Does your small business play an active role in your community? If not, you may be missing out on a valuable opportunity to connect with more clients. In this episode, Jon Aidukonis and Gene Marks, along with INGroup Creative co-founder and owner Jeannette Dardenne, discuss how community engagement can help small business owners build a supportive network and increase their brand awareness.

Executive Summary

0:46—Today’s Topic: Why is Community Engagement Important for My Small Business?

1:41—Community engagement enables you to build relationships not only with potential customers, but also with other business owners who could help you raise your brand awareness.

3:26—When building a community outreach plan, the focus always needs to be on how your business can serve the members of your community; otherwise, it comes across as just another marketing ploy.

4:25—While it’s important to play an active role in your community, don’t limit your engagement to just your area; be sure to reach out to other nearby towns

5:03—Playing an active role in your community allows you to develop strategic partnerships with likeminded business owners who would be willing to collaborate and cross-market with your small business.

7:56—If you decide to support a local charity, make sure that it’s something that you have a genuine connection with and fits into your brand’s story.

9:39—Don’t join an organization simply for networking purposes; you need to be invested as an active member as well.

12:17—Small business owners should actively be encouraging their employees to get involved with local charities. This not only boosts staff morale, but it reflects positively on your small business.

14:57—Not all community engagement has to be on a large scale. For business owners with time constraints, personal visits to other local establishments will also suffice.



The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.

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Jon: Hello everybody. And welcome back to another episode of Small Biz Ahead, the small business podcast presented by The Hartford. This is Jon Aidukonis. I am joined today by my cohost, Gene Marks. How’s it going, Gene?

Gene: I am doing fine. It is going well. That was me rustling the papers, trying to get all my questions in order for Jeannette. But I’m going to turn it back over to you because I know you’ve got some burning things on your mind.

Jon: I couldn’t even hear, you’re telling on yourself today. We are once again, joined by our friend Janette Dardenne of INGroup Creative. Jeannette, thanks for joining us again.

Jeannette: Absolutely. Excited to begin the conversation.

Jon: Awesome. I’m super stoked for today’s conversation. So I think one thing that our listeners are probably pretty aware of my passion around is the necessity, I will say, it’s an absolute necessity of being a good neighbor and really thinking about how you can be involved in your community, work with similar kind of businesses in your area. I think it’s a great way to get innovative marketing out there, kind of cross saturate audiences. I think that the basic ability to build relationships and activate those relationships is something that everybody needs to do. I think it’s good for everyone involved. I think it’s good for the communities where we live, work and do business. And I think that’s what we’re here today to talk about as a little bit on your perspective on community involvement.

Jeannette: Absolutely. I always feel that your community’s your cheering squad, they’re your support system. And to be honest, they are your network of opportunity.

Jon: I could not agree more. So I think, when I think of the words community involvement, I think the first thing that comes to a lot of people’s mind is people asking you for money. So is that like a local sports team? Is that a local charity or some kind of philanthropic effort? How do you define community involvement, as it relates to a small business owner or a locally operated business?

Jeannette: Community engagement encompasses so much and to your point, it really goes much deeper than sponsorships. It’s really becoming an active community member. I always talk about creating community alliances. And what I mean by that is it could be a local business down the street who could sell a completely different product that you have, but in some way you can tie it in to your overall business landscape. It could be an influential individual who is active in the community. These are all people that you want to be part of your tribe. And it’s really a way to increase your brand awareness.

Jon: I love that expression part of your tribe because I really think that’s what it is. I think about small businesses, it’s kind of an overstated phrase sometimes, but kind of being the backbone of the American economy. But I truly believe that there’s something about small businesses making communities exist and vibrant and lively. I think without their support, their influence, their engagement, their passion for the people that they support, we’d have some of the most boring towns in the world. So I think it’s really that community that keeps us going. And I think that they’re an integral part. So, when you’re kind of thinking about building a community outreach plan, how intentional should you be? I think part of it honestly is building a little bit of social capital because kind of expand your network because you kind of want to do that before you need your network. How could a business owner think about that as part of their overall strategy?

Jeannette: One, I think you have to be honest with your intentions, right? You want to make sure that you are involving yourself within the community for the right reasons, right? Obviously you’re looking to increase your brand awareness, but at the same time, you’re also trying to increase your civic duty, which is a wonderful thing. Oftentimes people are attracted to a brand because they like what you are doing and how you are helping to serve them. People don’t want to see you as just a sales person. So it’s important to be very intentional in who you choose to align with. I think the other big thing is, oftentimes people will choose when they’re doing their community engagement. They think of just doing it within a very small network. So maybe if you are a store that’s within a small neighborhood, it’s really important to engage with that audience. But you also want to make sure that you engage with the audience that’s maybe five miles down the road, 10 miles down the road, so that you’re continuing to expand your reach.

