Goal to reach small business owners who haven’t considered the employee ownership option
by Karen Kahn
Employee Ownership Equals (“EO Equals”) is a new 18-month education and marketing campaign designed to build awareness of the benefits of employee ownership among small business owners—and to offer them support in finding a model that works for their business. The campaign is led by four organizations well-known in the employee ownership community: The ICA Group, Project Equity, Evergreen Cooperatives’ Fund for Employee Ownership, and Nexus Community Partners. In 2019, the four organizations received grants totaling $24 million from The Kendeda Fund, which jumpstarted significant growth in capital strategies to grow employee ownership.
Marketing Campaign to Fill Information Gap
The EO Equals campaign has been evolving alongside the individual work of each of the nonprofits, says Diane Ives, the Kendeda Fund advisor who oversaw the initial employee ownership investment. “When we first met with the grantees,” says Ives, “we asked each organization what barriers did they see to scaling employee ownership that their individual organizations could not tackle. In private conversations with each organization, we got the same answer: communications.” She notes, “It wasn’t organizational communication they were referring to, but a larger information gap: most small business owners had not heard of employee ownership, didn’t understand its benefits, and certainly didn’t know how to act on it.”
Our partners identified a gap in communications: Most small business owners had not heard of employee ownership, didn’t understand its benefits, and certainly didn’t know how to act on it.”Diane Ives, fund advisor at The Kendeda Fund
Kendeda and its four grantee partners engaged Hattaway Communications to explore this information gap. What they found was that though the employee ownership field has created many great resources, “much of that material is aimed at business owners who are already familiar with employee ownership, or are in the process of starting, or converting to, an employee-owned business,” says David Hammer, executive director of The ICA Group. “Fewer resources are aimed at small business owners who may never have heard of employee ownership or know very little.”
Small Business Owners Show Strong Interest in Employee Ownership
The marketing research, which is available on the EO Equals website, suggests that small business owners, when they hear about employee ownership and its benefits for their business, respond favorably. Of 400 small businesses surveyed in the summer of 2021, 69 percent thought employee ownership would work for their business and 65 percent were interested in learning more. Nearly 100 percent intended to fund their retirement through the value of their business, yet few had a solid succession plan and only 16 percent had met with a potential buyer.
For these small business owners, employee ownership opens a path to achieving their goals. As the campaign website points out, EO provides four key benefits to business owners: it increases profits, motivates employees, provides capital for growth, and offers a path to a secure retirement.
Campaign Website Provides Resources and Tools to Learn More
For those who want to learn more, the campaign website provides tools and resources. A quick interactive media quiz lays out key benefits, and a workbook can be downloaded to explore business and personal goals and how employee ownership might help achieve them. Says Ives, “We found that business owners are thinking about the future of their business, but they don’t necessarily know what questions to ask or what employee ownership would mean for them. The workbook gives them a chance, on their own time, to become more familiar with the topic.” Business owners who want more information can reach out to an expert through the website.
This is about employee ownership writ large, not one organization or model. The intention is to transcend narrow organizational interests; the whole community can use these resources.”David Hammer, executive director of the ICA Group
To drive traffic to the website, the campaign is taking a three-pronged approach, says Hammer. Paid and earned media will be supplemented by a digital advertising campaign that will first launch on LinkedIn. The campaign has engaged Gene Marks, a small business thought leader, to pitch employee ownership. Hammer explains that Marks has a large following of small business owners who trust him. He has no vested interest in employee ownership, which makes him a credible messenger. Marks helped launch the campaign with a series of radio interviews, the first of which also featured Jeanette Webster from Evergreen Cooperatives’ Fund for Employee Ownership.
Transcending Organizational Interests to Create Wider Awareness
Both Hammer and Ives emphasized that EO Equals is not about spotlighting the four partner organizations but rather about boosting knowledge of employee ownership nationwide. Their hope is that the field will join the campaign’s primary partners in sharing information on social media, and that employee ownership organizations may eventually be joined by small business organizations and advisors. Says Hammer, “This is about employee ownership writ large, not one organization or model. The intention is to transcend narrow organizational interests; the whole community can use these resources.” He concludes, “This will only be a success if it expands beyond the four groups and engages a wide swath of the employee ownership community in sharing messages that work.”
Ives emphasizes that the campaign is running 18 months. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. Each quarter, the partners will evaluate engagement of the target audience and adapt strategies that build on previous success. “It’s an iterative process,” she explains.
In the long run, Ives continues, “We want to create a community understanding of the value of employee ownership. If business owners begin to see that others in their community—and that can be defined in many ways, their particular business sector, their geographic community—value employee ownership, it will grow.”
If you are interested in learning more about or joining the EO Equals campaign, go to the sign up link at the website and a campaign partner will contact you.
Karen Kahn is a communications consultant and the editor of Employee Ownership News.