“Marketing is fundamental to the success of a social enterprise"

It might not be the sexiest part of the job, but social entrepreneurs putting off examining their marketing approach risk lessening their impact.

Social entrepreneurs are often so enthused by the point of their business that they don’t consider the importance of marketing. Why would they? When you’re busy trying to fulfil your social purpose, marketing sounds like one of those corporate things you’ll think about further down the line when you’ve scaled up. It’s probably not the thing that got you excited about starting the business in the first place.

Then there’s the bad rep that marketing has. As the comedian Bill Hicks once said, if you work in marketing, “There is no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers filling the world with bile and garbage. You’re the ruiners (sic) of all things good.”

A little harsh? Yes, but that was way back in 1993 when very few people had heard the term "social enterprise". Hicks (RIP) was railing against capitalism’s proclivity for selling people more and more stuff that wouldn’t make them any happier – not the kind of marketing that heightens awareness of an organisation performing a useful social purpose. 

Ruth Oakey is the marketing manager for Inspire2Enterprise, which offers business support and advice to social enterprises. She’s been working in marketing for 15 years, whilst Inspire2Enterprise has undertaken 15,000 client engagements since inception at the end of 2011. Given her experience, she’s well placed to offer Pioneers Post some insight as to why social enterprises should consider their marketing. Why is it important? “It’s fundamental to the success of a social enterprise.” Oakey says, before going on to explain why.

Social enterprises come to Inspire2Enterprise at different stages of growth but Oakey finds that the need to think about marketing tends to hit them mainly when they are going for finance, tendering for work or when the 'opportunity pipeline' has slowed right down. “It’s not something they tend to think about from the outset. Social entrepreneurs have a good idea and great intentions, are often enthusiastic, jump straight in and are successful by default. So imagine what they could achieve if they planned their marketing from the start.” notes Oakey.

Refreshingly free of the nonsensical business speak jargon that can colour people’s views about this area of business, she sees marketing very simply as: “about tailoring what you do to what your customers want to be. If you’re not servicing what your customers want, ultimately you’re going to fail.”

The early stages of a social enterprise can be a rollercoaster ride and people come to Oakey when “they don’t know what they need to know".

"They are often so busy that they can’t see the woods for the trees. They are trying to be all things to all people and therefore becoming experts in none and losing sight of the end goal.”

Often social enterprises at this stage won't have the budget to employ someone dedicated to marketing so instead, Oakey tries to get them to take a breath and focus on the areas of their business that are vital to their revenue and social impact.

As an example, she tells the story of Cycle Training Wales (CTW), who promote well-being and the environmental benefits of cycling through education and skills training. When CTW came to Oakey they were undergoing a period of rapid organisational growth and this, combined with a move to new premises, meant that, by their own admission, they couldn't spend the time they needed on the basics of running the business.

As part of looking at the whole business planning process, Oakey helped them to analyse all their services and to prioritise their resources. “I just got them to think about where they needed to spend more or less of their time. That might seem very obvious but when you are running flat out, these things don’t immediately crop up.”

Oakey continues: “Social enterprises can use the wrong tools for the job. They might use PR to get people through the door when that isn’t necessarily the right route. Direct mail, email or increasingly, social media might be. You need to target in the right way: who are your customers? What type of customer do you want to attract; would they read the local paper, for example? That kind of basic consideration is often just not thought about.”

A smart approach to marketing is important because ultimately, it will help to increase the impact of a social enterprise. Even if there is no budget for a dedicated marketing person, Oakey will pass on “a few easy tips and tricks that they can implement themselves.” You can find some of those here. Down in Hades, we reckon we might have made Bill Hicks think again.

Photo Credit: claumoho

Find more help at Inspire2Enterprise

Inspire2Enterprise provides a unique, free-to-access social enterprise support, information and advice service – from start-up through to initial growth and beyond. Call them on 0844 9800 760 or click here to find out more.