I originally posted this at Search Engine Land this past summer for the “Small is Beautiful” column. I’m hoping that more businesses embrace the idea of social responsibility in the new year to come, and I am adding a small business category to SEO by the Sea, with this as the first post.
In the profit-centered business, customer happiness is merely a means to an end: maximizing profits. In the customer-centered business, customer happiness is an end in itself, and will be pursued with greater interest, passion, and empathy than the profit-centered business is capable of.
– Putting Customers Ahead of Investors, John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods
A couple of weeks ago, a shopping mall near my home announced that they would start checking the IDs of teenagers at entrances to the mall after 5:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights, and not allow anyone under 18 to enter the mall unless they are accompanied by a parent or supervising adult over the age of 21.
Their explanation was that too many young people were using the mall as a social gathering place on weekend nights, behaving unruly, not shopping, and keeping away customers who wanted to make purchases at the mall. In many ways, the mall is a victim of its own success, being a popular destination for the audience that the mall shops target with what they offer.
A couple of local teens responded by starting a Facebook group as the “Official Boycotting Site for the Christiana Mall.” That’s probably not a response that the mall wanted to see, nor a result that they wanted to experience.
Social Responsibility and Small Business
As I read the news article about the mall, I thought of how it had become a place for teens to meet, and how it had become part of their lives. I wondered about alternatives that teens might have that offered such a safe and secure setting, and realized that there were little alternatives in the area where teens could meet on Friday and Saturday nights. That’s not the mall’s problem, of course. Or is it?
Looking past business-for-businesses’ sake, a question entered my mind. When had I ever seen the mall interact with their neighbors and the surrounding community? When had they ever gotten involved in sponsoring or helping community efforts to benefit their neighbors and the teens who are their customers?
Had they ever helped build or furnish a youth center, or donate to a skate park, or do something beneficial for the youth of the community? I searched around online to see what kind of footprint they may have left in the community that surrounds them, and didn’t find much. Actually, I didn’t find anything at all on a positive note.
Where does the social responsibility of a business enter into what a business does online? A business is defined by more that just what it offers in terms of services and sales. When I perform a search for the mall in question, one of the top ten results in Google is a headline urging that the mall be boycotted. A much better search result would be that the mall made a vow and has taken steps to dedicate time and funding to the building of youth recreational centers in the area. Our actions offline and online are reflected in what we see in search results.
As a small business owner, participating in the community around you goes beyond offering sales and services to your community. It means being involved in positive ways to help others, finding ways to offer goods and services that make the world better, being a good neighbor to the communities around you, providing fair wages to those who work for you, and supplying the best goods and services that you can at a price that people needing your services can afford. As business owners and employees of small businesses, we aren’t just business people, we are also part of the communities that we live within.
Have you considered how your business can be socially responsible? How it can help cultivate and grow positive change in the community around it for both its own benefit and that of its neighbors?
Search Engines and Public Opinion
Opinion and review sites that focus upon letting their users create content have been growing and will likely continue to do so, and many services, including search engines, are using those reviews. A recent paper from Google, Building a Sentiment Summarizer for Local Service Reviews (pdf), provides some interesting approaches to collecting positive and negative information about businesses within reviews. This may be the future of what we see from Google in local search.
One example from the paper:
Children’s Barber Shop (16 Reviews) service (*) (3.5/5 stars, 7 comments)
(+) The staff does a nice job with cranky toddlers. (+) We asked them not to cut the front of our sons hair, but they did. (-) Better try another salon if you want to be treated with common decency.
Beyond review sites are sentiments that may be expressed on blogs, in forums, on videos, and upon other pages on the Web. What might a search for your business name show in Google?
Embracing Social Responsibility
Embracing social responsibility in your business doesn’t mean building a facade that you are concerned about the environment, or consumer rights, or fair trade, or reaching out to your community in a helpful and meaningful way. A recent study and paper from the group TerraChoice, titled The “Six Sins of Greenwashing” (pdf), explored messages about green practices found on the packaging of products observed in big box stores in the United States, and researched the “environmentally friendly” claims made on those goods.
Many of those messages were misleading in a number of ways, and TerraChoice identified what they called The Six Sins as:
- Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
- Sin of No Proof
- Sin of Vagueness
- Sin of Irrelevance
- Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
- Sin of Fibbing
It’s a paper worth studying carefully as a business owner. Just placing a message on your letterhead or your web page tagline or your product packaging that appears to be socially responsible isn’t the same as taking positive steps to become socially responsible. The growing social web looks beyond mottoes and mission statements to actual actions. And they write about them.
Some Socially Responsible Steps
Some questions that might be worth asking yourself about your business:
- If your business sells goods on the Web and you can offer products that help the environment, why not offer those?
- If you have employees, what do you offer them to make their lives better in terms of health care, educational opportunities, daycare, and others?
- When you decide upon vendors, do you look past potential savings on supplies to the practices of those suppliers?
- When you consider working for clients, do you look past profit calculations to the benefits that they provide to society?
- If you hire volunteers when your business is first starting and you start making a profit, do you consider providing pay for those volunteers?
- Do you think about finding ways to give back to the customers that provide your livelihood, and to the communities that they live within?
- Do you pay attention to feedback from the stakeholders of your organization, from employees to vendors to owners to investors to the community around you, and consider their feedback carefully and respond as positively as you can?
I started this post with a quote from an article by John Mackey, and I want to end it with a quote from the same article:
To extend our love and care beyond our narrow self-interest is antithetical to neither our human nature nor our financial success. Rather, it leads to the further fulfillment of both. Why do we not encourage this in our theories of business and economics? Why do we restrict our theories to such a pessimistic and crabby view of human nature? What are we afraid of?