Pikeville, Ky., is a town of about 7,000 nestled in the Eastern part of the state, deep in the Appalachian Mountains. Besides being where the McCoys are from (of the famous Hatfields-and-McCoys hillbilly feud) and the cradle of the coal industry, Pikeville isn’t known by most people.

I grew up in Pikeville. My high school class numbered 80 people. Some 58 of them were also pictured in my first grade year book. If I saw any one of them walking down the street today, we’d recognize each other, hug and ask how our mama’s were. I could probably tell you the names of their parents, siblings and perhaps cousins. That’s just how small towns are. They’re a community. And each person in them makes up an important member of the whole.

Last week at unGeeked Elite, I led a discussion on small towns and how they can inspire us as we advise or lead the building of social businesses. There are a number of small town qualities I learned that translate nicely to community building. I shared some of those ideas in Chicago and got some good feedback from the audience that makes me think this topic might be of use. Consultants and analysts everywhere are spouting off “social business” like mainstream America is supposed to know what that means. Perhaps thes ideas from my small town can help you put that puzzle together:

Everybody Knows Everybody, And Everybody’s Business

Main Street - Pikeville, Ky.

You know why no one in a small town uses turn signals? Because everyone knows where they’re going. It’s also hard for people to commit adultery in a small town because everyone knows its going to happen before it ever does. Certain cars don’t belong in front of certain houses.

While this may be unsettling to some, what it translates to in the social business world is transparency. You don’t hide things from people in a small town. You don’t lie to them, either. The community is smart. They’ll sniff you out if you try.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook ethos creeps people out sometimes. He wants everyone to be so open and honest that privacy is no longer a concern. What he wants is a small town. People there can be taken for face value because everyone knows their stories, secrets and skeletons. Car salesmen know who to call on because they know who’s had their car in the shop too often and who hasn’t had a new car in 7-8 years.

But that lack of privacy can also mean something very powerful. Communities are networks of trust. When everyone in the network knows everyone else, and their business, the collective trust is stronger. If I know you’re not trying to pull one over on me, I trust you more. By insisting that brands and marketers be forthcoming and transparent, we all know where to put them on our own, personal trust meter.

Everyone Looks Out For One Another

There was a learning disabled kid I went to school with who was a freshman in 1986. He was still a freshman in 1993, I believe. He was boisterous and friendly — loved to be the center of attention. But he was poor and smelled bad and while most people humored him with friendliness and conversation from time to time, no one really felt comfortable around him. But whenever someone saw him walking to or from school, or even around town, they stopped to give him a ride. It’s just what you do in a small town.

In a small town, you look out for one another. There exists a minimal level of compassion that is required to be accepted in the community itself. When one member of the community hurts, we all hurt. When one celebrates, we all celebrate. And while outsiders are welcome, they’re only welcome if they respect the existing members.

Your business must plug in to the greater online community as if it were a small town. You can’t behave differently than those already assimilated or you’ll not be welcome long. You must give of your time, energy and compassion to show those there that you are, in fact, a part of the community. That you give as well as receive.

The Cost of Admission Is Cheap; The Price of Betrayal Is Expensive

Mark Bowden of Truthplane asked several questions about the cost of entry to a small town that got me thinking. It’s easy to move into a small town. But it’s also hard to become a member of that town. You have to buy into the community values, norms and expectations. Outsiders who come to down and don’t, stick out like sore thumbs and are typically not completely welcome as a result. But a base level of hospitality and generosity exists in small towns that will tolerate even the weird and distorted a bit.

Still, if you are in-and-out to make a buck or do something to rock the boat, as it were, you can be ostracized from the community quickly. A brand jumping into the social space with the sole intent to sell and leave with our money is kinda like a traveling salesman, or even a Jehovah’s Witness in a small town. While someone out there may find what they’re selling useful, if you’re not one of us, you’re probably not someone we want to buy from.

The Easiest Way To Become A Member Is To Help A Member

Hospitality is everything in a small town. If you’re generous with your time, attention and resources, you’ll win ‘em over every time. And the quickest way for everyone in town to like you is if you do a good deed for an elderly member in the town, volunteer to help at a church fundraiser or even just invite a family over to your house for dinner. Word spreads quickly in a connected network. When the word is that you’re good people, you won’t be an outsider much longer.

