The Unique Marketing Challenges of Social Entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurs come from all sorts of backgrounds. From finance to the arts, social entrepreneurs like you have identified something that society is missing and push tirelessly to fill the gap. Even with their varied experiences, there’s one thing that most social entrepreneurs have in common: marketing is relatively new to them.

Despite this gap, marketing and communications are critical for the social entrepreneur. You need effective marketing for your mission to succeed. You’re often dealing with issues that require disparate target audiences, hard-to-reach stakeholders, appeals to the heart rather than the mind, and lots of other complexities. How do you get your social enterprise off the ground and scale your impact?

We’re here to help. In this post, we’ll outline the marketing hurdles that social entrepreneurs and social enterprises often struggle to clear — along with actionable recommendations for how to overcome them.

Separating the Real from the Ideal

Social entrepreneurs like yourself are full of big ideas and passionate enthusiasm. They’re what give you the drive to start your venture in the first place, and to follow through when you face challenges. You want to solve people’s problems and make a difference in the world — and you want to do it right now. But sometimes the ideal world we envision doesn’t conform to the reality we live in.

Do you know if the problem you’re trying to solve is the same one that people want solved? And if your solution truly works for people? Sometimes your creativity and enthusiasm need to take a back seat to your unassuming analytical side. This is particularly true in the early stages of a venture, when you have the greenest field to work with — a prospect that can be simultaneously exciting and daunting. You don’t want to start down a path that isn’t aligned with people’s actual needs. You need to test and validate (or invalidate) your assumptions.

Focus on stress testing your theory of change. For example, let’s say you’re considering building an app that connects low-income communities with local resources. In speaking with potential users, you may find that only about half of the interviewees own smartphones. Maybe it’s time to reconsider using an app to deliver your concept. You could start asking new questions about internet access — perhaps they use the local library to periodically go online. You might even find out that people who need resources are hesitant to reach out for services. Could you pivot to address that?

This is a great exercise even for well-established ventures. Conditions regularly change, and keeping your finger on the pulse will enable you to respond to those changes and even uncover new opportunities. Just make sure you’re truly observing the pulse, not developing a self-fulfilling prophecy. You wouldn’t want your over-optimistic doctor to gloss over an irregular heartbeat. Similarly, you’ll want to prevent your own personal biases from clouding your judgment. Social entrepreneurs tend to lean towards optimism. Try pulling back some of that rosy tint, and you’ll see things with the clarity to better understand the needs of those you’re trying to help.

What are the core problems that people are facing? And how do they perceive those problems? What would a good solution look like? How does this fit into their lives? Ask questions and engage deeply with what you learn.

The Complexity of Serving Multiple Stakeholders

Most startups only have to think about how to accomplish this for one audience: their target user. Even when they pitch investors, those pitches are largely predicated on a combination of enthusiasm for the concept (and/or technology) and the potential for big financial returns. It’s a pretty standard setup.

But social enterprises usually have more stakeholders to serve. Beyond addressing the needs of your core user, customer, community, or beneficiary; you’ll have to do the same for volunteers, donors, community partners, and/or others.

The model of many social enterprises is some variant of a two-sided market. In a typical two-sided market, you pair buyers and sellers. Uber and Lyft require a balance of riders and drivers on the platform, Airbnb pairs travelers with property owners, Ebay matches literal buyers and sellers. Both sides must grow in step with each other to succeed.

For social enterprises, things are even more complex. Your model may require all sorts of interweaving relationships: beneficiaries to volunteers, donors to beneficiaries and volunteers, industry partners to local communities, and/or any other such combination. And to make matters worse, those dynamics are a lot harder to figure out. It’s one thing to match a driver in Chicago with a passenger in Chicago. That’s pretty linear. It’s another to figure out how many beneficiaries you can serve per donor or per volunteer. There are so many moving parts.

How do you make sense of the chaos? A lot of this depends on the stage you’re at. For early-stage ventures where there’s still so much to discover about these interweaving relationships, you’re going to have to experiment and ask lots of questions — just like we said earlier. In many cases, it can actually help to ask the uncomfortable questions. No one wants to be denied when they get to the big ask with a donor. But if you’ve managed to book a meeting with a potential high-value donor while your project is still mostly speculative, a no might tell you a lot. Try to find out what milestones would change the donor’s mind. And what would they consider committing? Now you’ve found a target to aim for, and set yourself up to unlock funding once you achieve it.

For social enterprises that are a bit more established, it’s time to talk KPIs. You may already be tracking some, or even have a full dashboard built out. How well do these help you manage operations and strategy? And how often do you look at them? Weekly, monthly, quarterly? Just annually? These need to go beyond your financials, which tend to be lagging indicators anyway. Focus on metrics that map more directly to your mission and impact. How many people did you help? And what did that help do for them — can you measure that? How much more funding would it take to generate X more impact next quarter? How many new partners or volunteers would we need to recruit? Understand the dynamics at play and you’ll set yourself up for success.

Where Does the Money Come from?

Social enterprises also tend to have more complex business models than their purely profit-driven peers. Entities focused solely on profit have a pretty straightforward directive: follow the money. If someone has big pockets and you can squeeze more money out of them, go for it. When it comes to strategy, people can be pretty up-front about gouging customers.

