Social Responsibility And The Small Business

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?

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17 thoughts on “Social Responsibility And The Small Business”

  1. Social responsibility doesn’t necessarily have to be directly proportional to the size of your business. It’s more to do with how you approach interaction with others….basically it’s all about the Golden Rule.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    I agree with you that a business being social responsible isn’t contingent upon the size of the business, but it might be easier for smaller businesses to develop and implement socially responsible policies and actions.

    In many cases, it is a matter of doing the right thing, maybe beyond the golden rule to actually considering things like how they impact the environment, and their community, and how they can participate in making their community (and environment) better.

  3. I believe Social responsibility in business is far behind what it will be in the future. Why make $1 and ruin the environment when you can make $1 and help the environment or help our society. Our current economic situation should be a wake up call for social responsibility. We can do more than just hope for change. we can try to be a part of it

  4. Hi Solpowerjobs,

    Thank you. I agree completely. More responsibility in business just might have meant that our economy wouldn’t have been harmed the way that it has, as well.

  5. Terrific post. I don’t think people realize how powerful the online community is when it comes to brand image. Most only care about the bottom line.

  6. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m not sure that it’s a question of “online community,” as much as it is how a business can act in a socially responsible manner, and how people perceive that business, regardless of whether the discussion takes place online or offline.

    I agree completely that it helps to think about more than just the bottom line. The success of a business goes beyond calculations of dollars and cents. We would all be better off if more businesses looked past their profit margins to their impact on the world we all share together.

  7. Great article Bill.I think that Social Responsibility is a thing that people have to know by their self.It’s right that you posted such good article but people hopefully do not appreciate or do not bother to see this kind of article but anyways Bill i would like to know your opinion on Web Analytic.

  8. Hi Michael,

    I do hope that people start thinking of social responsibility in business as something that they should do, rather than something that would be nice if they did. Considering yourself to be a good neighbor and member of the community should be a given.

    As for web analytics, it really helps to have a way to gain some insight into how people use your web pages, and how the impact of changes on your pages can have an impact on those pages. Web analytics help provide that kind of perspective.

  9. Good points and a much overlooked subject of small business. A current of social responsibility just makes sense even from a marketing perspective. What goes around comes around now more than ever. With people connected through social media the waves of dissent can come fast and furious and a business brand can be severely effected even from one isolated customer service problem.

  10. Hi Tim,

    Thank you. The expansion of social media has increased the ability of people to engage in conversations about a product or a service or a company. Social responsibility is as important as ever, if not more. Planning ahead on how best to respond to feedback or criticism in as positive and meaningful a way as possible isn’t a bad idea for most businesses. How you respond to people who might have complaints can impact how your business is perceived by others.

  11. Thanks for the great article…seems we are living in a world where profit is king and greed takes precedence over ethics. The web has become much more “social” the past few years, and hopefully this will bring to light those companies that deserve it. You’re article got the gears turning in my head, thanks!

  12. Hi Clayton,

    Thanks. Many small businesses are finding an awareness of their social responsibility to be part of doing business within their communities, and with their neighbors. I’m encouraged by that, and I hope that larger businesses take note when they see people in home businesses, and smaller shops participate actively in their communities as “good neighbors.”

    In law school, we were often presented with the concept of business organizations as legal fictions, though perhaps the focus should have been more on corporations and partnerships as socially responsible entities, where people collaborated and cooperated because they could get more done by joining together – though they still had the responsibility to be good neighbors, concerned about everyone else that they interacted with, and about the communities they acted within. whether those are right outside their offices, or across the web.

  13. Hi great post! Social responsibility is taking so many forms these days. Going green is almost required as both a PR approach and a social responsibility platform. I like what you wrote on search engines. With such grand power, they must act responsibly.

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