How long did it take Dell or Comcast to turn their reputations around after they started engaging customers as social businesses? Faster than any ad campaign would have done it. When you lend a hand, you build trust. When you build trust, you earn the right to sell.

What A Small Town Marketplace Looks Like

My family didn’t buy cars from Dodge, Ford or Chevy. We didn’t buy insurance from State Farm or Nationwide. We didn’t bank with PNC or Wells Fargo. And we didn’t buy our clothes from JC Penney or Target. We bought our cars from Terry and our insurance from Sharon. We banked with Danny and bought clothes from Jerry. All four people in question sat within four pews of us at the Pikeville United Methodist Church each Sunday.

People buy from who they know, like and trust. Becoming one of those that others know, like and trust … that’s the point of social business.

IMAGE: Main Street in Pikeville, Ky. The Pikeville United Methodist Church is the brick building in the left foreground. I don’t know who took the picture.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.hanelly.com hanelly

    Brilliant, Jason. This is your best post yet.

    “The Easiest Way To Become A Member Is To Help A Member”

    I grew up in a small town, and I couldn’t agree with this more.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

       Thanks bro. Appreciate the props.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Really interesting that’s the phrase that stuck with you…it did the same for me. Doesn’t it essentially represent other 1:1 relationships? The best way to have a friend is to be a friend. 

      Before brands work so hard to convert shoppers to customers, they should really come to understand what it’s like to have the needs those shoppers have (at least the top several buyer personas). That’s not to say a brand could or should build an “everyman” product, but I think being mindful of the spectrum of needs can inform the content strategy and be used to refine/reinforce positioning.

      And the brands should be intimately familiar with what its like to be one of their converted customers (not just day 2 after the sale closes, but after the new smell wears off). Litmus test to determine are they delivering as promised with product, service, and experience.

  • Anonymous

    Jason, I grew up in a small town and live in a city now and never correlated what I learned about small towns to my social world online.  There is a huge difference in trust and could not be more spot on about being a member.   

    I am the main person for our company utilizing social media, and going to go back to my roots and really think about how to position us as members of a small town community

  • Anonymous

    Jason, I grew up in a small town and live in a city now and never correlated what I learned about small towns to my social world online.  There is a huge difference in trust and could not be more spot on about being a member.   

    I am the main person for our company utilizing social media, and going to go back to my roots and really think about how to position us as members of a small town community

  • Anonymous

    Jason, I grew up in a small town and live in a city now and never correlated what I learned about small towns to my social world online.  There is a huge difference in trust and could not be more spot on about being a member.   

    I am the main person for our company utilizing social media, and going to go back to my roots and really think about how to position us as members of a small town community

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

       Glad I could push some buttons, there Setebbe! Thanks for chiming in.

  • http://twitter.com/crbslotracr2 Tracey Byrnes

     So true. I grew up in a small town also, and those same values and sense of community it taught me are appreciated more now that they’re less commonly found.

    It’s a shame that too many of us (and I’ll be honest, I’ve failed at keeping true to those values more than once) are so conditioned to accept and live the “what’s in it for me” mentality that we forget what made our successes – small and large – possible: the people (community) we connect and build ties with.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

       Thanks for the perspective, Tracey. Glad I could stir up some thoughts today.

  • http://sharonmostyn.com Sharon Mostyn

    Great post, Jason. Here in “Small-timore” we know about small towns even though we’re not that small – you’re constantly running into the same people so it’s a great example of why it’s never a good idea to burn your bridges with anyone.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

       Another good point to make. Don’t piss people off too much! They’re always going to show up the next day. Heh. Thanks Sharon.

  • http://checktrafficdashboardvideo.blogspot.com/ Tiba

     Thank you for this post. As you explained, there are many advantages to living in a small community. If that is what Facebook for example wants to achieve, I would like to say that I do not find it safe to share my private infos on this site. It is such a big community that I would find it impossible to know every one on the network.. It is such a big community that I would find it impossible to know every one on the network.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Tiba. True, but the ethos is the same and keep in mind that Facebook allows you to determine the size of your community to a degree, too.

