What Small Towns Can Teach Us About Social Business

by Jason Falls |

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.

About the Author

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).