Give Back to Your Community While Gaining New Business

Be sure to also read 11 Heartwarming Ways Real Small Businesses Are Giving Back for the Holidays.

Everyone knows that putting up an "Open" sign or hanging a shingle is no longer enough to make yourself known to potential customers. And even traditional and social media marketing efforts may not be enough to do the trick. More small businesses are recognizing that to make an impression, you also need to get out of your comfort zone and connect with your business's local community.

That community connection is essential not just for offering moral support, but also for helping your small business stand out and compete against the volume pricing and billion-dollar marketing campaigns of giant corporations. Community involvement changes the game, asking customers to chose where they shop based not solely on pricing or selection, but also on personal relationships and the impact of corporate behavior on friends and neighbors.

If you want to get involved but don't really know how, why not get started with these five suggestions? Let's face it, you can't afford to be shy.

1. Participate in the chamber of commerce as well as in local government, service organizations, and compatible nonprofits and industry organizations. Even look to your kids' Parent Teacher Associations to make contacts. Start by attending meetings, and gradually move into leadership roles. This will raise awareness of who you are, and you can later talk about what you do. As you become more comfortable, you can garner the support of influential officials, reach out to larger companies, and connect with celebrities to expand your reach. It really does work -- through reaching out to the PTA and being involved in her local chamber, Dana Rankin, owner of Exhale to Excel Jewelry in Kansas City, Mo., found more than 20 new customers.

2. Make yourself visible. Go on the lecture circuit. Offer to speak on your areas of expertise in university settings and public venues. Take advantage of television and media opportunities that let you be a spokesperson for your industry when a related news event strikes. Public relations consultant Sam Yates, head of Yates and Associates in Jensen Beach, Fla., volunteered with the American Red Cross and soon became the local chapter's TV and radio spokesperson. When Yates appeared on behalf of the Red Cross for a TV interview, a shopping mall manager contacted him and later offered him a contract to handle general publicity and crisis PR efforts. Eventually, more than 20 other malls did the same.

3. Be generous. Donate your goods or services. Owner Guy Somers of Somers Guitar in Atlantic, Iowa, for example, offered to play short gigs at local churches, holiday concerts, and school career days and wound up quadrupling his clientele. But when he switched to regular advertising, his client base dropped. Similarly, Loveland, Colo.-based M & E Painting commits to painting six houses every year for underprivileged families, asking the community to nominate those most deserving in the region. The company subsequently landed on a variety of preferred business lists and has gained significant media attention.

4. Launch a publicity event by yourself, or partner with others to benefit your city or town. In Somerville, Mass., the Gentle Giant Moving Company participates in an annual open-house fair with other trucking businesses. In an atmosphere with food and decorations, each company opens up a truck for kids and adults to walk inside. This helps the trucking company put a face to its organization. And in Rancho Mirage, Calif., smoothie and juice company Juice It Up! visits schools on a regular basis to offer healthful snacks and sell its beverages -- donating a dollar to the school district for each sale. The events are so popular, say owners Brent and Lori Poist, that the company sells out of tickets ahead of time.

5. Offer local discounts or donate small prizes at events. This strategy can really get the buzz going. Helen Johnson, the owner of Tiny Toes Dance Academy, a children's dance studio in Washington, D.C., provides door prizes (usually worth less than $50 each) for community events. The prizes must be redeemed at the studio, which gets people walking through her doors. The investment has translated into new customers who might never have known about the company.

These suggestions are a great beginning, but every company has different products and services to offer, and every community has different needs. You'll do the most good -- and get the best results -- as you become more involved and find the best fit between what you can offer and what resonates most strongly with customers and residents.

Be sure to also read 11 Heartwarming Ways Real Small Businesses Are Giving Back for the Holidays.


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