At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival, Square hosted a panel discussion in which small business owners talked about how communicating a sense of purpose can drive both community and growth.
The purpose behind Maryam Henderson-Uloho’s business is extremely personal. Henderson-Uloho served time in prison, and soon after being released founded Sister Hearts, a boutique thrift store in Arabi, La., that doubles as a program to help formerly incarcerated employees get back on their feet. She revealed how most first-time customers think her store is nothing more than a thrift shop—a misconception she’s eager to set straight. “I tell them it’s a decarceration facility, and [they’re] helping us to rehabilitate and reestablish ourselves as human beings,” she said.
While sharing your sense of purpose can drive business over the long-term, doing so doesn’t have to feel like a marketing tactic. Rather, it’s about harnessing the reason why most sellers get into business in the first place: to share something special with their community.
It’s exactly this kind of communication with customers that, Swett says, can help create a sense of community: “The types of brands that we’re seeing people connect with are more purpose-driven, and there’s a huge advantage in making sure your message is shared in a way that’s easy to consume.”
Square, a long-time leader in digital payments, has no shortage of experience leveraging its purpose to foster a sense of community. “Our mission is to democratize access to technology,” says Square’s E-commerce Product Lead Katie Swett. That was true when Square launched its portable card reader soon after it was founded in 2009 and continues as the company has developed an ecosystem of business tools over the past decade-plus.
HOMING IN ON SHARED VALUES
Julie Mitchell, owner of the Fig & Oak gift shop in Ashland, Ohio, also communicates the purpose of her business to everyone who visits the shop’s website or walks through its doors. “When my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, my family and I decided to open a store that gives back to various charities,” she said in the panel. When they learn about this core purpose, Mitchell said, customers connect with the store on an emotional level—and that, in turn, drives sales and loyalty.
SHARING YOUR PURPOSE ONLINE
The online world offers a wide array of opportunities for small businesses to communicate their sense of purpose. Social media is a great place to start for most sellers, Swett says, though she points out that it’s important to focus on the social media channels that make the most sense for your business. For example, it may make sense for a lot of B2B companies to lean into LinkedIn and Twitter, while retailers might reach customers more effectively through consumer-friendly platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. “Whichever platform you use, the key is to support your customers in a way that a big brand wouldn’t be able to,” Swett says. That could take the form of providing information or advice that’s related to your business. For example, a home-decor business could offer free Instagram Live sessions in which the owner helps people pick the right couch pillows for the season. This kind of content can plant the seeds for a community to emerge organically around your brand, as when, for instance, consumers with a shared interest in making their homes more beautiful share tips and tricks in the comments of your social media feeds.
Square has seen customers come together in its Square Seller Community, an online space for business owners to connect with each other by sharing tips and tricks, asking questions, and getting the latest updates directly from Square’s team. On the Seller Community website, owners can connect based on shared geography, identity, or business interests. “Seeing sellers learn from each other and empower each other has been really cool,” Swett says. “For us, community means giving the space for people to connect and learn. It’s not really about our brand.” PHYSICAL SPACES STILL MATTER
The pandemic may have accelerated the trend toward online retail, but it also increased consumers’ appetites for connecting in person. For small businesses with a physical presence, engaging with the surrounding geographical community remains as important as ever—if not more so. During the panel, Mitchell described how, for her, that means forging deeper roots in downtown Ashland. “Our downtown has really been thriving and growing,” she said. “We love the idea of being a destination location in a historical downtown community.”
Whether you’re delivering your message online, offline, or both, consistency is key. “It takes a lot of repetition to make sure people know what you stand for,” Swett adds. Over time, though, as customers begin congregating around the values and lifestyle your brand represents, the payoff can be huge. Square remains determined to help small businesses build ladders that allow them to reach great heights, from the ground up. Swett notes that farmers’ markets and local business bureaus are useful ways to connect both with local customers and other businesses. “Lean into word of mouth, and make sure your community knows why you’re in business and why you’re amazing,” she says.