Social media is in is toddlerhood, especially as it applies to cause-based corporate giving campaigns and CSR initiatives. Due to the very public nature of pioneer campaigns, we are able to peer into the box to gleen the strongest approaches towards social media and avoid the weaknesses.
At Zoetica, we have been examining social media-based cause campaigns in depth and would like to offer some thoughts on how corporate social responsibility is evolving in the 21st century.
Cause Washing Leads to Cynicism
Many companies blur the lines between cause marketing and corporate social responsibility, which in turn creates its own problems. One is not the other. As Joe Waters. author of the blog Selfish Giving, recently said in a post by Geoff Livingston on Corporate Social Responsibilty, “I think there is a lot of confusion out there about cause marketing and corporate social responsibility.…”
When most people talk about cause marketing they are really talking about cause promotion. Compared to CSR, cause marketing is a tactic, a subset of a much larger set of values that is reflected in a social responsibility strategy.” One way to express this is through a process called Theory of Change that lays out a pathway to change.
Assuming that even the most marketing-centric cause marketing campaigns have an element of corporate social responsibility, the intelligent approach is to build a balance between social change and business results. Emphasis on the latter is just plain old marketing, and online communities have become leery of campaigns that simply affiliate with nonprofits to achieve a halo effect.
In a world where everyone online has a voice and can become a citizen philanthropist, campaigns need to demonstrate more accountability with a real theory of social change. The strongest social media cause marketing campaigns provide a double bottom line.
For example, Crate and Barrel's DonorsChoose effort did more than just give customers the ability to choose the projects they wanted to support. It was a more targeted initiative, focusing on projects that teachers submitted across the United States. The effort sought to enable teachers by providing them with the funding to design and deliver the education projects they felt their students needed most. The Crate and Barrel effort had a clear vision/objective of what problem they wanted to solve and a measurable theory of change. 347,000 students have been impacted by more than 14,500 projects, resulting in 434,000+ hours of classroom instruction.
Leading with Social Outcomes
Specifically, theory of change means, “start with the intervention – in this case – social media – and trace it backwards to your proposed social outcome, behavior change, or action as a result of communication.
The theory of change comes out of the philanthropy world – look at any foundation and their funding strategies and you see a theory of change model at work and how they hope to get at real systemic changes. You'll also see logic models, impact measurement, and a highly disciplined approach.
That's one side. On the other is cause marketing, which some purists have described as “cause washing.” Modern 21st century corporate social responsibility theory acknowledges we live in a networked world where all activities are interelated, both the good and the bad (see next section).
Far from being a question of either/or, the disciplines, change theory and cause marketing, need to work together to be successful. Change cannot happen without remarkable communication, and remarkable communication cannot happen without a viable pathway to change.
Consider Nike Foundation‘s work on girls education. The United States can learn from the way that India does its CSR work. Perhaps because there are so few resources and limited consumer opportunities – they focus on theory of change and social return on investment. Many companies implement corporate volunteering programs with the double bottom line being that companies with robust volunteer programs attract high quality employees.
Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility
Social media is all about authenticity. In the case of cause marketing, that means more than just providing a face behind the Twitter feed.
Authenticity means instead of simply throwing money at a cause or contest, online efforts should directly address a company or organization’s mission, the problems directly/indirectly created by their businesses and should include causes that impact their employees or family, such as healthcare.
- Mission: Every company tries to market something. In doing so they have a mission and a product or service that fulfills a need. As such, authenticity dictates that the company invest in a community in a manner that relates to their core competency and also their marketing initiatives. This is much more important for cause marketing initiatives.
- Problem: In life we all create wreckage, both directly and indirectly. Some do less, some do more. In the environmental sense, every person has a carbon footprint. Thus it’s safe to say every company impacts the community in some negative ways. Authenticity here dictates acknowledgment of impact, and actions to address the damage.
- Family: A majority of the American corporate community invests in this category. We all have or are employees. Companies represent big families, and in that sense it’s right to take a portion of funds that have been set aside for causes, and invest in real human issues like autism research or homelessness.
Contest Fatigue Sets In
Criticism of cause-based contests is also on the rise. Before social media, companies let their executives figure out which charities and causes would be supported. In the social media world, some are now outsourcing it to their communities through online voting and contest. This is playing out in both good and bad ways.
While the ideas of collaboration and crowdsourcing are popular and novel, it is beginning to feel like the T-shirt give-away at your local sporting event – a cheap and meaningless gimmick.
Make sure this approach is the right one for both your company culture and your online community, Always ask if there is a different and more sustainable way to engage with your community.
While a contest seems like an easy course of action, focusing on an authentic approach that gets stakeholders talking about the effort with their communities can offer a far more rewarding experience.
In his book Twitterville, Shel Israel lauds Tyson Foods for their Pledge to End Hunger drive at SxSW 2009 in Austin. Many of the best-known online luminaries attend SxSW every year, and Tyson Foods engaged their help to feed hungry children in Austin. Not only was the campaign aimed at getting online participation, through clicks and views, it also delivered 54 pounds of food to supply 216 meals in Austin and it tied in with its larger commitment to end childhood hunger. Clearly, this also ties in nicely with its position as a food company.
Empowering Stakeholders – Ensuring Change
To avoid message burnout, stakeholders need to be inspired, and empowerment is one way. But as discussed in step one, true inspiration comes from meaningful change. People need to feel they are making a real difference, not just clicking buttons and soliciting friends for votes.
In a crowdsourced initiative sometimes the change gets left-behind or worse, can become nothing more than a popularity contests with less-worthy causes winning on the sheer force of their willingness to bug their friends or stuff the ballot boxes.
Social media corporate social responsibility programs need to balance the crowd with expert opinion. A “giving expert” ensures quality control so that social change can occur.
The Pepsi Refresh effort has a topic specific ambassador for each of its six categories. They also recruit for different categories rather than just allowing the chips to fall where they may.
Other ideas are to choose the charities based on qualification and alignment with corporate mission, problems or family issues and then let your stakeholders crowdsource the winning causes among them.
Use social tools to immerse stakeholders
Rather than just provide a mechanism for customers to participate with a click, assume that not everyone is a slactivist.
Use social media tools to funnel those that want to be involved at a deeper level to do so.
We call this the ladder of engagement, whereby each level of engagement builds upon the last as people move through the different stages of support. To be successful using social media nonprofits need to use different techniques, tactics, messages, and tools that map to the person’s level of interest. They need a portfolio of approaches that meet people where they are at and help move them to the next level.
This is where partnering with a cause can make a big difference. A nonprofit can help a company communicate the impact online — even serve as a lead voice — and better integrate the company into the community. And vice versa, more responsibility about company impact within the issue makes for a better investment.
Dow's Live Earth Run for Water is a great example of fully integrating the cause. We like this one because Dow is a chemical company, so it demonstrates authenticity in that water has been directly impacted by companies like Dow. Dow is getting people across the world to participate in a day of action. By making a minor donation to 501c3 partner Global Water Challenge and running 6k, stakeholders will feel they have done their part to help save the environment. Further, their day of action may cause them to further engage with Live Earth or Global Water Challenge.
What’s Next for Cause-Based Social Media?
Clearly, much more must be done to study what leads to meaningful change in cause-based campaigns and CSR initiatives. As a part of their fellowship with the Society for New Communications Research, Beth Kanter and Kami Huyse are working on research about how companies that contribute to online communities fare in this important metric of change, and if this also contributes to the bottom line as well.
Through this, and other research, we hope to further the case for tying cause-related marketing to outcomes.