, for instance, can easily hold free workshops, investing his time to help the individuals he would like to work with. By educating prospective clients about their own needs, that CPA has also shown them where his services would come in handy.
Investments aren't just for companies who find their customers locally. If you operate a company where most sales occur outside of your immediate area, your ties to the area are still very strong. You likely recruit most of your employees, locally, after all, and the right investments can help build a pipeline that funnels trained and able employees right to your company. Take a look at the local school system: even a little investment may be able to help you to find the employees that you need now and down the line.
Thinking In Public Relations Terms
Hopefully, you'll choose your community involvement based on more than your financial benefit — perhaps your own interest in seeing your community or a particular cause within your community succeed — but it's hard to argue that most business owners aren't aware that there benefits to community involvement in terms of public relations. Such benefits do require action on your part to take advantage of, however.
Simply increasing awareness of a company or a product can help increase sales. But if your customers or clients equate your company with the efforts you've made in your community, they are more likely to seek your business out at levels beyond what generally increased awareness can create. But making sure that the word gets out there often requires a little self-promotion. No one else will go out of their way to tell people about the good things you've done. That can require a public relations strategy that shares the good news.
There is a fine line between sharing that news and pushing too hard to make sure that the local public sees your efforts and investments in the community, of course. But sitting back and hoping that someone else will mention your good deeds is too much to hope for. Planning a strategy that avoids going overboard is necessary. There are approaches, however, that can work in certain situations. For instance, if you've focused on a philanthropic cause in your local community, it's possible to promote the cause and only incidentally promote your involvement with it.
You don't need to be cold and calculating when it comes to investing in your community, but it is worth paying attention to the opportunities, both direct and those that you have to promote, that your community can bring your way.
Wise Bread is a leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.