social delta

Consulting and support for social enterprise in Canada

Category: Commentary (page 1 of 4)

Chatbots in social enterprise

Some estimates state that 80% of all companies will use chatbots to generate leads or build customer loyalty in the next few years. How does this, and how should this, affect social enterprises?

First, what is a chatbot? It is an automated “instant message” discussion that “pops up” on a website or social media platform to engage the potential customer with either a text or voice conversation. The goal of a chatbot is to mimic genuine human interaction through clever writing and the use of artificial intelligence. In some cases sophisticated algorithms combined with user data ensure the outputs are as personalized as possible, only more efficient.

Chatbots typically start with an open question, such as “How can I help you today?” Users who choose to engage will often ask a question that can be answered by one of perhaps hundreds of pre-programmed responses (Chatbots, then become a customer service robot that can access an almost infinite number of responses in a Frequently Asked Questions database).  As the “conversation” proceeds, the bot typically will request a prospect/customer’s name and email address and remarkably, statistics show that the majority of site visitors will actually provide that information (which is very hard to get via other customer development tools and activities).

Chatbots are counter intuitive to many marketing professionals, and to social change entrepreneurs. They challenge the notion that personal interaction is one of the most effective ways to generate leads, build loyalty, and engage customers. The thought that artificial intelligence can do this work for social enterprise may feel, somehow…wrong. Duplicitous even.  

However, chatbots are tireless workers who never need time off, can respond to thousands of interactions simultaneously, and can create new leads from browsing users, effectively deliver key messages or marketing promotions, and can, in fact, answer the majority of basic questions. Websites are static, whereas chatbots create the illusion of dynamic interaction. If a user wants to find out the store’s opening hours on the long weekend, they can choose to find that information on what might be thousands of pages on the website…or they can simply ask the chatbot and have a response in seconds. However, it is important to recognize that chatbots should not compensate for bad web design, they should augment an easily navigated website.

There are some downsides, of course. Estimates suggest that the programming and technology required to create an effective chatbot can cost $20-$30K. This is a lot for an early stage business, and it may be difficult to justify without concrete proof that it will help bolster sales and the customer relationship. Investing in a chatbot, fundamentally requires a leap of faith, and it can also diminish (or deplete) available funds for other forms of marketing. It is not surprising that the relatively simple-to-use chatbot plugin for Facebook has become common. From the 2016 launch to mid-2018, there were over 300,000 active chatbots on Facebook.

Also, chatbots need to be able to pass the (prospective) customer to a live agent if the customer becomes frustrated, or if they are not getting the information they need. It is often difficult for small businesses to make this transition from bot to human interaction seamless. A bot can book an appointment with a customer representative, but there is often a few hours delay (or more) and this means that the “lead” might grow cold or even find an alternative product online.

So, is a chatbot the right thing for a social enterprise? In truth, chatbots are becoming the norm on many commercial websites, and in the last few years, online users appear to be embracing them as useful tools to help them access information on a company or its products. However, chatbots are most useful only if your customers embrace them and only if they work well. They can be particularly effective for businesses that have high web traffic, and in cases were simple responses are all that is needed in most circumstances. If your business sells a toy that has specifications that are important to share (are they recyclable, for example) that is an easy question to answer. However, if your business is selling facilitation services, then answering a prospective client in person might be a better way to convey your value.

Social Delta has been surprised at the statistics on the effectiveness of chatbots, and therefore advises that they not be dismissed as a tool in the marketing toolbox; however, as with all marketing tools, chatbots should be evaluated by the social entrepreneur by considering their value to the business. They should strategically employ the technology if there is an expectation of benefit (financial or mission impact) that exceeds the cost (money or time or reputation).

However, social entrepreneurs should not presume the tool to be invasive or annoying; somewhat remarkably, the studies show chatbots to be a strong customer cultivation tool in many cases.

.

Remembering Barb McInnis

I have just learned that Barbara McInnis, the social justice visionary and advocate we all aspire to be, passed away last Friday in Ottawa. My condolences go to her family and to our whole social change community, which has lost a champion.

