Is Your Business a Force for Good?

As Anthony Weiner resigned yesterday, ensnared by his sexting scandal, it's easy to forget that people often use social media networks to express deeply held values. A new book, We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World, (Palgrave 2011) argues businesses can tap the power of social media to transform ordinary corporate philanthropy into passion for their brand, and attract many more consumers in the process.

Author Simon Mainwaring is a former Nike creative at Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, and worldwide creative director for Motorola at Ogilvy, and founder of We First, a branding consultancy. Mainwaring is among those who argue corporations need to build purpose and values into their business practices and partner with consumers on social causes.

Mainwaring believes social media are the tool for doing this through what he dubs "contributory capitalism." Companies could make a philanthropic donation from every single transaction and use social media to share and track those transactions with total transparency. Imagine, for example, consumers scanning a barcode with a smartphone app that shows them how that single purchase will result in charitable transactions--say a dollar contribution to each of three corporation-supported charities--with a data picture updating how much has been given.

Too many corporations, he says, still treat corporate-supported philanthropy as a marketing or HR function: the median corporate donation to charitable causes is just over 1 percent of profits, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. But consumers, especially millenial consumers, want to know their purchases aren't hurting anyone anywhere--and preferably truly helping people live better lives. They don't want to dig through corporate websites to find out if a company shares their values, anymore than they want to wait on hold through voicemail trees to get computer support.

Consumers Would Support More Corporate Philanthropy

In fact, 81 percent of consumers say they want companies to give them an opportunity to buy a product that supports a cause, according to results from a 2010 survey by Cone Cause Evolution. And 83 percent want more of products, services, and retailers they use to benefit causes.

Mainwaring observes:

"we are in fact witnessing the evolution of a new type of consumer--a sort of hybrid who is simultaneously a consumer, citizen, environmentalist, and community member...the most successful firms will be those that ... allow consumers to merge their identities into one persona."
Mainwaring advocates six levels of social media empowerment:

Level 1: here, consumers talk to each other on Facebook, SMS, location based media, or Twitter about a brand, its products and social and economic issues--managers should follow discussions, and track the chatter, for example by analyzing trending topics on Twitter and other analysis;

Level 2: Companies should build single platform social media communities around their causes--this typically takes the form of branded Facebook fan pages where consumers can get information, share thoughts, ask questions, and become familiar with a company's mission;

Level 3: As brands become experts and build relationships around a particular cause or sustainable choice, managers should seek relationships and conversations across multiple platforms so that your company becomes a participant in the cause itself. Starbucks surfaces in most serious dialogue wherever Fair Trade-certified and sustainable coffee- and tea-growing standards are on the table--because they put so much of their business behind the policy;

Level 4: Companies engaged at this level allow consumers and followers to co-create, publish, and curate their own content whether or not it supports the brand--this is taking place in Twitter streams between companies and consumers and on websites such as Pepsi's Refresh Project where consumers essentially "take over" cause marketing and Pepsi simply provides the support. This requires building trust with consumers over time that a brand will follow through on funding and pr commitments.

Level 5: Here, social media becomes an interface between the private sector and institutions such as governments and nonprofits. The brand and the consumer community merge into one voice. Doug Ulman, CEO of Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation, has over 1 million Twitter followers: the breakthrough is that policymakers, scientists, doctors, contributors, and other influentials follow Ulman's tweets as a trusted source of Foundation decisions and insights. John Wood, CEO of Room to Read, has over 600,000 followers--and numerous nonprofit, philanthropy, and poverty experts following his daily updates on building schools and classrooms. What can you do? Focus on one leader in your company becoming the social media voice of your cause marketing and set her free to tweet openly and express her personality.

Level 6: At the sixth level, consumer engagement crosses seamlessly between the real world, social media, and parallel worlds constructed by games and virtual reality. For example, H&M, Volvo and many other brands sell their virtual goods in Zynga's social game Farmville, and more than 1,200 brands advertise within the virtual world of Second Life. Here, brands should learn about consumer behavior in these virtual spaces, and get ideas and suggestions from active users say, of, Xbox live.

What levels of social media does your firm use and why, and how is it fostering relationships with consumers?

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
photo by elvert barnes.