Jon: I think that’s a great point because I do think it’s about showing up, being present in what you’re doing. You’re not there just to kind of work at like a trade show, right? I think those moments matter in a different way, but Gene, I’m curious on your point of view here, because one undisputable fact is that when you have a small business, you’re wearing 10,000 hats and you’re playing 50,000 roles. And I think sometimes thinking about jumping in and kind of doing more outside that scope can be daunting to some and as someone who’s in it all day in the weeds all day, what are your thoughts here?

Gene: It’s a really, it’s a good question, Jon. And it’s funny, there are two different types of communities that businesses have. There’s their own business community and then there’s the local community, right? Jeannette, when I talk about communities to my clients, we sell customer relationship management systems. So, I often say like, Hey, you want to build a database of your community, meaning your prospects, your customers, your vendors, your partners, your suppliers, that’s like a, it could be a national or international community of just those that are all your ecosystem of your business. But what you’re talking about Jeannette is more, I don’t know if charitable is the right word, but more locally focused types of activities. Am I right about that?

Jeannette: It’s really about creating strategic partnerships. It’s all about creating intentional strategic partnerships.

Gene: Right. Yeah. It’s interesting because so I do have that in my business. I’ve got my community of people. You talk about partnerships. Again, we sell customer relationship management systems, right? So I’ve got a community of about 30 IT firms, technology firms, people that I’ve known for years that are sort of part of my group, that I’m always exchanging, asking questions, sharing advice, going back and forth. And frankly, I give them leads and they give me leads. So I have a strategic reason for having that little community. And they’re mostly regional people just turns out to be because my business is pretty regional, but I know that because I know they’re a source of leads for me and I can also be a source of leads for them and support, I’ve over the years have built a community with them. We have like a Facebook group and I send emails back and forth. Does that make sense to you?

Jeannette: It absolutely does. If you think about, if you are a cheese shop, for example, so you may have relationships with different cheese shop owners, you may have relationships with honey purveyors, but why not have relationships with the person who makes the cheese boards, the actual board that the cheese goes on, right? So that’s another way to bring in a strategic relationship, or maybe you have a relationship with a florist, someone who provides flowers so that when you have, when you’re displaying your cheese, you can also put a floral display out there. Right? So now you’re getting in front of their market. So it’s going beyond your little cheese network and trying to branch out into other areas that can help you bring in your target audience.

Gene: Yeah because this is, I don’t know if this comes off the wrong way, but we’re in business to make money and we want our communities to have some type of strategic value to our business. I support personally a couple of charities that have nothing to do with my business and people do the same thing. That’s fine. But if I’m going to build a community, just selfishly, I want to build something that I think is going to have some kind of a benefit to my livelihood as well, is that wrong?

Jeannette: No. This is so correct in the way that you’re saying it. Oftentimes, when I’m working with a business owner and I say to them, all right, let’s figure out how we’re going to engage with your community. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what you’re passionate about? I don’t want a client to just randomly choose a nonprofit organization to align with just because it might look good for them. You want to align with someone that is going to help you tell your story. So for example, I’ve had a client who suffered from breast cancer. So it made sense for her to align with a local center that helped people with breast cancer, right? There was a story to tell. If she had aligned herself with something that was completely opposite, it wouldn’t have made sense. People would have questioned why she was looking to be a part of this organization.

Gene: Yeah, that’s a good point. So, okay. So we’ve talked about the value of having the community, it should have a strategic value as well, if possible, obviously it should be a community that you enjoy engaging with, right? You don’t want to be a group of-

Jeannette: Sure.

Gene: … a bunch of jerks. So, but I guess so, okay. So let’s talk some specifics then, Jeannette. Based on your client base and what you’ve seen, can you give us some examples of some community organizations or groups or other types of relationships that a business owner can benefit from? And I’ll throw out the first one. For example, my sister is a doctor. She’s a small business owner. She has a medical practice in Philadelphia where we live and she joined like the local rotary and which is a pretty nice organization and a good community. And so she’s not only been involved with them and have done charitable work through them. But to be honest, she’s also gotten some referrals and patients out of it as well. So what other examples do you have like that?