Barb–everybody called her by her first name–was friendly to a fault, convincing without being pushy, a diligent and humble citizen, and a woman of conviction and purpose. She was easy to approach, always willing to offer advice, guidance, information and support for any idea that might benefit our community, both locally and beyond. Many of her achievements, including the co-founding of the Ottawa Community Foundation, have been chronicled in her obituary, and in the many tributes to her.

However, it was not only her many achievements that will be her legacy; Barb was a leader without hierarchy. Much is said of the value and aspiration to create egalitarian structures in our society, but she lived this ideal in practice, as a person in a position of power and influence, and yet still accessible, personable, and genuinely interested in the lives of all she met.

Barb, in my mind, had mastered that elusive form of leadership, where people–people like me–felt compelled to follow her because she was one of us, yet she had clarity of purpose. She was magnetic. Her achievements are simply a testament to her magnetism. They are the outcomes, the signposts, of a life well lived, with fairness, firmness and commitment.

May we all aspire to be like Barb, and work tirelessly, and with meaningful human interactions that include people on the journey to social improvement.

I, like so many others, are fortunate to have called Barb our friend and I will miss her influence, her ideas, her support and her bubbly, smiling, personality.

Plastic Bricks. Of course.

Every once and a while a story crosses our desk that makes us wonder why nobody had done that sooner.

Nzambi Matee is a social entrepreneur in Kenya who is making construction-grade bricks out of plastic that are purportedly 7 times stronger than concrete.

We always hear that plastics take generations to decompose and break down, and yet few of us might have asked ourselves the question: “In what circumstances do we specifically need something that will never deteriorate?”

The answer is blindingly obvious: buildings, walls and walkways.

We celebrate the longevity of Roman roads, medieval castles, the pyramids, Angkor Wat, and the crypts beneath Paris’s streets. We have been (over) building with concrete for decades to create edifices–from dams to skycrapers–that we hope will stand the test of time.

At the same time we are producing plastic waste that is clogging our waterways and burdening our landfills.

Matee is an engineer who has designed a heat and pressure process to combine plastic waste (of various grades) with sand to create strong and colorful building bricks. A sort of lifesize Lego. She designed and built the machines necessary, and since 2017 her company, Gjenge Makers, has repurposed 20 tons of plastic waste. The factory now creates 1500 bricks a day.

The social benefit of Matee’s work goes beyond environmental sustainability. She is also proactively creating employment for women and youth in Nairobi, including jobs for “pickers” who are often facing significant barriers to employment. Click here for more information, and to view a video celebrating this incredible business venture.

Social Delta celebrates the social entrepreneurs like Nzambi Matee who take equal parts dissatisfaction, conviction, ingenuity, skill and savvy to solve a social problem and meet a market need at the same time.

We are inspired. We hope you are too.

Dutch Social Enterprises: Leading by Example

In the Netherlands there is a national organization dedicated to promoting and supporting social enterprise.

They recently released a report that documents how leading social enterprises in their country are affecting the way business is done. Those social enterprises, by doing business the right way, are leading by example.

I particularly like their analysis which indicates that social enterprise can effect change in three ways:

  • Raising the possible are the activities that show how business can be done responsibly, so that other businesses can choose to adopt those sustainable practices as well.
  • Raising the desirable are the activities that change norms and values in society and increase cultural pressures, which motivates executives to act sustainably.
  • Raising the acceptable are the activities that contribute to higher institutionalized, formal standards, so that it becomes unacceptable not to adopt more sustainable practices.

To paraphrase, social enterprises can show what is can be done, they can challenge existing business practices and they can actually set the bar higher for other businesses to emulate.

The report is full of excellent resources, ideas, and indications of what success looks like for any social enterprise. It offers an aspiration view for social entrepreneurs wishing to grow their social impact.

Social Delta recommends it as inspirational (yet practical) reading. Download it or read it online for free here.

Good pricing practices for Social Enterprise

Perhaps one of the most common question social entrepreneurs have is how to set prices for their goods or services.

Pricing is a particular challenge for mission-based social entrepreneurs; in a mission-based social enterprise, the consumer is the beneficiary. For example, the product they sell (whether a good or a service)—such as environmentally friendly paints–is serving the social enterprise’s environmental mission directly. For them, good business means not only maximizing net revenue (using a higher price), but also maximizing the number of rainbarrels sold to mitigate water run-off. (using a lower price)

This can be a real conundrum.

