Historically, entrepreneurs did not build companies for social good. That all changed with the internet. People began to leak and access unprecedented information about companies. Revelations about sweatshops, environmental degradation and sketchy political relations went viral. Consumers began to buy with their consciences because they could. The negative feelings about companies’ irresponsible practices led to a movement towards corporate social responsibility. Today, companies weave social good into business -- but most struggle to make customers aware.
In a survey conducted by the PR firm Edelman, 70 percent of consumers said they would pay more to a business that supports worthwhile causes, and more than half would help promote such brands. However, only 39 percent of consumers knew of brands that support good causes.
How is that possible? Well, corporate responsibility implies some kind of action to “improve society” -- and usually these activities have excluded customers. Many consumer companies certify their products with Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and other third parties. Many B2B tech companies, following Salesforce’s lead, pledge 1 percent of their time, profit and product to charitable causes. All these approaches are admirable, but they don’t involve customers, so their efforts fly under the radar.
Instead, companies can engage customers in social good. There are many ways to do that, and the most untapped opportunity is civic participation.
Companies often shy away from advocacy because taking a stance can alienate certain customers. That is a risk, but doing so can also foster credibility and a mass of ambassadors. Advocacy rallies your tribe behind the most consequential causes of the day. It’s one of the most powerful moral declarations a brand can make.
As a business leader, how might you use advocacy to engage customers in social good?
Choose an issue that resonates with people.
Companies tend to take broad stances on themes like environmental justice and healthy eating. It’s difficult for people to care about a generic concept. What does “environmental justice” mean and to whom?
Instead, pick a discrete issue that represents the broader theme, something actionable. For example, in the wake of President Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, many companies announced that they would still honor its objective to keep the average global temperature below a 2 degree Celsius increase.
Some companies went next level by rallying customers to ask elected officials to keep the climate change commitment. That engaged customers in an act of social good, which brings me to the next point.
Make participation easy.
Advocacy campaigns fail when participation feels burdensome. Continuing with the Paris Agreement example, let’s say a brand announces, “We stand for resisting climate change, and we ask you to stand with us.” The customer’s reaction would be, “Uh, ok ... how?”
Make your campaigns mobile responsive and easily accessible. For example, you can use text messaging to broadcast your calls to action, offering ways to easily contact officials from a mobile device (such as click to call or click to act). In the U.S., the common denominator for communication is SMS. The Pew Research Center reports that 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and text messaging is the most popular activity across all devices.
Meet people where they are.
Provide multiple ways to participate in advocacy, understanding that action happens on a spectrum. Some people march and organize rallies. Others exercise their voice through social media, emails to policymakers and phone calls to senators. Some customers would post your campaign to Facebook but wouldn’t do the same on Twitter.
Therefore, unify your message but diversify delivery. Using our Paris example, the message to politicians is “Honor the Paris Agreement.” But, how people choose to share the message is a personal choice, so give them options.
Offer ways for your customers to get information about elections:
In the 2016 election, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered members technology to register to vote, find polling locations and learn about long distance voting. Engagement increased and the tool helped many register to vote.
You do not need to wait until 2020 to offer "get out the vote" tools. In September 2017 alone, there are elections at the state legislative and Congressional level in New Hampshire, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina. Starting now will help you prepare for the midterm elections of 2018 where all 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate will be contested.
All civic participation, whichever "side" you stand with, is intrinsically good. Advocacy reminds your customers that they have a voice, that they have power and that you care about empowering their voices.
People respect brands that give back to society -- if they hear about the good deeds. Rather than telling customers what you’ve done, ask them to join you. Advocacy is good for your business and invaluable for our civic life.