Finding Your Village of Customers

Godin calls it a tribe. Kevin Kelly calls them your 1000 True Fans. Hugh MacLeod calls it a global microbrand.

Everywhere you look, you might notice a new kind of flexible, smart small business. They serve a relatively small number of people. Big businesses drool over their profit margins and adaptability. Their customers are knocked out by what they do and how they do it.

Oh, and one more thing. They’re taking over the world.

These businesses know their customers, often on a first name basis. Their customer relationships, like every real relationship, encounter the occasional rough spot. Being small and human means making plenty of mistakes.

But when these businesses mess up, unlike AT&T or Microsoft, their customers often love them more.

What’s a village business?

A few months ago, I wrote about the advantages of having a village of customers. Business is personal, intimate, and human-scaled. Each village business is individual, defined by the personality of the owner, but also by the quirks of their customers.

But unlike a literal village, many of the new village businesses have customers all over the world. Your customers might hail from Melbourne, Malaysia and Munich, while you run your village business from a home office in Madison, Wisconsin.

As economic trends smash big companies to pieces (and outsource the crumbs that are left), more and more people are creating vibrant little businesses serving their own villages of customers.

A village business is responsive

When your customer base is small, you can be exceptionally responsive to the needs and desires of those customers.

If you’re a village baker worried about health trends, you can start doing something about it right away.

You put more heart-healthy items in your cases. You open your kitchen after hours for healthy cooking classes. You team up with local restaurants to put better bread on their tables, and local mills to get fresh organic flour for your products.

What you don’t do is run focus groups to see if there’s a market need, or ask your franchise manager if they’re ok with you adding some items to the menu.

You just try it out. Your community likes it or they don’t. Either way, you won’t have to do market research to find out how it’s going — your village just tells you.

You adjust your course. You find common ground between your vision and the needs of your village. You learn by doing.

A place where everybody knows your name

Remember that line from the old TV show Cheers? The show is about a bar that’s a quintessential village business. Everyone’s a regular. Everyone is familiar.

Television shows rely on this familiarity. Shows about quirky villages (Northern Exposure, The Gilmore Girls) draw loyal viewers week after week. And even shows allegedly set in big cities (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex in the City) give us versions of those cities where we spend all of our time within the same village of familiar faces.

Most of us are uncomfortable in vast, anonymous spaces. Red Square is magnificent, but no one wants to spend a week’s vacation there.

We want to feel special, like we’re part of something. We want to be a “regular.”

Give them someplace to gather

What does a village need?

A leader. (That’s you.) A purpose. (That’s your market position or winning difference.) An idiot. (Don’t worry, one always shows up.) And a place to come together.

You might create a membership site for your best-loved customers. Or organize special conferences, user groups, and gatherings. You might build something as simple as a private online forum where your village can share their experiences — good and bad.

But give your village a place to get together. To know you better, and know one another better. A place where everybody knows their name.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication.

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Reader Comments (96)

  1. says

    “But when these businesses mess up, unlike AT&T or Microsoft, their customers often love them more.”

    This couldn’t be more true. When I transitioned to copywriting, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to meet everyone’s expectations, and I was right. But what I didn’t realize was how gracious customers can be about mistakes as long as you fix it quickly and professionally.

    The customers I have made mistakes with continue to be loyal and heap praise upon me when I least expect it. It really is wonderful having a small base of customers who you can treat like gold. Find quality customers and you won’t have to chase after quantity.

  2. Sonia Simone says

    It’s kind of humbling, isn’t it?

    It’s such a different experience than I had in the corp world (even with small companies), where the relationship with customers was essentially a controlled war. :)

  3. says

    Yes, Ms Sonia, you are right. In my opinion the concept of village business is very useful for new and small niche businesses. In fact everyone uses this technique though he/she does not know about it.

  4. says

    This is the great advice.

    In other words, you are the leader (you create product or services to solve your villagers problem).

