Merchant Blog

Blog Article: Five Steps to Greater Small Business Community Engagement

Today’s blog entry continues a thematic run of posts organized loosely around the world of cycling. Fear not, loyal readers, as we at Merchant Advance Capital have no intention of turning this page into a source for all the two-wheeled news that’s fit to print: there are far better writers out there on the web  who specialize in satisfying your needs in that department.

However: your blogger must share the experience he had today at the UBC Grand Prix racing event. Aside from letting spectators bake in the devilishly hot sun and thrill at watching some of the city’s (and the continent’s) savviest racers zoom with astonishing tenacity around the course at East Mall, the event provided the chance to think about the role of small businesses in community development.

For what is a community, exactly? In the most recent Merchant Advisor newsletter – you should soon, if not already, be able to get it delivered monthly your inbox, and we would love it if you signed up – we profile this very question. In essence, it must be defined as a group of people sharing the same interests and location, along with a desire to make that location the best it can be through the application of their time, effort and investment.

At UBC today, I saw local businesses – most fairly small, some quite large – working together to embody this principle. Many of the installations, prizes for top finishers, and supplies on hand that helped the event run smoothly were provided by merchants from the Vancouver small business community, all in pursuit of the development and maintenance of a thriving cycling culture in the city. Watching the day’s junior-level racing, wherein kids no older than 15 turned in sizzling lap times that made me tremble with real fear, I could not help but think that the value of this kind of support would affect future generations for the better.

Participating in a visible community-making effort of some kind is about more than just hanging the seasonally or culturally appropriate sign in your window for marketing purposes. Doing such things provides a sense that a community’s small and/or independent businesses mean something collectively important to the residents of that place. Here are five great examples of ways you can start to engage with your local community to grow your small business, generate valuable word-of-mouth exposure, and create trust among your customer base.

  • Get to Know Your BIA

Practically every Canadian city, and even most major neighbourhoods in large cities, has a Business Improvement Association. If your small business is not a BIA member for your area, consider becoming one. Vancouver’s BIA homepage provides this helpful summary:  “BIAs operate not unlike major shopping centres, engaging on behalf of all businesses within the neighbourhood in matters such as promotion, festivals, crime prevention, security, cleanliness, transportation, parking and advocacy.” Most BIAs will promote great events like Bike to Work Week, music and film festivals, seasonal/holiday celebrations and cultural festivals, as well as allowing businesses to add their own scheduled promotions to a local events calendar.

  • Engage In Sport

As a participant or a sponsor, businesses stand to gain from activities that take them outside the office and into the field or onto the road. Participation in Corporate Challenges or broad fundraising events such as the Ride To Conquer Cancer or a 10k run underscores your company’s ability to work efficiently as a team and creates unparalleled internal motivation and cohesion that makes an impact on the day to day workplace. Your company will benefit from favourable public exposure while simultaneously providing financial support to a good cause  – an ideal balance of brand impact and social responsibility. Even small businesses can partner with junior sporting organizations as sponsors to create a commitment to development and future success in your community. Many local amateur teams and organizations are attached through sponsorship to businesses in the construction, legal, food services, marketing, finance and retail marketplaces.

  • Teach What You Know

Almost any type of business is built from the ground up with specialized knowledge, specific tools and equipment, and the experience necessary to wield those tools to carve out a niche in the local market. If you run a retail business, you’re probably regarded by customers as something of an expert in the products you provide: use this to your and your community’s advantage by offering a seminar, clinic or in-store demonstration that will help educate members of the public. Bike shops often do this by hosting events that allow interested customers to learn the ins and outs of mechanical maintenance. Other examples include how-to seminars set up by hardware and home improvement retailers, and computer/software literacy classes organized by electronics stores.

  • Grow Your Networks

In the 21st century of business, the idea of “networking” has taken on a distinctly digital tone: Facebook is the new business card. Taking the pulse of your Twitter followers could be just as important taking your investors’. However, involvement in the community on a personal level can be equally important to help your company grow and find new people to engage with. Attending meetings of the BIA or community planning board, charitable organizations, sporting events, fundraisers and other such gatherings may introduce you and your business to a wide range of potential new customers, investors, partners, vendors or even new prospective employees. Making personal contact with fellow business owners and other figures in the context of community development helps grow your business’ market intelligence and understanding of the local economy, allowing you to craft better strategies for future marketing, promotions or business decisions.

  • Encourage Your Employees

Businesses may find much to gain from allowing their employees the freedom to pursue volunteerism, fundraising, and other forms of community involvement. Doing so may allow for new skills and competencies to be built and brought back to benefit the workplace, or allow for the expression of complementary skills that can boost an employee’s confidence and sense of self. No two of your employees are the same, and allowing them to come forward with ideas about community engagement, philanthropy or networking may set your business on a path to being recognized for its unique dedication to a certain cause or effort. Giving your employees a philanthropic goal to work toward encourages their own productivity as well as creating a springboard for outreach into the community.

These five ideas are just the tip of the iceberg for businesses interested in community involvement. As a business owner, showing a broad understanding and concern for the economic and social landscape in which your business is situated can pay dividends – both in terms of your sales and in the sense of having created an impression of reliablility among consumers, fellow businesses, investors, lenders and other important figures that can influence your business and help it grow.

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David Gens

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