This doesn’t fly with social enterprises. And for multiple reasons. First of all, you’re (hopefully) working on this venture to have a positive impact on the world. Gouging customers isn’t really in the spirit of that. Furthermore, you’re probably trying to serve people whose needs aren’t being met by the totally laissez-faire market — so it’s unlikely that your beneficiaries, customers, or users can fully fund your venture. You’re trying to triangulate on funding. Perhaps the beneficiary pays a subsidized price because you also source funds from donors, industry partners, or government grants. Maybe the beneficiary doesn’t pay at all!

This gets tricky. In the laissez faire model, customers get what they pay for and that’s that. In a social enterprise, the satisfaction of your multiple stakeholders are each contingent on the others. Donors and industry partners don’t make sense if there are no beneficiaries or customers to serve. Beneficiaries can’t be served without funding from those donors and partners. And you still might not be able to serve them without a pool of dedicated volunteers! It’s a lot to balance.

How do you strike that balance? How do you manage a stable system that aligns the various parties? Who pays? And what do they pay? This is where your business model is so crucial. It’s tempting to think that heart and moxie will paper over these challenges. But good intentions aren’t a replacement for business fundamentals. On the contrary, because of the added structural barriers they face, social enterprises need to be laser-focused on their business model. You’ll choke out the engine or run out of gas before you get far.

We aren’t going to dive into all the details of social enterprise business models right now, but here’s some helpful background on the types of social enterprise models, some examples to get you started, and a useful template for developing or re-evaluating yours. For our purposes, the keys to the marketing side of your business model are defining your audiences, understanding their wants/needs/motivations, and testing/refining your hypotheses with proof points. You’ll want a combination of quantitative and qualitative insights here.

Finding Useful Insights for Marketing Your Social Enterprise

So, how do you start getting answers to these questions? First off, make sure you’re giving both quantitative and qualitative research a fair shake. Many social entrepreneurs tend to focus on one (often qualitative) over the other. Challenge yourself to get outside your comfort zone. Hate combing through spreadsheets? Many survey tools include standard reports out of the box that make it easy to spot high-level trends. Nervous about talking to potential investors? Prep your questions and talking points, then practice them with a colleague whose opinion you trust.

There are many ways to clarify your understanding of your audiences, your market, and their dynamics. Here are some methods we recommend:

Stakeholder Interviews

Whether you’re just starting out with prospects or re-engaging an existing base of support, interviews capture so much useful context. There are simply some things that people will only say person-to-person. You’ll want to come into these with a hypothesis you can test, but look out for confirmation bias that falsely reinforces your viewpoint. Aim for a half hour if you can get it (it’s tough to get commitments for longer, and you start running into diminishing returns). You’ll be tempted to ask dozens of questions. Don’t. Keep it to a set of 5-8 high-level ones. Many questions that people want to ask are too far downstream of other questions (and have assumptions baked in), repetitive, or not truly essential. Instead of asking “How would better access to healthy food help you?”, which assumes a solution, start with something more basic like “What do you typically eat?”, “Where do you usually buy food?”, and “Would you say you have a healthy diet?”

Surveys

Have a set of existing users, volunteers, or donors who could provide interesting feedback? Already plugged into a community that can circulate a survey and get 50+ responses? Ready to knock on a lot of doors? These are some great ways to get started. If you’re less clear on where and how to find your target audience, tools like SurveyMonkey offer options for recruiting well-targeted respondents.

Public Data and Reports

There are so many gems you can mine with some decent Googling. In many cases, reports from government agencies will have proxy metrics that can help you get a rough idea of the scope of the problem you’re trying to solve. In other cases, private firms and organizations may have published their own research. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel!

Test for Real-World Demand

See if you can recruit a handful of beta users. Try attending a local community event, canvassing a sidewalk in a neighborhood you’re looking to serve, posting in a relevant forum (if your audience spends a lot of time online, Reddit has a forum for nearly anything), or running a small flight of Facebook Ads (Lead Ads are a great way to do this with minimal marketing infrastructure). See if there’s interest and uptake.

Marketing a Social Enterprise Is an Ongoing Discovery Process

As a social enterprise, you’re on the front lines of real-world problems and unfulfilled needs. You’re biting off a lot — and sometimes it can feel like too much to chew. That’s normal. One way you can maintain your focus and effectiveness is to think in terms of learning and discovery. You aren’t going to create the perfect solution overnight. You aren’t going to serve 100% of your community in the first year. What you can do is continually hone your understanding of the dynamics at play. Keep dialing that understanding in and aligning closer and closer with what your stakeholders want and need. This will enable you to better serve your various stakeholders, drive impact, and develop a sustainable organization.

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Sam is the Co-Founder ofRoot & Leaf, a marketing agency that drives impact for social enterprises and nonprofits. Sam has been building brands and marketing programs for more than a decade, both in-house and as an agency partner. His career spans brands large and small, including the National MS Society and Pinchot University (now merged with Presidio Graduate School), the top US graduate school in sustainability.

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