While cause marketing has existed for decades, it has taken the rise of social media for it to truly “catch fire.” So just what is it about social media that is so uniquely and powerfully compatible with commercial marketing efforts that contain societal benefits?
“The first ingredient, and no doubt the element that is now attracting any head of marketing worth his or her salt […] is that social media allows like-minded people to coalesce.”
Inspired by Companies and Causes: Social Media Jumpstart a Marketing Revolution, by Arianna Huffington
Much of what brings people together are things both immaterial and external to the market: a sense of community, connection, and a concern for the state of the world — in short, their shared humanity.
Social media has granted companies unprecedented access to their stakeholder’s unfiltered thoughts and core values, but as Huffington points out, to tap into their customer’s humanity, companies are obliged to show their own humanity in return.
Unlike traditional media outlets like TV, radio, and print, social media is not a one-way mirror. Companies can gain a view of their audience through listening and monitoring platforms, but their actions are also being watched by the internet public. While social media gives companies a real sense of who their would-be customers are and what they value, it also shines a light on the authenticity and values of any company that engages with it.
It is this quality of social media that has allowed cause marketing, as well as a growing concern for corporate social responsibility, to spread like wildfire. Companies need to engage their consumers on a social and environmental level, and thanks to the transparency of social media, corporate efforts cannot be half-measure or mere lip-service. This is thanks to another unique element that sets social media apart from its predecessors: it’s active, not passive. Whereas TV commercials and magazine advertisements are passive and exist simply to be seen and consumed, social media is about doing, not just watching. Corporate stewardship – or its absence – is monitored, recorded, forwarded and passed along throughout the networks that make up the social web. This means that if a corporation’s cause marketing fails to deliver on its promised goals and initiatives, the world will know about it.
Stowe Boyd commented on Arianna’s article in a recent post of his own, and while he lauded Huffington’s observations as to what’s happening in Marketing, he added that “Because [Huffington] is looking at this cultural shift based on what’s what in advertising, she is seeing the tip of the iceberg and analyzing its movements without factoring in the iceberg below.”
SO What is this iceberg? According to Boyd, we are witnessing a culture-wide rejection of mass media and mass advertising to a more relevant and personalized media.
“The ‘message’ of mass media is not about Iraq, American Idol, or the NY Yankees: it’s mass identity. And when people turn away from mass media — and mass advertising — they aren’t just becoming unaware of the goings-on on some reality show, they are walking away from belonging to a collection of cultural aspirations and obsessions.”
If there is even a little truth (and I believe there is a great deal of it) in Boyd’s assessment that we are witnessing a sea change in our collective values and a turning away from mass media, how strange that it should be facilitated by advancements within media.
What cynical Gen Xer could have predicted that the best tool to fight corporate greed wasn’t an end to media in itself, but a greater, more sophisticated and more nuanced form of media?
Social media is what many previous generations of progressive leaders would have thought to be an impossible synthesis: a hybrid of the world of capitalism and advertising and the world of ecology, community, and sustainability.
Huffington puts it quite perfectly when she comments on the most exciting part of this new offspring of media and meaning:
“…the tools that allow people to connect with each other, their communities, and the companies they want to patronize, are still in their infancy — imagine the impact they’ll have when they are all grown up.
Social media have increased the ability of a company to tap into their customers’ humanity. But to do so they must show some in return. Derrick Daye, writing recently about marketing trends for 2011, calls this “ethosnomics.” He writes:
Brands increasingly must stand for something beyond just rational items. Brands can’t, however, just ‘stand for’ the cause du jour. Doing what others do, just because they’re doing it, won’t work very long or very effectively. Corporate social responsibility efforts will need to be believable, sustained, and engaging. Some of the strongest will come from those brands that connect the public and the personal in today’s financially-strained world.