However, pricing is not a guessing game, and need not be feared. Here are six basic principles for the new social entrepreneur to keep in mind when setting prices:

  1. Determine your pricing strategy: Are you trying to attract customers in a crowded market? Are you trying to maximize profits to fund social programs? Are you trying to get rid of excess inventory? Are you trying to maximize sales while covering costs? Each of these goals will inform your pricing strategy. Market penetration might require a loss leader, where your selling price is lower than the competion, but also may be below your cost. Freemium pricing allows you to give excess product away if another product is purchased at regular price. Value-based pricing will set a price based upon a consumers perceived value of your product, and will typically maximize profits, but this often requires strong marketing.
  2. Know your costs. No matter what pricing strategy you employ, you will need to know your unit cost. This is calculated by adding the fixed costs (overhead) to the variable costs (typically input costs of goods sold) and dividing by the volume produced. Generally speaking, prices that are lower than unit costs are unsustainable over time (loss leaders, door crashers, freemiums), prices at unit costs (absorption pricing) will sustainably maximize sales, and pricing above unit costs will endeavor to maximize profit (cost-plus, value, or premium pricing). An entrepreneur will always know and understand the unit cost of their products, and their pricing will invariably orbit around those costs depending on their marketing goals.
  3. Understand your competition. If others are selling something comparable to your product, know their prices, and take time to understand their value proposition. Their packaging, their branding and their public outreach will likely be designed to allow them to increase their prices based upon perceived value. If you know your costs, and you have a strong value proposition to compete with them, you can set your price closer to theirs (or above, see next point) in order to maximize revenue, or closer to cost to maximize market penetration.
  4. Be bold. Trust that your product is as good (or better) as any competor. Design it to be both needed and wanted by consumers. Don’t lower your prices out of humility. (only lower prices if it is jeopardizing your marketing strategy goals)
  5. Be flexible. If you lower your prices to below cost, do so with a limited time horizon. You may need to reduce prices if the market changes. Conversely, if demand is stong, you may want to incrementally nudge your product up to increase net revenues.
  6. Follow proven practices. Be aware of the value paradox, where consumers will not see your product as having any value if the price is too low (or free). Consumers see rock bottom prices as an indicator of poor quality or flawed goods. Try some pricing tricks like bundling (where multiple products are sold together), nudging, or decoy pricing. (read this great article on the decoy effect). There are many proven approaches to pricing and researching which best practices can be applied to your business is time well spent.

A word on sliding scales…many social enterprises express an interest in setting prices based upon the consumer’s ability to pay. They often ask about sliding scales or occasionally “pay-what-you-can” options. Although this approach may be seen as a way to promote equitable access to your product, it is a very difficult way to maintain a business, because input and overhead costs rarely are set on a sliding scale.

However, there are approaches that are more sustainable, while still being inclusive. Tiered pricing (also known as price discrimination) allows for a series of stepped prices based upon proven criteria: tiered prices can be set by age, by income level, by profession (like current preferred pricing for front-line pandemic workers), or by services offered (first class, box seats, etc). Social Delta frequently recommends setting the price, and then offering discounts or bursaries to those who qualify. In this approach, the perceived market value of your product is clearly associated with a specific price (which would cover costs), but your business is willing to sacrifice revenue to ensure that it is responding to the needs of excluded customers.

Setting a price for your product requires a clear understanding of your business goals, a rock solid knowledge of your business costs, and an awareness of your competition. There are no rules to setting the right price, and if there were rules, there would be many exceptions to each rule. However, setting price is not a guess, nor is it magic. Setting prices is 90% diligence and 10% good fortune

Social Delta can help you with determine which pricing strategies and approaches to consider to meet your goals.

Build Back Better

These are times when starting or expanding a social enterprise is either a fantastic opportunity or an impossible folly.

There are unquestionably many challenges facing people and communities locally, nationally and globally as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, and perhaps not entirely by coincidence, we see cracks and fissures appear in the social fabric: polarized and angry democracies, growing income disparities, wildly unsustainable consumerism, incredibly potent and punishing environmental changes, more xenophobia and irrational fear of “others,” increasing intolerance and racism, and a sincere lack of resources as our economies are (and have been) shown to be fragile constructs.