  • http://www.russhenneberry.com/ Russ Henneberry

    Great post Jason!  I have lived in St. Louis for most of my life but spent two years living in a very small community overseas.  Best lines in the post for me are “When you lend a hand, you build trust. When you build trust, you earn the right to sell.”

    Thanks for writing this Jason!

  • http://mattlacasse.wordpress.com Matt LaCasse

     I grew up in Grinnell, Iowa. A town of about 10,000 people. I didn’t get in to trouble in high school mainly because I knew if I tried someone would call my parents and let them know what I was up to before I was even home. Absolutely right about comparing a small town culture to the online social culture. A brilliant comparison I’m upset I didn’t think of first.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Matt. I ignored your concerns and got in trouble. You were far
      smarter. Heh.

      • http://mattlacasse.wordpress.com Matt LaCasse

        Well, I’ll say more cautious for sure. :) 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_REQRY3S345LAU3CPECX7L64YWA LeonE

     Thank you for this post. As you explained, there are many advantages to living in a small community. If that is what Facebook for example wants to achieve, I would like to say that I do not find it safe to share my private infos on this site. It is such a big community that I would find it impossible to know every one on the network.. It is such a big community that I would find it impossible to know every one on the network

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_REQRY3S345LAU3CPECX7L64YWA LeonE

    wow this works america take notes http://bit.ly/lSMrk4  

  • http://www.thefourthrevolution.org Jeremie Averous

    Hi Jason. I like very much the post. I think you should go further into what makes people accepted in the community. In a small town like on the web and real life, it starts with giving,. You might be weird and live with strange habits, but if you start giving (a ride, a help to cross the road or more) then you’ll be accepted by the community. Only if you start by giving before receiving!

  • http://twitter.com/jennewilson Jennifer Wilson

    Jason, thanks for the post – such a great analogy! I noticed a few comments mention how it would be not only unsafe but impossible to know everyone in such a big community (Facebook or Twitter) but if we take your Small Town concept a step back and look at those platforms as our “state” – then our interests / niches / communities become the (much less overwhelming & massively safer) “small towns” where we want everyone to talk about us. 

  • Geno

    Jason, I love this post. It touches a lot of my childhood memories. As well as my beliefs in what it takes to build a community with a brand and it’s customers.

    I subconsciously have built small towns into the things I’m passionate about in my daily life, online and offline. The things I care about; online car, tech, sports, film, travel forums, my gym, my neighborhood bar and restaurant, etc… I have relationships there, I’m invested… and I feel like its a two way street.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Geno. Glad it hit a nerve with folks. I’ve seen your small town-isms
      in your work. That’s why I like you so much. ;-)

      As for your hair … heh.

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  • http://GrowMap.com Gail Gardner

    I moved between two small towns, one 885 people and the other about 50 people, maybe 120 horses and 1000s of cattle. The only issue I ever had was that all the married women were just sure I was going to steal their husbands (being about the only single woman around their age). If they were wiser they would have been nice since I suppose if one were so inclined that you’d be less inclined if they were your friends. If they only knew how often I shot down their husbands’ offers they would have liked me a lot more.

    The best thing about a small town is the way they come together and do fund-raisers and donate time and money when anyone is hurt or sick or needs a helping hand.

    What disappoints me about most small towns is how willing they are to save a few dollars and shop at Wal-mart, Lowes or Home Depot while the store owners they’ve known all their lives – and often traded with for multiple generations – start closing their doors. It appears they have no clue that one causes the other.

    I’ve been encouraging bloggers to add a geographic element to their blogs so they can support their local communities and small businesses. I kicked that off with this page about one of the few still thriving small towns and hope more bloggers will create geo-targeted social media accounts and blogs. If they tweet at me I’ll share some more links on why doing that positions their blog where the money is.

  • http://GrowMap.com Gail Gardner

    I moved between two small towns, one 885 people and the other about 50 people, maybe 120 horses and 1000s of cattle. The only issue I ever had was that all the married women were just sure I was going to steal their husbands (being about the only single woman around their age). If they were wiser they would have been nice since I suppose if one were so inclined that you’d be less inclined if they were your friends. If they only knew how often I shot down their husbands’ offers they would have liked me a lot more.

