Sensitive about selling?

“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.


Filed under Uncategorized

7 responses to “Sensitive about selling?

  1. If you saw Denver Mill getting a business makeover last night on you’ll have seen a great example of what David’s saying here. I’ve met the Abels and they were almost embarassed to make money, preferring instead to focus on preserving a working Mill.

    This strategy had consumed their life savings and left them anxious and close to bankruptcy. In fact today’s local paper reports that they did not follow all the advice given (raise the game and increase value/prices/margins) and so I guess they’ll be come ‘victims’ and vanish.

    ALL enterprises need to market themselves effectively. ALL need to add value and give their customers a number of compelling reasons to buy. Social enterprises are no different, except that social impact is perhaps their predominant point of market difference.

    The Abels said in the BBC programme, ‘we haven’t set out to make much money,’. In fact not making money was what they’d been best at doing. No wonder business advisers get confused! Making money keeps your enterprise alive and gives the social enterprise more opportunity to support their community of interest.


  2. Interesting stuff, thanks David.
    I’ve supported social enterprises for a few years now with marketing – based around a DIY approach. I’m just finishing a guide for Community Supported Agriculture Schemes for the Soil Association so I’ll share that with you when it’s finished – most of it’s relevant to any social enterprise.

    Is marketing different for social enterprises? The thing that interests me is working out what’s relevant and useful to small businesses – which most social enterprises I work with are. I think a lot of mainstream advice takes “big business” approaches to marketing and tries to adapt that to small businesses – which often doesn’t work.

    I think the other thing here is to question what, if any, business support people running social enterprises will access. We find it really easy to engage people at start-up stage – particularly if we have some funding or investment attached to our support. But it’s really difficult to encourage people to continue to invest time in taking time out to think about their business and get outside support.

    I think we need to get better at understanding what people want and need and then offering that, but I also think there needs to be some honesty from many people about their reticence to access any kind of ongoing business support. It may not all be very good – but even if it was, how many would access it?



  3. Another solid post David, I too do not know what ‘sensitive’ marketing is and why it’s required by social enterprises. All decent marketing support by definition needs to be tailored to the needs of the business or charity and to do that requires researching and understanding the values of the organisation.

    Thanks for linking the OCS funded report, I found the comments on the need for branding SE interesting:

    ‘One organisation said that ‘the Social Enterprise Mark would not impress anyone as it stands’, another considered that simply being a registered charity was more helpful to winning business than any current kitemarks, while a third indicated that the SE mark had been of relatively little use in terms of winning business or publicity.’


  4. I went to a Cambridge small business event and I heard a talk on how to get grants from funders. The message from this adviser was blunt. It does not matter whether you run a commercial or social entreprise. You still have to make money.


  5. I think social enteprises as guilty of misunderstanding how important marketing is (it’s a bit like us British, not wanting to promote our achievements, because it will be seen as boasting). However what is the point of being the best social enterprise if nobody knows about you and how will you expand your business, especially in the current difficult trading environment? I agree that marketing principles are the same whatever type of business you are. The issue is how you get your USP across – and the USP of a social enterprise is its values and ethos.


  6. Like many, I’ve always been uncomfortable about money. Though recognising we cannot survive without being paid, I’d rather someone else chase up the reluctant payers.
    By coincidence Rod Schwartz today also raises the issue of payment and the perception that social enterprise will do it for free. I respond describing my experience .

    In our efforts to survive and ensure that our intended beneficiaries do likewise I’ve been forced to grasp the nettle. I’m not uncomfortable when speaking out about those who kowtow to gangsters, steal and deprive the vulnerable of life then try to build reputation on that.

    Those who this makes uncomfortable will continue to censor conversation.


  7. Beanbags admin

    Thanks for comments.

    @Robert – I saw that show too. Ridiculous stuff. Most of us will empathise with the massive challenge involved in working towards an effective business model for a social enterprise but, whatever the answer is, it certainly isn’t convincing yourself that commercial failure is some sort of moral position or lifestyle choice.

    @Rob – I think you’re right that it’s a small business / big business split rather than an SE / mainstream split. Interesting point about SEs accessing support (or not). I think one problem (for a business that’s up and running) is that even really good business support usually doesn’t have an immediate impact so, particularly in the current climate, it’s hard to see it as a priority to spend time on – even if it’s available free and would ultimately be very valuable.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s