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Sara Benwell Headshot

What Can Businesses Learn From Online Activism?

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As an avid news reader, I could hardly have escaped hearing about several feminist campaigns, which have gained national coverage over the last five months. You'd have had to be hiding under a rock to avoid Caroline Criado-Perez's lobbying to get more women on banknotes, whilst Caitlin Moran's #Twittersilence campaign dominated the Twittersphere, and to an extent the news agenda, all of last week. Meanwhile, the worthy petition to return Disney's 'Brave' hero, Merida, to her former innocent glory, couldn't help but grab my notice, and the 'Lose the lads' mags' campaign led to men's lifestyle magazine publishers striking a modesty deal with Tesco and the Co-op.

Regardless of your personal opinions, it is clear that all these movements have had a huge impact in raising awareness of these women's groups' agendas, regularly hitting the front pages and attracting high level support. As someone who works with companies to create communications strategies to support their business objectives, I wondered what lessons could be learnt to create more engaging campaigns.

Balancing the emotive with the rational
What all these examples have in common is a high level of emotional appeal. Businesses need to find ways of moving from the purely rational to engage in a more emotive way. This can be done by showing the human face of the problem that your business solves. For instance, if you work at a company that provides cyber risk management solutions, it is more compelling to give case studies of clients who have been impacted by cyber issues, rather than just describing the solutions software you provide. If you can make potential customers see and feel the issue, they are more likely to be convinced.

More bang for your buck
Many of these activism campaigns were run by charities, which often operate under a tiny marketing budget. A key skill that businesses can learn is how to do more with less. One method is to sit down and think about what you would do if you only had money for one campaign. Which key audiences would you target and how could you creatively ensure maximum impact? The effects of a global recession are still being felt by business owners and this kind of thinking can yield greater returns on investment.

Moving from 'likes' to conversion
Many businesses now have social media strategies, but most struggle to understand how to connect those all-important 'likes' or 'favourites' to the sales function. The crucial point here is that social media is not about selling to potential customers, but rather, about engaging with them. Businesses can learn how effective social media can be in getting consumers behind a brand by looking at the way activists drive change.

What this really highlights is the flaws in ''like' to win' marketing campaigns. Social media should be used to engage people, so that likes are equated with true support for a business, not just the fact that someone wanted to win an iPad. A great example of this is Ocado's use of Google hangouts to promote the brand to the 'foodie' network. Recognising that this was a key target audience, they created a live event where Great British Chef ambassadors could cook for Ocado customers, with a live video stream on Google hangouts. Ocado promoted the hangouts via YouTube, resulting in 167k engaged views.

Never forget the power of word of mouth
If businesses learn only one thing from campaigners, it should be the importance of 'word of mouth'. Looking at the rise of companies like Trip Advisor, it is easy to see that online opinion can make or break a brand, and good customer service is more important than ever. Businesses should be looking for ways to make their customers advocates and harnessing the power of social media to build reputation.

Melbourne-based Sitepoint, whose Chief Executive wanted to help out following the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, is a good example of this. The team considered donating money, but felt they could do more. Instead, they ran a campaign which raised over $75,000 by selling a discounted group of eBooks. By reaching out through Twitter and influential blogger networks they were able to donate more money, whilst also promoting brand advocacy.

Keep your celebrities relevant and engaged
All the campaigns I've mentioned have had high-level supporters, from Caitlin Moran to Piers Morgan, but the lesson here should not be 'have a celebrity at all costs'. Instead, what was evident is how powerful the support of a relevant and engaged celebrity can be. Recent backlashes against paid-for Twitter endorsements shows that people are tired of constant advertising bombardment, but they do want to know about the causes and brands that their favourite personalities believe in. Businesses that want to use endorsements need to find the right person to engage with and make sure they have considered who will resonate with their target audience.

Lots of businesses are scared of consumer activism, viewing it as something that can threaten licence to operate. While there is space for this viewpoint, and companies should always make sure they are listening, it is far more interesting to see what lessons we can learn from successful activists, and how these can be integrated into communications and social media strategy to get better results. Whether B2B or B2C, these are easy steps that every business can take to make sure their strategies are more efficient and engaging, getting better return on investment and committed brand advocates.