    Am I right? :)

  5. says

    This is exactly what I’ve tried to do. We’ve got a global customer base of people who love us and use our software everyday. I’m everything, from support, to sales, product management, etc … everything except development. I do hope to be bigger some day, but I’ve always enjoyed being close to customers so whatever happens I’m going to continue that.

  6. says

    Great article Sonia! I think the issues we are dealing with now is the shift to the “village” model you’re talking about. The problem is business model that has been prevalent has all but whipped our memories of the neighborhood hardware store or the corner drug store where we were known.

    Ironically, it is something I’m trying to get my readers and students to see…they are working artists and don’t realize they are the front line, on the ground able to initiate and put a face of this kind of change.

    Resistance is futile!
    Thanks

  7. says

    Wow Sonia, this is a great article.
    And remember my introduction at the Teaching Sells site? I also mentioned this parallel with Seth Godin’s Tribe. And what I am trying to achieve with my membership site.
    Reading your article I am becoming more and more an enthousiast concerning this whole Tribe/Village/1000fans concept.
    Thanks,
    Stan

  8. says

    That is a blessing and a challenge to have a close knit group of customers. You can be responsive and provide a great service but you have to be responsive and provide a great service.

  9. Sonia Simone says

    @Stan, I think what you’re building is a great example. You don’t have to capture every possible person who could benefit from your membership site–just a tribe of people for whom your approach is exactly right.

    @Aqif, exactly.

    @Steve, couldn’t agree more. :)

  10. says

    “A village business is responsive.” Great point. They get involved; they show they care; they are out “doing” as opposed to sitting waiting for the people to come to them. I love this whole analogy of the village business. Thanks for the post, Sonia.

  11. says

    Another great article from Sonia!

    Seth Godin obviously hit on a fundamental truth to marketing with his “Tibes” concept. O fourse, it’s not a new phenomenon by any means, it’s now just so much easier – thanks to the Internet – to attract and serve your tribe.

    I think the most important lesson to take from this concept is that you shouldn’t try to be the next Wal-Mart of your industry. This is hard to keep in mind. No matter how much we try to remind ourselves to focus on a niche audience, we can’t help but seek a broader and wider base. This never works.

    For us infomarketers, marketing to a tribe or village means being yourself, being truthful, and then knowing that an audience WILL come to follow you. It may be a small audience, which can still be hugely profitable. But more often than not, the more YOURSELF you remain, the larger the audience you end up attracting.

  12. says

    Sonia, I absolutely love this article! I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say it better or think of it this way, but it’s true. Having worked for a larger company, everything had to be approved by at least 2 or 3 people before I could get anything done. And this was just IT support.

    The only thing that comes to mind at this point is where does it get cut off. What is the number of customers you exceed when your business becomes the large company that is at war with its customer base. And what is the specific mindset you need to maintain to avoid that.

  13. says

    Yeah, this is good stuff. It’s something I already do, but more importantly, it’s something I’m taking a leap of faith and will need to trust.

    I’m contemplating a sort of repositioning, and the question is who* it will appeal to. My answer has been, “To my people, that’s who.”

    You can’t worry about trying to become something that everyone will approve of. You have to do your thing and cultivate the people who gravitate toward it.

    *I know I’m using “who” incorrectly here. I’m not going to fix it, but I figured I should point it out after writing that hotly debated grammar post yesterday.

  14. says

    Hi Sonia,

    You’ve nailed it! Thank you for writing about this topic. I am privileged to own a village business. We serve voice actors and the people who need to hire them, procuring custom voice over recordings.

    I can completely relate to everything you have identified. Thank you again for recognizing and addressing this aspect of business.

    Best wishes,

    Stephanie Ciccarelli
    Co-founder of Voices.com

  15. Sonia Simone says

    @Shane, I wondered how long it would take for that to show up. (It went through my head about 1000 times when I was writing it!)

  16. Leanne says

    Great article. It makes me feel so excited and optimistic about the future of business in general! What the large corporations don’t realize is that is always comes down to personnel and personal relationships. You can’t put enough rules, policies and procedures in place to compensate for a lack of human(e) intervention.