If social action is borne of injustice and and fomenting of the desire for positive change, then surely we must look at new ways of creating a just and sustainable society. Social enterprise is potential tool to make that happen, although starting any sort of business in a pandemic is risky; fantastic or folly, indeed.

I have many thoughts on how we can redesign business and movements and individual actions and responsibilities. However, I believe that my colleague and friend Vinod Rajesekaran, of Future of Good, expressed it brilliantly in his recent article “Stop idolizing your sector and demonizing another.” I quote from him directly:

Let’s build back better by asking different questions. When an organization or a project inspires you, don’t ask about their legal structure. Instead, look deeper and ask about their values, intentions, and actions. Look at the ratio between the highest and lowest paid workers, look at their carbon footprint, look at how diverse their leadership teams and boards are, look at how they act on reconciliation everyday, look at how well they include and give voice to their stakeholders, and follow the money — look at where they save and what they invest their money in. 

One of the first questions I get from aspiring social entrepreneurs is about how (and when) they should incorporate. I always tell them “form follows function” and that they should wait as long as possible before they formalize their social purpose in an organizational structure. Only once they’ve identified and lived by their values, intentions and actions (ie determined their function) will they know the best structure to support their work. In fact, once they’ve started their work in earnest, the form of their business is almost always determined for them.

We are, regrettably, stuck with largely antiquated legislation that enshrines for profit, co-operative, or non-profit structures, myths, and expections. However, we can–and must–push the parameters of each of these structures to create businesses that measurably improve social conditions, justice, fairness and protection of the environment.

In the coming years, we can, person by person, build back better.

The art of getting people to do what they don’t want to do.

Social entrepreneurs operate businesses that create social benefits. Surely, selling services and products in the pursuit of justice, environmental sustainability, and support for the marginalized should be easy. After all, doesn’t every consumer want to make the world a better place?

Well, no, actually.

Most consumers buy to satisfy some personal need. They may be hungry and buy food. They may desire to smell nice and buy body products or perfumes. They may want to be entertained and buy a video streaming subscription. They may want the cheapest price and buy from huge online retailers. Not many make purchases based upon maximizing social welfare.

There are some consumers, of course, who shop based upon a set of community values, but as much as we’d like to think otherwise, these conscious consumers remain in the minority. We must also remember—particularly now during economic challenges for many—that some consumers may not be able to afford to purchase according to their altruistic values.

The art of encouraging citizens to undertake something that creates social value is called social marketing. Whether it is to reduce speeding, or to encourage voting, or to purchase ethically sourced food, social marketers use commercial marketing techniques and concepts—advertising, traditional and social media, direct mail, email broadcasts, word of mouth, customer journey, relationship marketing, etc—to bring about and support social change.

A recently read article provides some useful guidance to anyone trying to convince someone to do something that they don’t instinctively want to do. Summarizing somewhat, the recommendations were as follows:

  1. Break down the activity into small steps
  2. Provide progress indicators (or an understanding of the cost/commitment required)
  3. Provide incentives for completion (intrinsic rewards whenever possible)
  4. Instill competence (allow people to learn or share their knowledge)
  5. Allow for autonomy (people resist being controlled)
  6. Ensure they understand the context/purpose (relatedness).

These recommendations work well if you are convincing a child to get immunized (the example used in the article), to encourage someone to get sober, or to complete a university course.

But how do we use these recommendations to encourage consumers to make the right purchasing decisions? Below is a rephrasing of the recommendations to support social marketing efforts for the social entrepreneur:

