Putting the public back in public good

Not to be overly cheerful, but I'm feeling pretty good about how companies are figuring out social media.

Not to be overly cheerful, but I'm feeling pretty good about how companies are figuring out social media. That's at least the case when it comes to CSR. Over the past couple of years there have been a number of large-scale crowdsourced social campaigns that engage consumers around doing good, particularly the Pepsi Refresh Project, a client of ours.  

Our team recently released a survey of more than 200 senior executives in large-sized companies and found that 95% see crowdsourcing as a valuable part of their organization's CSR programming. Forty-four percent of them reported having already used crowdsourcing in their efforts. 

Why have these companies so readily embraced levels of open participation that just a few years ago would be unthinkable? 

One answer may be that companies have begun to acknowledge that their customers were already publicly curating their brand. And, if people are talking openly about your brand you definitely want them talking about all the good things you do. 

Social media is fueled by participation and crowdsourced CSR programs give people tangible opportunities to get involved with brands in ways that benefit a greater good.

As the social web and these types of CSR programs evolve corporate leaders should be focused on the following trends:

  • Create opportunities for ownership: people do not want to passively consume content. They want to make it, shape it and share it. Not everyone will go through the trouble of creating content, but they want to interact with it and influence how a story unfolds. You can even turn it into a game as Breakthrough to Cures did to try and find crowdsourced solutions to medical problems.
  • Understand what your customers want: we have the ability to get to know people far more intimately through the public lives they lead online. We need to actively listen to what people care about and are motivated by, and use this knowledge to design and carry out CSR programs. Interflora, a flower delivery service in the UK has gone as far as listening for people who need cheering up on Twitter and randomly sending them flowers. 
  • Start thinking globally: to this point social CSR programs have been primarily US or European centric but over the next few years the world will continue to get smaller, and emerging markets such as China, India, and Brazil will become increasingly important players in generating social impact on a global scale. Thousands of volunteers showed us that our social networks have no boundaries when they used the Ushahidi mapping platform to save lives during the earthquake in Haiti.

While not all elements of CSR programs should be crowdsourced, this has become an important (and valuable) way to engage the public in what should be very publicly minded programs. 

So explore ways your company might open up a little and allow people to take some ownership for spreading your CSR message. Give them something important to do and they'll thank you for the challenge and help create goodwill for your brand while they're doing it. 

Colin Moffett is SVP, digital communications at Weber Shandwick, and digital lead for the Weber Shandwick Social Impact practice, which focuses on the agency's work with corporate social responsibility, nonprofit and foundation clients.

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