    The best thing about a small town is the way they come together and do fund-raisers and donate time and money when anyone is hurt or sick or needs a helping hand.

    What disappoints me about most small towns is how willing they are to save a few dollars and shop at Wal-mart, Lowes or Home Depot while the store owners they’ve known all their lives – and often traded with for multiple generations – start closing their doors. It appears they have no clue that one causes the other.

    I’ve been encouraging bloggers to add a geographic element to their blogs so they can support their local communities and small businesses. I kicked that off with this page about one of the few still thriving small towns and hope more bloggers will create geo-targeted social media accounts and blogs. If they tweet at me I’ll share some more links on why doing that positions their blog where the money is.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Gail. Certainly, there are some sad points to small town life. Glad
      you’re doing something to encourage others to go local.

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  • Furrypals_5

    Having lived now in a small town for 16 years, I will say a huge downfall of small town living is that if you don’t fit into that ‘box’ of conformity and Fit In with everyone, then small towners are ruthless in their ostracism.  As a homeschooling mom in a One Public School town obsessed with sports, we don’t fit in.   I grew up in a very diverse area of California with many options for schools and extracurriculars, and living here for our profitable business has actually been the worst thing for our kids, as we have raised them to be intellectuals and not jocks or skanks like the majority of the locals.   Perhaps it’s because it’s a Western small town that there is such an incredible lack of diversity or intelligence.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the perspective. I don’t deny there can be some
      narrow-mindedness that comes out in an isolated community. Small towns
      aren’t perfect, but neither are large ones. The only advantage there
      is the number of people allows for a compensation for the small-minded
      and ignorant that exist there too.

      I hope you find a niche in your town that pays forward the qualities I
      found fundamentally wholesome and uplifting in my hometown. Or that
      you find a community more welcoming.

    • Furrypals_5

      In fact, just re-reading your article makes me shudder because it just reeks of Small Town Chip On My Shoulder Syndrome.  All that feigned coziness and neighborliness makes me gag.  You know, having come from a small town, that Danny the banker or Sharon the insurance sales lady are gossiping about Jason the writer or Terry the car salesman the minute they turn their backs in the room—-about ANYTHING going on in your lives, good or bad.  Ick.  I’ll take large town or city anonymity any day..

      • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

        Some people are made for bigger cities, I guess. I’ve lived in both
        and have found good and bad in both, too.

    • daltonpost

      No question about it – you have hit on the real issue – if you are not from that small town or any other you can never be accepted or trusted no matter what you do. There are strict social norms especially for women that must be adhered to and those are very backward looking norms that are no longer in play in the broader society. Even having a good education puts you in the outcast category.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=674827924 Kasie Rae Burgamy

    Hi Jason! I just happened to stumble across your post and I was IMMEDIATELY grabbed. Not just because you have many great ideas and suggestions but because my partner and I are going to be going through Pikeville on a Nationwide tour we are doing starting in Feb. 2012 called The Fifty Nifty. Our project actually is based on a lot of what you said and I believe that we have a similar force driving us. Please check out our project on Indiegogo.com/thefiftynifty and learn a little more about our project on facebook by following us: The Fifty Nifty. Thanks so much Jason! Hope to hear from you with your thoughts.
    -Kasie
    Rock & Cookie Pictures, LLC

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Cool! I’ll Tweet it tomorrow! Good luck! And let me know if and when you come through Pikeville. I’ll have mom cook for ya.

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  • Heidi Nelson

    Excellent article. Your description of life in a small town is 100% spot on. I just moved back to my small town and am hoping to help some businesses discover how social media can help them. 

  • http://www.netscribes.com/ Market Research

    You know you really have a beautiful way of writing and articulating your perspective on the world, that’s a real talent and you should continue to develop it Mr Jason !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    http://www.netscribes.com

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  • Jo

    Really appreciated this article. Its been a few years now, do you find that small communities are beginning to see the value of plugging into the social media world? How would you advise the best and simplest steps for them to start? My experience is that there is still some “old school” thinking and fear of the new, but small community biz owners are open to social media more now than ever. As you said, of all the communities,who else should the heart of social media come the most natural too?

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