A Local Business Network Puts the Community First

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BALLE_1The business of small business networking has traditionally been the role of Chambers of Commerce, and informal networks of clubs like Rotary and Lions Clubs’ that had supporting roles for sustaining the community’s causes. The chief function of these old-school social institutions often centered around networking (pizza parties and galas), and development events that connect community businesses with consumers.

But the expanding public consciousness around movements for civic sustainability, green tech and social enterprise have spawned a new way of looking a local business communities as ecosystems that should work cohesively, even selflessly for the community good. Last week, I attended the BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) conference, a network started 13 years ago that focuses on building socially conscious small business communities.

“Locally owned businesses in the BALLE network see their purpose as intertwined with their community’s well-being. With a shared commitment to localist values, they are solving our community’s toughest challenges and creating real prosperity.” — from BALLE’s “Why we do this work”

BALLE has its roots in three movements:

1. “Buy Local” to keep local dollars circulating within the community

2. The social enterprise movement to create products and services that are environmentally conscious and serve the public good.

3.The entrepreneurship movement that supports the development of small business through education and accessible financing.

The primary attendees of the BALLE conference were the nonprofit affiliates across the country who implement BALLE’s philosophy and methodology to their own local business communities, the vendors and sponsors that serve local business working through these affiliates, and the local entrepreneurs themselves. Joann Lee, President of the Board of the East Bay Sustainable Business Alliance (“SBA”) in Oakland, explains how many BALLE affiliates are set up as 501(c)6 “business league” nonprofits and sustain themselves from membership subscriptions. “With subscriptions ranging between $50 to $250 annually from about 250 members, SBA is a lean organization that leverages a community volunteer corps to provide our members with educational and business development resources.” With bootstrap budgets, these affiliates adopt the same startup mentality to support their members’ business development, and that means advocating the most cost-effective means to grow business opportunities.

It’s easy to see how BALLE’s community-based precepts evolved in parallel with the advent of social marketing during the past decade. Two words that don’t show up in the BALLE2014 conference brochure are “marketing” and “advertising”. Its chosen path of small business growth is social, where marketing is replaced by word of mouth, customer retention becomes community engagement, and advertising is considered inauthentic. BALLE affiliates and the small businesses they nurture are more open to cost effective, social solutions like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding as a means of developing relationship-based businesses.

For example, a new startup vendor ZipCap offers a novel way for customers of a local business to support a loan commitment by providing the business with a pledge of future purchases. According to CEO Evan Malter, “Using ZipCap, a pizza parlor can rally 100 customers to each make a pledge to spend $240 on pizza over the next year and then borrow money against those pledges straight through our platform.”  It’s a variation of customer-based factoring.

Business network as a collective media force
So without mentioning the M-word, how does BALLE, its network of affiliates and their small business members get their word out to their communities? With the potential to lead tens, even hundreds of thousands of small business nationwide, BALLE and its member base needs to take a concerted approach to delivering their messages directly to local levels where they will have the most impact. (BALLE’s mantra is “Be A Localist”). Since they are steeped in social, BALLE can mobilize their member base to use social media to advocate and publicize policy, events and even the crowdfunding campaigns of peer members. The building of this Advocate Network of individuals, groups and organizations who genuinely support the BALLE movement is a new social construct that can amplify the media reach of thousands of small businesses. A good example of the power of collaborative messaging is the use of hashtags at conferences. Last week, BALLE conference attendees used the hashtag #BALLE2014 2,600 times to virally expose the ideas propagated at the conference.

The power of collective social marketing has yet to be realized. Advocates using hashtags, like #BALLE2014, as “brands” can expose events, workshops and press releases more virally across hundreds of local social media feeds. According to recent research by BuzzFeed’s Jon Steinberg and StumbleUpon’s Jack Krawczyk:

Our data show that online sharing, even at viral scale, takes place through many small groups, not via the single status post or tweet of a few influencers. While influential people may be able to reach a wide audience, their impact is short-lived. Content goes viral when it spreads beyond a particular sphere of influence and spreads across the social web via ordinary people sharing with their friends.

For BALLE and other business networks, the unique challenge is coordinating hundreds of local advocates to collectively market and promote each others’ programs and campaigns to their business communities and consumers. Once developed, the network can become a media force that can drive messaging down to local levels, analogous to the network affiliate model of news broadcasters.

Patrick Kitano is CEO of BNN Funding, a crowdfunding marketing and strategy group that leverages The Breaking News Network — launched in 2009 and now the largest hyperlocal media network devoted to social good. He is reachable via Twitter (@pkitano).