GETTING THEIR STORIES TOLD — WHAT PETITE BUSINESSES NEED FROM E-MARKETING

Morristown’s Treasured Businesses
  
France Delle Donne, the director of development at the Morristown Partnership (in NJ), recently sent me a link to a new posting to their website called Morristown’s Treasured Businesses.  I took a look and thought it was just terrific! One of the best things I have seen on any downtown organization’s website in a long time. It’s so different from the dull, static, list-based or e-business directory like structures that I typically see on the webpages of these organizations that deal with merchants. It got me thinking about what I liked so much about it and why. I concluded that, though it had many attractive aspects, it was its ability to provide a narrative for each of these business operators that was most important. Storytelling is a critical factor in successfully marketing a downtown and its businesses, though too often overlooked. Branding is a more widely accepted marketing concept, yet the strongest brands gain their power from denoting some kind of story, even a short one. 
 
The High School’s Involvement Was Critical 

Morristown High School’s Broadcasting and Journalism departments approached the Morristown Partnership about doing a project on Morristown.  After an initial meeting and assessment of resources , the Partnership brought them a proposal for   “Morristown’s Treasured Businesses.”  With significant development taking place in Morristown’s business district over the past five years and an influx of new businesses moving in, the Partnership felt it timely to focus on independently-owned businesses that have been in operation for 25 to over 100 years and weathered a variety of economic cycles. According to the Partnership: 

“We wanted to use this opportunity to connect established businesses with the younger constituency in our community. The hope was to raise a cross-generational awareness and appreciation about treasures in Morristown, including businesses and the human connections associated with them. It had all the components to tell a great story. The High School embraced this idea.”

 
Fifteen of the 55 businesses that fit the selection criteria were then interviewed and filmed by the students. A total of 48  students were involved in all phases of completing these merchant “documentaries.” The finished films were then posted on the Partnership’s website for the public to view and vote for their favorites.

 
Downtown organizations seldom have the resources to do everything they want, so having other organizations, such as the local high school, get involved is a really good idea. In Morristown, the high school faculty and students not only got involved, they did so for a novel, needed and effective program.
 
Additionally, as the Partnership recognized, high school students are an important retail market segment in Morristown — and in many other downtowns — so relationship building with the high school and its students is a good idea for the Partnership as well as many other BIDs and SIDs. 

 
Coping With the Longing for Trophy Retailers Syndrome 
  

Another reason I liked Treasured Businesses so much is that it addresses a critical problem faced not only by the Partnership, but by many other downtown organizations as well: local residents focus on the trophy retail chains that are not in their downtown, but do not acknowledge or appreciate the good small merchants who are there. 
  
Another is its use of the dynamic short movies to enable the local business operators themselves to talk about their shops and their histories in the community. As they tell their stories , these merchants become alive to the viewer, allowing the latter to develop some involvement in the stories and some attachment to the merchants.
 
The Decline of Storytelling About Local Businesses That Has Accompanied Downtown E-Marketing

For many years, from roughly the mid 1980s until fairly recently, many downtown organizations found that doing newspaper inserts and special magazines were strong marketing tools. They gave these organizations the  capability to send strong editorial content, that they created and controlled, to both potential consumers and commercial tenant prospects. At the heart of these publications, their most effective components, were stories that convincingly conveyed to the reader that the businesses or the downtown characteristic covered by that story were interesting, unique and/or — most importantly — a discovery. But, the times are “a-changin.”  Downtown organizations are quickly shifting their attention to e-marketing and their websites, e-newsletters and Facebook pages. My visits to many of these websites suggest that this shift from print to electronic marketing has been accompanied by a steep decline in the story-telling their marketing utilizes.

One reason for this trend may be that the easiest, cheapest and quickest ways to present information about local businesses on websites are in list/directory formats that primarily focus on category descriptors of business functions combined with basic contact information. In a few instances a short descriptive paragraph or two, perhaps even a photograph is provided. But, even fewer if any of these formats produce real stories about the local businesses. It’s more like name, rank and serial number, slam, bam, thank you mam. Also, using text to tell a story usually takes more words and time to read than most “webmeisters” advise for a webpage. 
 
The short movies provide an e-commerce, non-text technique for effective short storytelling. It has a strong personal component to it and thus can evoke viewer feelings and involvement.

Storytelling May Be How E-Marketing Can Best Help Really Small Merchants  
 
Since my work on the ‘deliberate consumer” I have been concerned about how the small business operators , say those “petite” firms with annual sales under $300,000/yr

   

  • Can be stimulated to make the management and operational changes they must implement if they are to survive
  • And how downtown and Main Street organizations can help them to make these changes. 

As I have written in some recent postings to this blog, having an effective e-commerce presence is probably one of these necessary innovations, but:
 

  • A full-fledged e-store is probably too complex and resource demanding to be a viable option for these merchants 
  • The directory type formats on either the business’ or a downtown organization’s website, even when blown up into full webpage formats, do not have sufficient impact to warrant the time and effort needed to create and maintain them.

 
I would argue that the best thing that their website or a page on their downtown organization’s website can do for one of these “petite” businesses, is to tell their story. That is what Morristown’s Treasured Businesses does for these businesses. It provides a model for other downtown organizations to emulate, even if some tailoring to their situations probably will be needed. 
 
Again, the teachers and students at Morristown High School are to be strongly commended for their participation in this program and for doing such a good job on it!

  
N. David Milder