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nov10 1a


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Over the past few years the popularity of online social media platforms has soared. Facebook now has over a half billion users, and every day more than 200 million Youtube videos are watched. Corporates soon realized they could not afford to exclude themselves from these online conversations, especially when thousands of consumers, NGOs and keyboard activists were already busy discussing their brand online.

Initially companies viewed social media as just another marketing channel, a tool for delivering messages to consumers or potential consumers much like they had been doing for years using television and radio. By now, most companies have realized that it’s not quite that simple. Online communities, much like communities anywhere, have certain values – a sense of “the way we do things around here” – and if newcomers don’t learn to play by the rules they risk being seen either as a bumbling clown or a dangerous imposter.

A sense of identity: much like the schoolyard, trying to present yourself as someone you’re not, or trying to be all things to all people might win you friends in the short term, but people soon see through these tricks. This is linked to the value that is placed on transparency and integrity. Following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill a “Boycott BP” Facebook group sprang up, attracting a quarter of a million users within a few weeks and at last count linking over 800 000 fans.

BP’s response was to spend huge amounts buying placement for search terms such as “oil spill”, promoting sponsored links showing BP’s cleanup efforts. The advertised site showed workers clearing up a relatively oil-free beach, with clear waves and a healthy seabird walking by. Meanwhile, activists and ordinary citizens have uploaded over 16,000 photos on the Boycott BP Facebook group showing dying seabirds, oil drenched beaches and dead sealife.

On the other scale of transparency there are companies such as Alternative Grounds, a Canadian coffee house that trades only in fair-trade coffee, carefully describing its values and policies, and providing a link to the Fair Trade Proof website through which users can trace individual lots of coffee stocked by Alternative Grounds and even view scanned copies of the fair trade certificate and shipping documents for that particular lot.

Participation is another core value of online communities – users want to be “spoken with” not “spoken to”. These efforts can start with things as simple as online feedback forms or opinion polls, but at its best participation is used to generate new ideas and allowing users to be part of something big, exciting and ambitious. This is the idea of crowdsourcing – essentially asking the online public to come up with ideas and strategies. invites all users to participate in an open exchange of ideas. One of the site’s main areas of discussion is that of “Involvement,” which is dedicated to community building and social responsibility. There, visitors have recommended everything from putting recycling bins in every store to using energy-saving light bulbs. In 2008 Western Union launched its “Our World Gives” Facebook campaign, encouraging users to support charities by rallying their friends around various causes and associated nonprofits, including American Red Cross and UNICEF.


Yahoo!’s corporate responsibility platform Yahoo For Good recently completed a successful campaign called Random Acts of Kindness. The idea was to encourage users and Yahoo! Employees to share good deeds with each other and then encouraging their friends and contacts to participate in their own way to create a “ripple of happiness triggered by your single act of kindness”. The campaign received over 300,000 status updates and global participation from 11 countries.

The final element to consider is that social networking campaigns should be captivating and/or utilize the power of narrative. As cruel as it sounds, even with the noblest intentions your efforts will be invisible online if they fail to capture the imagination of users. Timberland’s Earth Keepers program uses Facebook applications to allow users to virtually plant trees in Haiti and China’s Horqin Desert – they have promised to plant 5 million in 5 years. Illuminati II is a clothing design firm with a compelling sustainability story – producing stylish designs from sustainably produced cotton that is produced by rural farmers in Uganda. As their website states “the CSR element of Illuminati II is manifold; supporting small holder farmers in Uganda who produce organic cotton, on fair trade principles, and in the long run, keep the whole production-line in Uganda. The idea behind this is to enhance the chances of farmers in an African country to develop through trade and business. The fact that the cotton is grown organically means that there is a special focus on the environment and the health of the people who grow it. The fair trade certification of the cotton ensures a fair price and focus on good working conditions for the farmers and respect for the local communities involved.” The website also carries pictures of the CEO meeting with the Ugandan farmers, as well as an online documentary on how their business model is helping assisting with rural development.