  17. Sonia Simone says

    Very cool, Greg! Looking through stock photos of villages around the world really made me want a vacation. :)

  18. says

    Hello,

    Long time reader, first time poster.

    “But when these businesses mess up, unlike AT&T or Microsoft, their customers often love them more.”

    It depends on the relationship with the customer. I work at an online casino, a place where people throw away thousands of dollars every day. They rarely if ever walk away with any of their initial deposit.

    Why do they come back? Because we make them feel like they’re special. Your average gambler falls into a few categories: bored and lonely housewife, bored and lonely pensioner, bored and lonely day trader… see a pattern?

    They may not know it, but they’re looking for someone to tell them how great they are. How they’re loved, needed, valued, appreciated. That’s why they keep playing. Some don’t even care that they lose, because they feel that their money is worth their friendship with us.

    That’s the key to doing business.

    Figure out what your customer wants and give it to them. The “village” concept is true only because the owner is still very hands on.

    And to whoever said that entrepreneurs shouldn’t try to be the next Wal-Mart, I disagree! Set lofty goals, chase your dreams.

    Then again what do I know, I’m broke!

    By the way, I’m going to shamelessly plug my blog now that I just finished setting up 10 minutes ago.

    http://www.farawayfreedom.com

    PS. Can we see a post or two about tips on monetizing a personal blog?

    /my two cents

  19. says

    “We want to feel special, like we’re part of something. We want to be a “regular.” ”

    Will be giving this much thought as I continue to expand my online business. Brilliant article and retweeted!

    Steve

  20. says

    This is what Australian social media expert Simon U. Ford has been teaching for years. Building a community – be it around the city or around the world is the key to success. You community become evangelists for your brand. Ford has stated, and I agree, that it is better to have 100 committed followers that 1,000 unengaged followers.
    The other good thing about having a village is they keep you honest. They will be the first to tell you that a mistake has been made and it needs to be corrected.

  21. says

    Sonia, I couldn’t agree more. A few years back I read a book called “Re-imagine!” by Tom Peters. The premise of the book was how business needed to change in order to be successful in the modern age.

    One of the major shifts the author could see needed to occur was the move away from deep, bureaucratic, laborious structures and towards flat, nimble, bureaucracy-free ones.

    Building a loyal community around your business makes perfect sense to me (be it online or off). I’m constantly amazed at how many businesses don’t seem to get it.

    Excellent post Sonia. Thanks.

  22. says

    Excellent, Simone. Thank you for bringing focus to this important concept. The better we have our “villagers” (clients, customers, readers, colleagues) in mind, the more likely we are to remain true to them.

  23. says

    I love this — it’s the Ittybiz model/philosophy.

    Do you think some of the more successful village-businesses will eventually grow into larger companies or corporations? I wouldn’t think that’s a bad thing, either. Just as long as it retains that sense of caring and community.

    Aloha Friday to everyone!

  24. says

    Having given up my life in the corporate world, which was like living inside a longer, migraine inducing version of a Dilbert cartoon, this post reminded me about why it is that I do what I do.

    Thank you for that reminder Sonia.

  25. says

    Great post!

    building a community is really important…

    Thanks for the great post!

    my customer base is small currently so i’m definitely going to make sure to focus on their needs and really cater to them as much as i can.

  26. says

    I like your theme and tips on the ‘village’ re small business. They make sense. Perhaps in your next post you can write on how to convert the ‘village idiot’ to personalise their business and stop trying to imitate big business methods :)

  27. says

    Great post. I read Seth Godin and Hugh Macleod as well.
    A tribe is all you need. Some need 1000 fans, I have seen others with only 150 fans and doing great.

  28. says

    Sonia, awesome post!! Not much else to say, you said it all so well.

