A few weeks ago I wrote about United Linen, a professional laundry service. Looking back, I think there are some valuable lessons small businesses should learn from they way United embraces and supports their community.
United shows a commitment to its physical community in various ways. For example, they began posting hometown team sports scores through their social media channels, and more recently, they started promoting the local symphony orchestra. During winter, United gets road conditions from their truck drivers and reports back to residents.
In short, United uses social media to report on and champion their local community. They’ve chosen a wise and valuable strategy—one that you might consider taking with your business.
Small business has clearly embraced social media. We see all sorts of cases of how little guys in corner stores or home offices have defied geographic boundaries by going global. But most small business is not going to go global. They depend upon people who live within a few miles of their store or office.
The question becomes: what should you talk about? Because let’s face it, there’s only so much you can say about your dry cleaning service or your homemade pie.
However, your customers and you probably share many topics of interest. Every town, city or neighborhood has all sorts of local events, issues, problems or reasons to celebrate. Your neighbors and customers talk about them over the counter in your shop, in coffee shops, dog parks or over backyard fences.
These issues are what make your community special—they are the community passion points. A century ago, most communities created town commons, where people gathered to discuss, debate and occasionally brawl over local issues.
People like to do business with people who share their interests. They would rather have an easy conversation then get bombarded with marketing offers and a few very large companies have figured this all out.
Dell Computer, for example, has 8000 employees who use social media as part of their jobs. They are discouraged from using the conversational tools to be overly promotional, and instead are encouraged to mix in mentions of their hobbies and personal interests.
“We discourage shilling,” Richard Binhammer, a senior member to the Dell social media team, told me.
Binhammer’s approach make sense. A smart sales person almost never starts a customer conversation with, “Hey, are you going to buy something? They are more likely to discuss weather and ease in to any possible transactions."
In social media, you will almost always do better by conversing than by aggressive selling, and you will probably sell more goods and services if your team talks with people about what interests them rather than what you want to sell.
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There are local passion spots wherever you do business. And the ability of your hometown to have a public, accessible venue for discussion has been in atrophy in recent years.
Local newspapers and broadcast stations have been on the wane. Those that have survived have very often cut staff and local coverage. The result has been that many communities suffer a local information void waiting to be filled.
Thanks to social media, local merchant or professional can fill this void in local community information and promotion at low cost and with a little investment of time. The result may have more lasting value to your business position than any e-coupon. The result may also increase the number of people who use e-coupons when you post them as well.
You have the opportunity to provide your community with an online commons—a venue where local news is shared and issues can be discussed or debated.
Here are four ways to do it:
1. Be the local media company
Online journalist Tom Foremski has been talking a lot about every company becoming a media company. But his examples are usually about huge enterprises such as Dell Computer, Cisco, Ford Motors, etc.
Why can’t a small business do this for its hometown? Your customers are already telling you what they care about—why not report on what their local passion points are? Your loyalty to your community will spawn their loyalty to you.
2. Use video and pictures
Your community is filled with wonderful and provocative visuals and sounds. Take pictures at local events. Post them (note: if kids are involved get permission).
3. Listen and report
Use basic tools such as Google Blog Alerts to monitor topics that interest your community. Use Twitter and Facebook to be the first to report on them. If it is a complex subject, blog on it—or ask someone in your community to do a guest blog on your site.
4. Be a polster
When issues arise in your community, poll your audience. Ask for a yes or no response, but also host a venue for people who want to leave longer comments. I constantly ask questions on Twitter and Facebook, but I also set up a space for blog comments, where people can post long comments and perhaps debate each other’s ideas.
By becoming a community booster, you build loyalty and establish thought leadership. This can be devastating to a competitor.
I call the strategy ‘Lethal Generosity.’ Here’s how it works:
Start a campaign for safe streets, sending the local team to a post-season tournament or whatever is a passion point you share with your neighbors.
Next, invite your competitors to join the campaign to match—or exceed—any financial contributions you make. Do it online or in public.
What can your competitor do? There’s only two options:
- Ignore you. But then it appears they don’t care about safe streets or the local team.
- Match or exceed your donation. In either case, they are following your lead. You will get some of the credit for your competitor’s generosity.
And, in either case, you win.
Try it. I bet it will increase customer loyalty, bring in new business, devastate your competition and make you feel better about yourself.