CoreCommerce client Ken Shaw came into the world of small business by accident. Upon returning to college in his mid-thirties to study music, he began working on a French market travelling up and down the Uk every weekend. When he was offered the opportunity to run a French Soap stand, he decided to go for it. Ken eventually moved to France, returning to the UK every weekend, to find his customers waiting for him. The business grew, and Ken decided to take it online. Natural French Soap was born.
Small businesses, like Ken’s, are the backbone of the American economy and many global economies. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, more than half of Americans own or work for a small business, and small businesses create two out of every three jobs in the United States every year. This week, we celebrate the small businesses that are a daily part of so many of our lives during National Small Business Week, hosted by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
We know that the survival and success of small businesses have a great impact on our economy, and yet the barriers to entry can seem insurmountable in markets dominated by multi-million dollar corporations. Both homegrown businesses just starting out and established small businesses struggling to survive face a number of obstacles when attempting to compete among giant organizations. Yet, the balance is starting to shift, and a new equilibrium starting to take shape for small businesses, one that is driven by changing needs and expectations of customers and a new age of disruptive technology.
In Can’t Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results, Bob Garfield and Doug Levy characterize the last few decades up to now as “The Consumer Era,” an era of mass marketing, traditional advertising, and product-oriented consumption. However, they write that while the Consumer Era, with its catchy jingles, slick brochures, and corporate-speak may have satisfied the consumers of yesteryear, today’s consumers demand more. The internet, and subsequently Wikileaks, mobile technologies, social media and the rise of citizen journalism have enabled consumers unprecedented access to the sordid corporate behaviors belied by the slick branded images fed to them by many of today’s large corporations. Rather, today’s consumers, denizens of what Garfield and Levy have termed the “Relationship Era,” are eager to know, not just what products or services a company offers, but how those products and services are brought to market. Is manufacturing environmentally friendly? Where are products sourced? What are the working conditions like in the factories? What does the company stand for, outside of generating shareholder profits?
According to Garfield and Levy, the new currency of the Relationship Era is authenticity. Technological disruption driven by the internet and widespread adoption of social media now enable businesses to connect with consumers in a way that advertising never could, and on a scale and budget that was unattainable for most small businesses in the Consumer Era, in which companies with the highest advertising budgets bought their way to the top of consumer consciousness.
In the Relationship Era, the focus narrows from the national to the hyperlocal, from branding focused on the masses to relationship-building focused on the needs and wants of the single customer. Small businesses are well-positioned for success in this day and age, as the way people conduct commerce around the country and around the world seems to be changing. Today’s consumers seek out businesses that align with their personal vision and values. Today’s consumers seek businesses that are authentic in their dealings, responsible in their processes, and passionate about what they have to offer to the world. Small businesses have never had a problem competing with large corporations in this regard.
In a world where customers expect personalization and attention to their individuality, and one in which corporations have responded to these expectations with “personalized” marketing e-mails with automatically generated first names attached to blase marketing content, the small business owner and her staff have an opportunity to shine. In a world where corporations are experimenting with chatbots designed to simulate human conversation, small businesses without the resources for these investments may actually have the upper hand. Limited resources often require staff members, generally the same staff members, to engage with customers one-on-one time and time again, allowing them to build personal relationships and get to know their customers by name, as well as by need.
Marketing automation software and chatbots aren’t needed to maintain the facade of relationship, when staff are intimately engaged with their customers on a daily basis. Which brings us back to Ken Shaw of Natural French Soap. When I asked Ken what he thought made his business successful, Ken’s immediate answer was that he makes his customers the priority. He responds to customer emails immediately or at least as soon as he possibly can, and each order is beautifully packaged with a handwritten note included.
But, aren’t small business that operate online at a disadvantage? Small brick and mortar shops can put a sign up or sticker in their window to attract new customers during initiatives like Small Business Saturday. These small businesses also seem better positioned to attract the Relationship Era customers who make an effort to shop locally. Customers in the neighborhood are used to seeing business owners in their shops and may develop relationships with them over time, allowing these businesses to become deeply rooted in the fabric of communities. Where are small online businesses in all of this? Especially in a world of eCommerce in which the giant Amazon looms large and casts a long shadow, promising near-instant consumer gratification by means of ground fleet, airplane or drone.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the new demands of our age have created a more nomadic society. According to census data, the average person is expected to move just under 12 times during his or her lifetime. What never moves, though, is Facebook and the various watering holes and communal places online. Perhaps in our day and age it is safer to be online given the migratory nature of today’s customer.
Speaking of Facebook, though, social media is both the disruptor and the deliverer in the new Relationship Era. The transitory nature of today’s communities has led many folks to supplement or even sustain social communities online. Likewise, platforms like Twitter have broken down the intermediary nature of the mainstream media, allowing individuals to break and interpret news in real time, without relying on the evening or cable news (and their advertisers’ messaging). Such access has heightened the need for corporate responsibility, as Big Brother is always watching, and deepened the nature of online communities, both opportunities for the small business online.
When small businesses effectively utilize social media to build communities, not around their products or services, but around common interests, values and causes, the response can be overwhelming. Small businesses online are even better positioned than local brick-and-mortars in this space, because interested parties online can arrive at their stores in just the click of a mouse. Always on, always available, small businesses deeply rooted in online communities have a greater chance of succeeding.
Aside from social media, there are a number of other ways small online businesses can shine in the Relationship Era.
1. Tell your business’s story on your site. Small business owners have a lot to do – from setting up and maintaining their store websites to fulfilling orders to managing accounting and taxes. But, make sure that in all of this activity you don’t neglect one of the most important pieces of all, that is, taking the time to craft and share the story of your business. Your story is the heart and soul of your business, and in the Relationship Era, it is a compelling reason for customers to choose your business from an endless sea of options. If you aren’t sure where to begin, there are number of resources online that can help get your started.
2. Take a stand! Relationship Era customers are attracted to businesses which align with their personal values, so make sure that your business’s values are not only well-articulated but also embodied in every process and every engagement with your customers. Figuring out exactly how to narrow down these values and crystallize them into a clear message can be difficult. But, the investment of time will be well worth the effort. Garfield and Levy include many tips in their book, however they suggest starting with three simple questions. Why does the brand exist? How does the brand express its purpose or take a stand in the marketplace? And, what does the company do? By taking the time to simplify a business’s mission into three fully-charged single answers to these questions, the brand can begin to take a real stand and mobilize customers around its vision and values. As Garfield and Levy write, “you don’t dictate an image; you own a point of view.”
3. Join or build online communities of followers with similar values and interests. Counterintuitive by Consumer Era standards, the most effective way for your small business to sell products and services is to not sell them at all. Rather, by focusing not on product features or service offerings and instead on the values and vision of the business itself, individuals with similar values and vision will be mobilized around your business and what it represents. For example, a shop selling kayaks is best served in the Relationship Era not by distributing branded content describing the dimensions and superior functionality of its kayaks, but instead by creating and fostering communities of people who love the outdoors and enjoy water sports and by aligning itself with the values of these communities, based on its own vision and values.
4. Place customers at the center of your business. Follow Ken’s advice and make the customer feel good about buying from your business. Respond when they have questions, get to know them, and make their buying experience personal and pleasurable. Small steps will set your business apart among the big fish of your industry.
As the Relationship Era evolves, it is certain that large corporations will move to position themselves once again to appeal to new consumer expectations. But today’s consumers are smarter and savvier, more likely to see through green-washed marketing and the like and much more disposed to buy from small businesses that align with their personal vision and values, including small businesses online.