“Interviewees stated that marketing solutions had to be sensitive to the organisation’s status as a SE, as well as the type of SE and its target audiences; on the whole they did not believe marketing support was capable of delivering such an approach.”
This is a quote from Business Support For Social Enterprise, a study commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and carried out by the Policy Research Group at University of Durham.
The report is based on longitudinal study of 32 social enterprises and their business support needs over a the course of a year. My company, Social Spider, was one of those studied and I found the process helpful and interesting, so I’m disappointed that this research probably isn’t going to have as much impact as it might have done.
That’s not a reflection on the research or the way it’s written up, it’s just that it’s hard to see how the report will influence the development of social enterprise business support now that the coalition government has – through its funding decisions – effectively abolished it.
On the basis, it might be more useful to consider what the research tells us about social enterprises. The above quote is one of the starker examples of a recurring theme in the report. The perception from social enterprises that mainstream (generalist) providers of business support do not understand social enterprise. It’s not a view that makes a lot of sense to me.
While I probably wouldn’t have trusted advisers from the late Business Link – it lives on, online – to help me come up with a sustainable business plan for a mental health magazine, I would’ve been equally dubious about their ability to tell me how to run a chip shop. So I don’t really get what my fellow social entrepreneurs meant what they said they want marketing support that’s ‘sensitive to the organisation’s status as a SE’.
As far as I know, the basic principle of marketing is that you want to convince someone to buy something – or possibly to turn up somewhere or do something. There clearly are marketing methods that are amoral, immoral and/or anti-social but they probably aren’t promoted at government-funded seminars for people running small businesses.
I’d be genuinely interested to hear some examples of marketing techniques that might reasonably be employed by honest small businessperson but would be incompatible with an organisation’s status as social enterprise. Is their a social enterprise approach to marketing? There is a concept known as ‘ethical marketing’ but that seems to be more about the marketing of ethics that doing marketing ethically.
Of course the products and services social enterprises produce and deliver, and the ways we produce and deliver might be different to those of mainstream businesses but there’s a big danger that we use an assumption of exceptionalism to protect us from uncomfortable realities.
The most uncomfortable of those being that, like any other business, we have to sell things to people who are willing and able to buy those things. Hopefully the stories about what we do and how we do it will be additional selling points for the stuff we’re trying to sell, on top of the fact that that stuff is good – not an excuse for the fact that we haven’t sold enough.