Social media and corporate giving play well together

Dec. 8th, 2011

'Tis the season for giving, and in that spirit, I started thinking about how companies are leveraging social media to further their charitable and philanthropic efforts. After contributing online to a fund to cover a friend's medical expenses after a serious bike accident, I thought how powerful social media must be for charitable fundraising, and how effective cause marketing could be for brands that want to engage people on social networks.

If a company could combine the two, well, there's your meaningful connection.

Why cause marketing works: a first-hand account

I had heard about my friend Moana's accident, but had completely lost touch with her and had no idea how she was doing. But with just a few clicks, I could make a donation and share her cause with my entire Facebook network. So, too, could dozens of other college friends who knew her. Through the power of social media, the Magic for Moana campaign could reach thousands of people fast—and at no cost. If a brand was associated with the campaign, say as a matching donor, there's no question I would feel loyalty to that brand.

How companies use social media for cause marketing

Visit Coca-Cola's home page on Facebook and you might be surprised by what you see. Yes, there's the iconic image of a Coke bottle on the left. But the dominant image is that of a mother polar bear and her two young cubs. One cub glances at you innocently.

So why is Coca-Cola, the behemoth beverage company, promoting Arctic polar bears on Facebook? Adjacent to the momma bear and her cubs is a blurb about Coca-Cola's partnership with World Wildlife Fund to create an Arctic refuge for the polar bear. It's hard not to laud Coca-Cola for its effort. And what if I told you the polar bear cause is also good for Coke's business?

As I suspected, research indicates that consumers prefer buying from companies that support causes they believe in. For example, Cone Inc. found that 85 percent of Americans have a more positive image of a product or company when it supports a cause they care about. And Bob Gilbreath, chief marketing strategist at Bridge Worldwide and author of "Marketing with Meaning," has shared the following statistics about cause-oriented brand affinity: 87 percent of consumers would switch brands based on association with a good cause, and 50 percent of consumers would pay more for a product from brands that support causes.

Millennials care more

There's a widely held theory that consumers now expect more of companies because of the corporate misbehavior in recent years (think Enron, MCI, BP, banks, mortgage companies). In theory, corporate misbehavior has motivated consumers to reward those companies that "do good."

There's also research indicating that millennials (born 1979-2001) have a stronger social conscience due to the economic and natural disasters they grew up with (like the dotcom collapse, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina), and that these events influence what brands they support. Although a few years old, Cone Inc.'s "2006 Millennial Cause Study" reports the following about millennials:

  • 83 percent will trust a company more if it is socially/environmentally responsible
  • 66 percent will recommend products/services if the company is socially responsible
  • 89 percent are likely or very likely to switch from one brand to another brand (price and quality being equal) if the second brand is associated with a good cause

The critical link in the cause marketing + social media equation is, of course, the underlying motivation for why people share. In a blog post titled "The science of sharing: How charities can increase financial support using social media," Craig Hartzel, CEO of Charity Greetings, cites research from a team at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania that claims, "people prefer to share information with a positive rather than negative theme."

If this holds true, using social networks to align your brand with efforts to solve social and environmental issues could build brand affinity with your target market.

Successful cause marketing campaigns for social media

Several brand-name companies recognize this issues-oriented shift among consumers. They also understand the viral nature of social media and have developed some impactful cause marketing campaigns for social media.

  • Pepsi's Refresh Project, which was promoted on Facebook and Twitter, featured an online contest for community projects. Those that received the most votes received grants from Pepsi in the range of $5,000 to $250,000. In total, Pepsi is believed to have distributed more than $20 million. As reported by Jennifer Preston in the New York Times, Pepsi achieved its goal of aligning its brand with a good cause on social media: "As Pepsi had hoped, competitors have turned to their personal networks on Facebook and Twitter to gain support for their ideas, extending the Pepsi brand and its do-good message. Nearly 19 percent of the 77 million votes have been cast through Facebook. On Twitter, participants were urged to use the hashtag '#PepsiRefresh,' and they did."
  • Kohl's Love to Give Happy to Save contest on Facebook is giving away $500,000 to charities. The contest asks that people submit stories and photos describing who or what inspires them to give. The public votes for their favorite stories and they win the cash. James Epstein-Reeves, contributor to the Forbes Corporate Responsibility Blog, summarized Kohl's Cares campaign in a blog post titled, The Democratization of Corporate Philanthropy. "The Kohl's Cares Facebook page has surpassed one million 'likes.' This gives Kohl's an effective way to engage people with its brand, a permission-given way to communicate with these potential customers, and very valuable demographic information," wrote Epstein-Reeves.
  • And Ford Motor Company is running The People's Fleet on Facebook, a charity program through which the company will donate a 2012 Ford Focus to non-profit organizations in the Los Angeles area, as well as provide a team of filmmakers to document and promote their work. I couldn't find results yet for Ford's campaign, but the company built a top-shelf website and the program appears to be gaining traction. Keep an eye out for news on its results.

It's always a good time for companies to support the causes they believe in. But with the unmatched viral potential of social media and the social consciousness of today's consumer, now may be the best time ever.

Happy holidays.


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