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From virtual to reality: How social media can get boots on the ground

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Brands & Campaigns

This guest post is by John Gerzema, president of BrandAsset Consulting and Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset Valuator, the world’s largest database of consumer behavior, attitudes and values. He recently co-authored “Spend Shift: How The Post-Crisis Values Revolution Is Changing The Way We Buy, Sell And Live” with journalist and author Michael D’Antonio.

If there’s one criticism that sticks to the idealists in the universe of social media it’s this: “You guys don’t know how to turn your words into action.”

What’s the point of having a great idea if we can’t get it past the point of RT’s and Diggs. Real progress happens when relationships leave cyberspace and become face-to-face teams making real progress. In a world where “FarmVille” is now at your local 7-Eleven, digital and analog are increasingly becoming one. Here are three strategies to turn virtual chatter into real action:

  1. Treat your employees as media. In late 2008 Scott Monty, head of Social Media at Ford, got wind of a San Francisco-based blogger named Stefania Pomponi Butler, who had some negative things to say about auto companies. “We invited her out to our Chicago auto plant to interact with some of our managers and workers and to talk about quality initiatives and green practices and see what we are doing and who we were,” Monty says. She then wrote a post: How the Women of Ford, an Assembly Plant, and a Guy Named Larry Changed My Life. “It occurred to me that this company was not a heartless, soul-less corporation full of automatons (like so many crash test dummies) churning out crappy cars. This company was made of people. People who cared immensely about the products they were building. People on the line smiled and waved at us. They held up power tools and tires as if to say, ‘I’m building a damn fine product here. We all are. When are you smug city folk going to take notice?’ I felt like the worst kind of ignorant, half clued-in fool,” she wrote. “Democratize social media across the organization so that it’s not just one department or one individual that holds the power. We can deputize anybody who wants to speak about their company. Maybe not in an authoritative way as the official company spokesman, but somebody who can defend and who can educate and who can engage and identify themselves as being from Ford,” Monty says.
  2. Think about social media as a business model. In greater Tampa-St. Petersburg, members of a graphic design community hosted by took a break from their own worries about job leads to donate their services to local charities. In less than six weeks, the idea for a “Designathon” went from an entry on a website to a weekend-long work session where groups like the local YMCA received free services from professional artists, writers and designers. The experience brought people with shared interest together and, in the words of organizer Brianne Swezey, gave them a break from “being down about how I need money for this and money for that.” All it took was a little leadership from Swezey — who quickly discovered that people will eagerly give of themselves when they are offered the opportunity. As former chief community officer Doug Atkin says, “the express purpose of a social group is to gather and to coalesce around ideas bigger than themselves.”
  3. Organize to reward, not punish. The idea behind “carrot mobbing” is to turn protesting on its head. Instead of boycotting businesses that are poor corporate citizens, the mobbers scale their spending to buy products and services from the good ones. In cities such as San Francisco and Kansas City, Web-based carrot mobbers have rewarded liquor stores and grocers who upgraded their lighting, heating and cooling system to reduce their carbon emissions. The businesses got thousands of dollars in extra sales while the atmosphere was spared untold tons of pollution. Today, according to our surveying in BrandAsset Valuator, 68% of Americans now believe that they and their friends can change corporate behavior by supporting companies that do the right thing. In every case, whether carrot mobbers reward businesses with reverse boycotts or professionals organized on donate services to charity or employees who re-educate a disgruntled blogger, the action is positive and inclusive and nothing like the us vs. them activities common to politics and activism. If you are looking for a way to move from talk to action, those who have done so suggest the following:
  • Be bold. By declaring your intent, you make your desire to act a binding public commitment.
  • Be expansive. There is strength in numbers so whenever possible, design your action to include everyone who wants to participate.
  • Be generous. Don’t worry about taking credit or gaining advantage. Credit will come in due course and third-party endorsement is the most valuable.
  • Be positive. In the post-crisis age, optimism and hope are guiding forces that are helping people adapt and reinvent their lives. Ideas that turn into action are the ones we can feel instinctively because they come from the heart.

How are you using turning your ideas into action?