  1. Don’t try to explain your entire social value proposition at once. Recognize that consumers may need to understand elements of your mission, not the entire social challenge you are addressing.
  2. Whenever possible, link their purchase to a tangible goal. “By purchasing this product, you’re providing a young person with job training.”
  3. Use loyalty programs, discounts, contests or other “prizes” to reward your customers. Use these extrinsic rewards whenever the intrinsic rewards—like the knowledge that they are helping to support their community—are insufficiently motivating.
  4. Provide your consumers with links to further information, crowdfunding, ways to get involved, or other learning and empowering tools. Think of each consumer as a potential ally in your social mission, and use language, images, and information that give them competence.
  5. Do not undermine your competition, or use negative advertising messages to insinuate to your customer that they need to buy your product over the competitor’s product. If you engage them based upon their own needs and expectations, that provides them with the autonomy to make the (right) choice to buy your product.
  6. Provide context for your social enterprise. It is a challenge to not overwhelm your customer with details while informing and engaging them in your mission. Providing succinct context can help them relate to how their purchase contributes to not only meeting their needs (for example, great coffee) but also the community needs (for example, fair wages). Context links their action as a consumer with your mission.

One last note that we frequently share with our social enterprise clients: Do not assume that your social mission alone will sell your products or services. The vast majority of purchasing decisions are affected by price and market perceptions of quality (which also includes convenience and availability). If you aren’t competing on price and quality, social marketing strategies and activities will have only a marginal effect on consumer choices.

Finding your passion. Meh.

       At some time in the latter 20th century work became something that identifies who we are. The first question between strangers is often “So what do you do?”  The newest incarnation of this preoccupation with work as one’s purpose is now to aspire to have purposeful work. Expectations and aspirations in the changing workforce appear to tend towards some sort of cross between corporate billionaire and altruistic social worker.  Having your cake and eating it too.

I actually don’t believe in this new religion. I believe that work is an avocation; it is a job needed to pay the bills, put food on the table, and lubricate all the good things in life like health, education, community and love. It is perfectly reasonable to enjoy what you do, and in fact, I recommend making every effort to find joy in what you do, but don’t expect it to define you.

Work…whether as a social entrepreneur, a government bureaucrat, a corporate executive, a teacher, a builder, or a garbage collector…is likely going to be 10% amazing and 90% meh (and of that 90%, some significant percentage may be absolutely awful.)  If you are lucky, you might get to a 25/75 split…

Entrepreneurs are celebrated when they succeed, but 4 out of 5 fail. And those who do succeed often work 60-100 hours a week, and sometimes those hours are spent doing the most banal of jobs: issuing invoices, filing paperwork, responding to confusing client needs, managing your (social) media, waiting in an airport lounge, editing documents,  or even simply buying office supplies or other inputs for your business. For some, each of those tasks might be a gleeful challenge, but for most, they are just the nuts and bolts of business: necessary, unremarkable, obvious—or even punitive—when left undone, and less than inspiring.  Hardly finding one’s passion.

Remember that most value in our communities comes from the informal sector. Parenting, social gatherings, conversations, kindness to a neighbor or a stranger, reading, painting, crafting, cooking, exercise and other hobbies all help to create a strong community fabric and personal value, yet none of them are necessarily well compensated financially, if at all. As my grandfather said, meaning most often comes in simple actions, not grand gestures. For most of us, the informal sector will be where we will leave our mark and where we can reasonably expect to find/create personal joy and purpose.

Social enterprise offers a promise that business can—and should—be conducted with a greater community purpose. This is a lofty and laudable goal. But make no mistake, business is hard work, and some days you’ll have to really think hard about the positive vision you have for the future in order to motivate you to carry on with the present.

Don’t be fooled by a glib instruction to “find your passion” in your job. Instead, choose to work that is meaningful and beneficial to others, do it well, remain diligent, and reward your passions by having a strong work-life balance. I believe that we all have a responsibility to add value to our community, and I believe that social enterprise is one tool that can help us contribute. Nevertheless, never pretend that every daily task as an entrepreneur will fill you with joy and passion.

Be defined by who you want to be, not by solely by where you want to work.

Redefining Success

“What this pandemic shows…is that we can stop everything in a moment’s notice. I hope that rather than panic and try to rush back to normalcy, people will reflect on what it is we should leave behind, rather than resume.”

