Are trends favoring social businesses over classic “greed is good” businesses? Is all business social business? Or, every day, more business is social? I think so. I hope so.
I first heard the term “social venture” in the late 1990s. Back then, social ventures were the odd exception to the norm, making money while making things better for their employees, their community and rest of the world. They sold devices to sanitize drinking water in the developing world for small profits. They sold technology to develop clean energy. They sold goods that protected the health of the less privileged in the developing world.
It’s been about two years since Harvard Business Review published “Every Business Is (or Should be) Social,” an article by Deborah Mills-Scofield. She wrote:
All businesses are social. All companies have people as customers, employees and suppliers. At some point in deciding which supplier to use, in engaging your workforce, and in getting your product into users’ hands, relationships with people matter. Improving their experiences always improves the outcome for your company.
It’s not just random change. It’s progress.
It’s not that people running businesses are more ethical or moral than they used to be. It’s because of changes in rewards and penalties for good or bad behavior. Social and technological changes are real factors.
The big change started with the Internet in the 1990s. Websites gave businesses a new and different way to reach the world. Before the World Wide Web, businesses had essentially only two ways to reach out to get people to know, like and trust them. They could pay for advertising. Or they could go through the media with public relations, events, articles, speaking opportunities and the like.
The second option depended on getting through gatekeepers: editors, event managers, producers and so forth. By the middle-to-late 1990s, businesses could generate their own website and online options to attract people and help them get to know, like and trust them.
Then came blogging. Millions of people started their own blogs. Experts established their expertise by writing and publishing blog posts and articles. The gatekeepers ceded power to the general public, the readers, search engines and the quality of content. Authors, consultants and assorted business experts established themselves independently of gatekeepers.
The finishing touch was social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social sites offered publishing for the masses, billions of opinions expressed as likes, follows and comments.
The result of these trends is what we call transparency.
In his book “The Age of the Customer,” small business advocate Jim Blasingame suggests that we’ve passed a tipping point. “You don’t control your brand,” he says, “your customers do.” And that is a shift in centuries of business reality, he adds.
And it’s because of the accumulated power of the customer as publisher in millions of tweets and updates.
Transparency means bad business behavior is more likely to result in damage to the brand. Big corporations still want to spin information toward their favor, but it’s more difficult to do.
United Airlines took a huge hit in brand image when a customer posted a video on YouTube complaining about treatment of a guitar. Clothing brand Kenneth Cole took a huge hit when its founder tweeted that riots in Cairo were caused by his firm’s new spring fashion line. When Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests, the world knew. When General Motors misplayed product recalls, the world knew.
Transparency also means that good business behavior matters more, too.
Markets care about business stories. A new local business is more effectively able to compete against big national brands because buyers know the local firm’s story and care about it. Clean energy businesses are finding buyers willing to pay more for renewable energy than fossil fuel energy. People pay more for healthy food than mass-produced food. People care about genetically modified foods, and local foods. Some customers prefer local coffee shops to Starbucks. Chain restaurants are less attractive to some than local restaurants.
As we look at business today and trends, shouldn’t all businesses be conscious of their impact on employees, customers, the environment, the economy and the world?
Isn’t it a sign of progress that when so many businesses have a social conscience that we drop the distinction between social business and just plain business? Shouldn’t good behavior be a business advantage?
I’m happy to report that I think it’s happening. Slowly and in stops and starts, progress is being made. All business should be social business.
(Note: republished with permission from my monthly column in the Eugene Register Guard Blue Chip magazine.)