Jeannette: Another well-known organization is say Habitat for Humanity. It’s a great organization that helps to build homes for individuals. But think about all of the people who are part of this organization, right? They may be volunteers just like yourself. They may be board members or what have you. These are all individuals that you have the opportunity to network and let them know who you are and what you’re offering. So, it’s important to make sure that one year aligning with an organization that you believe in, one that you’re making sure that when you do align, you are an active member and you’re letting people know who you are and how you can help them.

Gene: Okay. So I’m going to cross off that suggestion because I cannot even screw in a light bulb without causing a disaster. So no Habitat for Humanity for me, you don’t want me building your home. It’s going to fall down on you. Give me another example. Give me one or two more examples of organizations that you’ve ran across in your travels that you’re like, Hey, I’ve seen clients involved myself with them and I’ve had good experiences.

Jeannette: Sure. Another great organization is your local YWCA, or YMCA. These are great organizations that offer a multitude of resources for people. And again, just like you, there are going to be other organizations that are also looking to partner with them. So why not look for a way to maybe hold some kind of event or benefit at your office? Or you could even run something, a social media campaign and tell people, listen, we’re trying to raise money for the YWCA, hey, join in. And that allows people to see that you are engaging with your community. And you’re also charitable.

Gene: Yeah. That’s a great example. I don’t like swimming, but I think the YMCA, at least near us has got good facilities. Okay. I’ll agree to that one. I like that one. What about, we’ve been talking about us as business owners. Our companies will be charitable or be involved with this organization or, or me, I’ll be involved. How about your employees? What have you seen your… What do you recommend and what have you seen your clients do with their employees? Some of the larger brands at the Hartford, for example, have got heart mobs and they it’s a corporate sponsor thing, but they get all their employees involved in it, which is pretty awesome. Then there are other companies that say, Hey, listen, we’ll give you paid time off to be involved in these charitable organizations or you choose a nonprofit to be involved in, all of that sort of spreading the love. What are your thoughts on those types of activities?

Jeannette: I think it’s absolutely important. One just for your mental health, you want to make sure that the people who help to support your company, your employees are actively happy. Right? So aligning them with interests are extremely important, but it also looks good for the brand overall, right. It shows that you’re engaging your employees with organizations that they’re passionate about. It really helps to spread the love. I think the heart mob that The Hartford does is fantastic. Who doesn’t want a massive audience of people to appear in front of their place of work and help to cheer people on. It’s such an easy marketing tool that has a very feel good effect.

Gene: You said two key words there about a marketing tool and there’s certainly, there is the ability of you are giving back something to charities and all that kind of stuff, but honestly, real-world here, right? Jeannette, I see corporations sponsor charitable organizations. They’re sponsor of the muscular dystrophy round or multiple sclerosis events or whatever. And yeah, they’re giving money to help the charities or whatever. But yeah, let’s also be real. They’re getting some branding out of it as well, and there something wrong with that, right?

Jeannette: There’s nothing wrong with it. If you’re trying to choose between two businesses that you want to work with and you recognize that one of them is a big supporter of the Red Cross, and that’s something that you’re extremely passionate about, chances are you’re going to want to work with that business as well. It really helps to hone in to your target audience.

Gene: Yeah. I agree. I agree. I guess my final, we only have a minute or so left, Jeannette and I just, what are your final thoughts? What am I missing here about getting involved with the community? It seems like sort of a no-brainer it seems like something that you can have your employees do. It can be fun. It can be engaging, but then it can also be good branding for your business as well. So why wouldn’t every business do something like this?

Jeannette: I think a lot of this does take extra time, right? People see this as a necessary evil. One of the easiest ways to engage with your community is either just to pick up the phone and try to make a point of calling someone every day, right? Someone in your community, or why not just stop into a local shop and say, Hey, just wanted to check in. By the way I brought you some bagels. It’s a super easy way to just check in and see how people are doing, and you never know what may fall out of that conversation.

Gene: Yeah. That’s great advice. Jeanette Darden is the co-founder and owner of INGroup Creative. Jeanette, INGroup does digital marketing, branding, right? All of the above. Am I forgetting any services-

Jeannette: Social media, community engagement. We are your marketing right-hand.

Gene: Jeanette will even sing for your company, at corporate events, if you would like her to do that, tell jokes and entertain the children as well, just so you can focus-

Jeannette: Absolutely.

Gene: All of those things are there in services that they offer. But, Jeannette, great advice on marketing and branding, social media as well. Jeannette’s website is It’s I N G R O U P Again, Jeannette, thanks for joining us. My name is Gene Marks. On behalf of my co-host, Jon Aidukonis, I want to thank you for joining us on this special podcast. If you need any advice or help or tips, running your business, by all means, please visit us Thanks guys for listening. We will catch you next time. Take care.

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