    I don’t think this advice applies just to small micro-businesses, I think ‘BIG’ businesses have to apply the great same advice. They just have to figure out their villages and how to apply this mentality with ALL of their customers. This is just great advice for businesses of ALL sizes.

  29. says

    Sonia:

    Brilliant post for anyone contemplating the start of a business. It really makes me think that what all of us are looking for (whether we are a business or a consumer) is connection.

  30. Sonia Simone says

    @Sami, I thought Re-Imagine was great as well, although he drove me a little nutso with the book design. But the ideas were stellar.

    @Chris B, mostly I just try to make the village idiot go find some other village. :)

  31. says

    Most people still have the instinctive idea that

    Bigger = Better

    And in a way that’s true because big companies have the team, resources and technology to outperform small businesses.

    But there will always be people who think

    smaller = friendlier

    These are the people whose needs are best met by small business owners like us.

  32. says

    Brilliant!

    In the process of correcting an error that I made, a customer said to me, “It is so refreshing to do business with a real person.” She made my day with that little statement, and that little statement is huge in itself!

  33. Dave says

    Sonia,

    Great article. Thanks for the insight. I am working on setting up my own home-based biz. The village concept makes great sense! Thank you!

  34. says

    brilliant. this is where I’m going with my business, entirely on instinct. I kept trying to read Small is Beautiful, I was so sure there was a message there for the kind of business I’m trying to build (never mind the kind of world we need to mend). Then here you go making it so plain…

    thank you.

  35. says

    A very good point. And I am witoutou 100%.
    I believe we have as strong a base of customers as anyone.

    My question is, HOW do you go about creating a members-only club/community? Are there sites that let you create these communities online?

  36. says

    This is a great post! I will be subscribing to this blog after leaving this comment based on this alone. This goes to show the slogan that I have always believed in; “People don’t join opportunities, people join people!” Working within your “villiage market”, or specialized niche enables you to have a one-on-one rapport with your clients, so they get to know you better and become much more comfortable in purchasing from you. This post embodies that concept, and explains it in a way that most should be able to understand. Thank you for writing this post in such a way!

  37. MissEm says

    I purchased an online membership a couple of months ago and I ended it after only a couple of weeks. Why? Because I felt like I was buying a product rather than an experience.
    I was lead to believe, by the owner of the site, that I would have a fun and motivating experience and I would be interacting with the owner of the site and the other subscribers. (He actually still states that he wants to build an on-line community.)
    I was very disappointed with what I recieved for my money. There was no forum to communicate with other people, my emails to the owner were unanswered and he never replied to me on Twitter or when I commented on his videos.
    I was trying to engage and involve myself and was met with the sound of crickets. That told me that the owner was either not really interested in creating a community or that he didn’t know how to do it.
    It’s a bit hard to move from the entry hall to the rest of the house when no-one is home to give you the tour.

    Unfortunately for him I got involved in the fantastic Teaching Sells course and this person is going to have some strong competition soon because I can see where it can be done a lot better 😉
    I have also started reading Purple Cow and this article reminds me of what Seth has to say at the beginning of the book about value and the customer.

    Thanks for the article Sonia, it reinforces what I am learning at the moment.

  38. Sonia Simone says

    Heh, very cool, thanks for that.

    I will say, it’s not an easy thing to do. We all want to do it, but it takes a lot of energy and plain old organization to create that experience of connection. But it’s so worthwhile.

    It’s one of the most fun things about being in business, for me. (And one of the most reliable ways to profitability. In my experience.)

  39. says

    I like this concept big time – nice post Sonia. Being from the UK I would also want a village tea shop with scones. Wonder how I could make that work?

  40. says

    I like the theory but it’s a hard one to pull off… especially as businesses grow. A tea shop offering scones is a great idea! Makes a change from all the cookies (groan)

    Is that photo from Switzerland?

  41. Sonia Simone says

    @Alex, it’s Austria. If you scroll up a bit, Greg Bond hiked there and gave us a Wikipedia to learn more about it. Looks gorgeous.

