Small Businesses Can Thrive in the New Normal

I saw a post by a popular marketing influencer on LinkedIn, and in it he argued that there is no such thing as objective truth – your typical “death of the author” argument, which was invented by savvy teens who winged the book report – and that if you “show the same book to 1000 different people you will get 1000 different interpretations,” and therefore all interpretations are valid. I made a comment that if that were the case, there would be no marketing, no science, really no academia would be able to survive in this paradigm. 

Many marketers share this view of the world, while also having access to a historically unprecedented amount of data that shows us how groups of people and well-defined demographics behave as groups. It’s truly insane, but it’s an epidemic within the field of Marketers Who I Guess Are Self Help Gurus Too.

Marketers are Remarkably Unscientific

You would be surprised at how many marketers still point to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as if that means anything. No serious psychologist or even any data-based marketer would still adhere to that, but be sure that somewhere in Canada right now there are impressionable young Mad Men of Tomorrow being told that people see food as more important than religion. Which would mean that in poor countries, nobody cares about religion, right? Or that there’s no such thing as someone who is lonely who also seeks out creative outlets.

It’s an insane thing to believe when you actually break it down for 5 seconds, but this leads to the main problem: despite working exclusively in the field of demographics, trends, and evolving tastes, very few marketers even take an interest in basic psychology or sociology. There are certainly a few good books on the topic, but for every Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout, there’s 5 bloggers who want to tell you how video is going to be important forever.

In our world everyone is scrambling for the newest take, rather than a proper interpretation of data. In our industry, especially after Covid-19, there has been a strange mental-health and self-care push and everyone is saying as loud as they can “it’s okay, don’t worry, yas queen.” They are constantly caught between the mantras of everyone being unique and every message is targeted to the individual (we have to make them feel emotionally connected and special,) but we must be cognizant and even fearful of running afoul of groups who could take offense at messaging. Which is to say: nothing they say is based on principles, it’s based on trends and fear.

Speaking of which, this:

Social Capital and the Value of Community

While there are many books and studies about how the individual interfaces with society, one I’d like to briefly touch on is a book titled Bowling Alone.

The main point to establish at the start is that contrary to many who work in marketing, the ultimate unit of measure within society is not the individual, it is groups. And I don’t mean groups the way we typically use it, which is “a bunch of people who use our product.” Where it gets complicated – and where sociologists spend a great amount of their time – is how much influence different groups have on the same individual, and which group affiliations have genuine influence over their decisions.

It begins with his theory of Social Capital, which to put simply is the value someone experiences with being part of a group big or small. For example, if we go back even half a century we can speak of community-based organizations like Community Watch or PTA groups, or even fraternal organizations like the Elks or Freemasons.

Being part of these groups would have immediate benefits but, more importantly, the assumption that the transaction of favors would benefit them later if not immediately. It’s part of your identity, but everyone understand they’re there for each other and these internal relationships are more intimate than usual. Strong social capital = strong social bonds, and the more society has that the more peaceful and trusting society is. Every generation year over year polled says society was more trustworthy in the past, regardless if it is true. This is crucial if your job is understanding the psychology of a given population.

Social Capital has both inward and outward benefits; “Bridging Social Capital” is building outward connections based on shared interests whereas “Bonding Social Capital” is exclusive, internal, and often based on identity (racial, military, disabilities, etc.) Sometimes you get a mix of both, but one interesting observation in the book was throughout the 20th century as fraternal and community-based organizations suffered, we saw a rise in political activist, ethnic, and professional organizations (where professional could charitably be seen as mere credentialism.) Many of these – especially including social networks and internet-based groups – are referred to as “limited liability communities.” You’re either there for strict transactional purposes, or if you are bonding it is exclusively against the outside world.

As internet groups and social networks move to replace some in-person groups in the general decline, consider how paranoid and multi-identitied many of these people are. The result is a twisted and mutated version of social engagement where you can never really connect with people, but connections are constantly measured, recorded, and held up as a shallow example of social clout.

Mass Media and Entertainment create pseudo-relationships, similar to social media and affiliations used to grant immediate professional credentials. Community is important, civic mindedness is important, and a connection to the larger society is important. The issue is at each conceivable level it has become mutated at best, selfish and untrusting at worst. This is the current state of communities both online and offline, with the only communities recognized by businesses being people who give positive reviews.

Small Businesses are More Equipped to Thrive

The corporate entities who have aligned themselves the loudest with social values are also the most ornamental to actual social value. All corporate values are weakly expressed, and have an anesthetizing effect by design. One wonders how it could happen any other way: the louder a bureaucracy trumpets the abstract principles, the less likely they are to actually do anything about them. This is effectively a non-partisan point, as well.

On the other end of the spectrum is the humanist marketer, one who believes the only things that matter in society and culture are the small things. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they wrongly think that culture, history, identity, and geographic location hold no bearing on how people behave and all anyone wants to do is eat sandwiches and make money; to reinforce an imagined status quo that arcs across all nations and human societies. 

People instinctively know both of these conclusions ring false.

What still unites people are their geographic loyalties, their familial identity, and the groups they travel in. While the big-data players struggle to figure out how to monetize civil unrest the interconnected spiderweb of tchotchke interests, small businesses have unique relationships to their customers which allows them to survive in a world in flux.

Small businesses – especially ones operating in specific geographic areas – have unique insight that position them to not only survive the ill-defined new normal, but perhaps thrive.

Small businesses, local businesses, and anyone who has had their finger on the pulse of their community long enough will be agile enough to come up with new strategies and pivot to thrive. After all, they estimate roughly 40% of all online traffic is bots, you’re already ahead of the curve.

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