Journalist Sam Blum expressed this hope in a recent article in VOX magazine. It complements the UN aspirations to “Build Back Better, ” which is “an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” (Read the full resource here)

Everyone–and let’s fully grasp what that means–everyone on the planet is affected by this pandemic. The numbers of deaths and illness may be small relative to the global population of over 7.8 billion people, but they are significant and scary. Every house and refugee camp, every person rich and poor, and every community urban and rural are having to adjust what they do, how they do it, and how to adapt to fear and uncertainty. This global response is unprecedented. Even the world wars were not fought on battlegrounds in every country. Previous global health scares in the last century (AIDS, SARS, MERS) seem to have had far less of an immediate impact on every family. The Spanish Flu had a similar reach…and far more deaths associated with it…but it existed at a time of limited global interactions and travel.

COVID-19 has made apparent the stark disparities in our world. Front line workers–from grocery clerks to health professionals to law enforcement–are forced to work and put themselves at risk for a greater good. The poor (whether relatively poor in developed countries or abjectly poor in other parts of the world) are at a sincere disadvantage as they simply can’t afford to not work, nor to socially isolate. Some ethnic groups and age groups have reportedly been disproportionately infected. Political figures are disguising their authoritarian tendencies behind the shield of “protecting their people” by applying emergency measures, or even boldy proclaiming power. Access to information, in spite of the ubiquitous Internet, has been confusing as conspiracy theory and mis-information is mixed seamlessly with the data-driven health edicts and expert, reasearched opinions.

For those who have health and wealth, the pandemic creates a mind game that might question one’s purpose. For those who are struggling to just get by, the pandemic is a frightening daily reminder of our own frailty and mortality.

Economies are opening up now; some are taking modest steps, other are more bold. Health professionals warn of a second wave of infection and each society or community must weigh the risks of infection against the necessity of employment and liberty.

Social Delta, with many others involved in helping to create just societies in which work has both individual purpose and community benefit, sees an opportunity to indeed “build back better.” Our businesses must be more focused on meeting the basic needs of citizens: health, education, nutrition, sustainability, justice and minimizing poverty.

Our global economy has had a heart attack and we collectively have the power to resuscitate it and nurse it back to good health.

There will undoubtedly be many changes in the way we define work, where we work, the value we place on family and social interactions and security. Indeed, if we redefine success such that we focus on what is good for us as individuals living in community, then the future after the fear may well be more humane, forgiving and sustainable.

Don’t go old, go ancient.

Chicago has a water problem. Sections of the city flood often, and even more often in recent decades as climate change has intensified rainstorms at the same time that the city’s concrete engineering marvels have created an impervious crust on the earth.

It was shocking to learn that Chicago is actually at the “top” of two water routes to the sea. Lake Michigan drains through the Great Lakes and into the St. Laurence River and empties into the North Atlantic. At the same time, a mere 10 kms from Chicago’s downtown core are the headwaters of the Des Plaines River, which flows southward and into the Illinois River which eventually joins the mighty Mississippi at St. Louis and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, historic records indicate that before Chicago existed, it was a swampy area of land that frequently flooded, allowing for an actual waterway that bisected the continent. No wonder that they have water problems.

Why does this matter to social entrepreneurs?

Well, Chicago (and in fact many cities prone to flooding around the world) has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure projects like tunnels and reservoirs to, as one article put it, “bottle rainstorms.” However, there is a strong movement worldwide to think about ways to work symbiotically with nature rather than to fight to control it. “Sponge Cities” is a term that refers to urban designs that help absorb water. There are multiple ideas borrowed from the past: encourage the development of urban parks that can flood during monsoon seasons, use permeable pavements, plant trees that can soak up (and even clean) waste water, or develop rooftop and backyard gardens to absorb rain where it falls.

To the social entrepreneur, this spells opportunity. But don’t look to technology. This article highlights that we need fewer “smart cities” and more common sense in our design. Indeed, we should make “dumb cities” that use ancient techniques to work with nature to prevent catastrophe. Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto, states the notion clearly:

“For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas,” Saxe says.

So, if you are a social entrepreneur in spirit and you are looking for a product or service to sell that will significantly improve our co-existence with a changing climate, consider reviving and adapting old ideas. After all, there are literally BILLIONS of dollars available to prepare for and manage rainwater, flooding, sewage treatment and natural disasters.

Don’t consider creating an app to register the depth of the problem, consider (re)creating and selling a product that addresses the root causes.

Older posts

© 2021 social delta

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