  42. says

    Villages are the key to true, honest connection with people, customers or just solid meaningful relationships. Building Villages around idea with a purpose is what I love doing. I’m working on building a village right now based on live music.

    It’s a real challenge in 2009 with so many different things people can do with their time. But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to be a part of something. People always want to be a part of something; it just takes the leader of the “tribe” to realize that it’s their job to start the village and CREATE the place, or the ide, for people to gather around and get behind.

  43. says

    Thanks very much for an article that is very timely for me. My book – Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs is about to be printed and is due to be released early November. I am therefore in the painstaking process of building a global village of potential customers. Your article encourages me to keep on when the going is tedious (as sometimes it is).

  44. says

    Sonia:
    This post is more me than, well, ME! Copywriting, specifically, has benefitted from the corporate meltdown as well as oversized business’ scary downsizing. Many courageous souls are willing and able to create working arrangements on a contract basis with the big guns as well as service enterprises that enjoy their small but empowered stature. I’ve found established entrepreneurs excited about hiring me in order to leverage their time for what they’d prefer to be doing. could it be that some people don’t like to write? Horrors! In any case, it’s a win for us both…wash, rinse and repeat, but with a whole new, passionate story to tell, each time.

    Works for me!

  45. Sonia Simone says

    @Ellen, it’s a peculiar thing, the economic bloodbath and sinking (or at least weakening) of so many big chain businesses has opened up a lot of space for the agile, the flexible, and the small. As hard as the times are for many (and I would never downplay that), I also think this will end up being a renaissance for 1- and 2-person businesses.

  46. says

    We truly believe in village online.
    We build our business through a social group and our customers are “members” as well as “friends”.

    Works so well, that In fact, we’re about to embark on creating a “social network” online for our neighbourhood here, biz and private together. It’s the future, and expands the neighbourhood out to the world.
    For a peek at how it’s working, see the weblink attached to my name. thanks.

  47. says

    The hardest part of developing a village is the time taken to create unique high quality content for the people in the village. A tribe will only stay together as long as there is ongoing value and it isn’t easy to be disciplined to continually releasing new things.
    Consistency seems to be the key so the tribe can predict when new things are available for them

  48. says

    I like to think that I am cultivating a village on my blog. I’ve got healthy commenters and people who are lurking. I respond to every single comment with a sincere comment thanking each person and adding insight to their comment or answering questions that they may have. What I have a hard time doing is getting to that next level to engage and offer content that my village would like to purchase. I have an idea what I’d like to do but the technical knowledge to pull it all together is escaping me. Doubt also nags at me.

  49. says

    “You just try it out. Your community likes it or they don’t.”
    Perfect summary of the “Ready, Aim, Fire” model. The world has spent so much time and energy wrapped up in red tape. I’m overjoyed at this growing new economy that empowers everyone to DO THEIR OWN THING. And in real time. Just be your awesome self and form a strong relationship with the tribe that will gather in response to that.

    Really inspiring stuff, Sonia :)

  50. says

    This is a good idea. I’m taking my niche to video blogging and thinking about doing a weekly live video chat with my readership. You can’t have a blog that’s supposed to be about spawning conversation without real conversation!

  51. says

    Hi Sonia,

    I love the village metaphor you conjured up. And you’re right; a village business doesn’t need to be big or flashy. In fact, such a business can flourish small because it attracts such a loyal gathering.

    I think a village business is something every blogger strives for (at least, the ones who want to make a difference in this world). It’s a place where everyone can learn and grow together; somewhere where you can connect with one another, share your thoughts, and simply frolic in the joy of being in one like-minded community. You get to know everyone, and everyone can get to know you as well as each other. In a way, no one is just concerned about themselves – everyone cares about one another in a village community. Everyone matters.

    And, really, that’s how it should be. In order to grow and make progress, you need to care about your readers, customers, clients, and whathaveyou. You need to reach out to those around you. And that’s what I think a village business essentially does.

    Well done!

    Christina


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