World Family News

How Family Businesses Can Find Their Competitive Edge In The Digital Age

By Shama Hyder

Being a “family business” has typically been good for business and for the bottom line. Though times have changed and modern families come in many different forms, the appeal of “family owned” with customers across generations remains strong. However, what worked in the past to grow a business won’t always work in the future, or even in the present.

In my work with family businesses — whether small startups with big dreams or large closed corporations with many moving parts — I’ve discovered a few best practices for leveraging family ties in the digital age.

The primary advantage of a family business, from a marketing perspective, is that it lends the company a relatable and recognizable face. Of course, in a world permeated with social media, this can be a blessing or a curse. The important thing is for families to make a conscious and thoughtful decision about how they want to organize their private and public lives.

Where’s the balance between visibility and overexposure? Who handles the spotlight and how? How does the story of the family, with its adventures, triumphs, and values intersect with the story of the company, with its employee base, bottom lines, and ROIs? If done intentionally with the proper support and follow through, the family and the business can enrich one another and yield a constructive and fruitful back and forth.

When Sam Von Trapp, the grandson of Sound of Music’s Maria von Trapp, combined his love for the outdoors and the rich legacy of his family with a digital marketing push to promote his family’s resort in Vermont — the Trapp Family Lodge, he tapped into a well of public interest that fit quite cozily with the adventure and novelty-seeking that animate many people’s travel fantasies. And doing so brought about both financial gains and unexpected personal fulfillment.

Mars Chocolate and HEB Grocery Stores are yet other leading family owned businesses who incorporate their values into their vision and have a good handle on how to represent themselves in the public eye.

Secondly, a family business can also benefit from its robust network. By first accounting for the full scope of its social, professional, and community relationships, and then actively nurturing those relationships in a way that’s aligned with their business goals, family businesses can lead with their strengths.

Effective networking requires first taking a step back and taking inventory: What’s the full scope of the family network? Which relationships are being over-utilized, and which relationships are being underutilized? If this approach feels overly machiavellian, step two should reassure you.

Once a family has accounted for its network, it’s important that the subsequent outreach be proactive, yet open-ended. Relationship building can lead to wonderful business deals, but if approached strictly with a transaction-mentality, it can become strained. That doesn’t mean one can’t ask for what one wants, and share interests with confidence; rather, it means listening as well as speaking, and helping others even if it isn’t immediately clear how they can help in return.

This principle becomes greatly evident in the social media landscape, where the winners are those who serve and contribute to the conversation, rather than solely themselves. And though a LinkedIn message or a Facebook comment are not replacements for a stimulating lunch or a long walk, they can be personalized and used as great supports for in-person networking.

For example, let’s say the family CFO is part of a board for a non-profit. He sees that another member of the board is welcoming a new grandson into the world. Liking his contact’s baby pictures and commenting could lead to a friendly greeting and a commitment to have a drink and catch up. A drink and ‘catching up’ could lead to an important piece of information that leads to a new investment opportunity.

A more professional variation on this principle might involve a company president mentoring young professionals or sharing learning and company milestones in relevant LinkedIn groups, which in turn raise the company profile, accrue positive sentiment, and cast the company and its leadership — as thought leaders in the industry.

Finally, at the intersection of the personal and the collective, there are many family businesses that transform the illnesses or tragedies they’ve experienced into causes they champion publicly. Dippin’ Dots CEO Scott Fischer, for example, has taken the frustration he experienced while witnessing his mother battle breast cancer and channeled it towards activism for the Susan B. Komen Foundation that funds research and support programs for survivors. By aligning with such causes, families can make a positive difference in the world and increase the social stock of their brands.

Between embracing the personal connection inherent in running or owning a family business, and working an extensive network of social and professional relationships, family businesses can leverage a unique competitive edge in the digital age — one that’s amplified if they’re able to share their story across social platforms.

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