Cause Marketing initiatives come in all shapes and sizes from cause-branded products to community events. But only one comes in a brightly colored deck of cards with opportunities for affecting change through real life activities.
Akoha, the world’s first social reality game, is built on the premise of bridging the on- and offline worlds in meaningful ways. With missions focused on simple things like thanking someone or buying a friend a cup of coffee or sharing your favorite book, Akoha cards help build relationships and spark everyday change. The concept forces players to take a step back [from their computers, preconceived notions and routines] to connect with others in substantive ways, and in turn, each activity earns them points.
Taking the idea of ‘playing it forward’ one step further, Austin Hill, Chief Instigator, and the rest of the Akoha team decided to implement cause-related missions into their decks, making volunteer activities and good deeds point-worthy, and turning actions into dollars and resources that benefit charitable organizations worldwide.
Akoha is a unique social reality game that bridges the on and offline worlds. Can you tell us a little more about the concept and how the idea was born?
In 2005 my brother passed away after a tough two year battle with colon cancer. He was 19 when diagnosed and 21 when he passed away. Right after his passing, I was at the TED conference and was inspired to find a way to use my experience with technology startups and combine my interest in social change and philanthropy.
I was specifically thinking about ways to democratize social change, allowing everyday people a way to feel like they were able to make a difference in the world. I was inspired by the models of blogging, open source software and wikipedia. These models are open, collaborative and make it easy to aggregate small contributions from many people, giving their contributions leverage in numbers to create something larger and more meaningful then any one person could do on their own.
At the same time my partner, Alex Eberts, was in a conversation with Jeff Skoll of Participant Productions (Producers of movies with social causes such as Inconvenient Truth) speaking about the powers of movies to instigate change. At the time, Alex was making violent video games for a major game producer and was motivated to focus his skills on trying to make a game with meaning.
It was these two conversations that started our discussion about making a game with social meaning. To create real meaning in our players’ lives, we decided to make the real world the play environment for the game instead of a virtual world.
You have a current ‘mission’ to help build a school library in Nepal. Were cause-related missions always part of the strategy?
There is a community project where all the missions completed by our players contribute the construction of a school in Nepal, in partnership with Room to Read. This has always been part of the project.
The core principles we set out to design Akoha with were the following:
+ The game itself should have a positive impact on players’ emotions and lives.
+ We wanted to create a social environment that had opportunities, not obligations, for positive social acts. We didn’t want to approach this with a traditional philanthropy message of ‘XYZ cause needs your help, and you should feel bad and contribute.’
+ Putting the FUN into FUNctional. The game should be fun for players, and the social meaning couldn’t take precedence to our players having fun and wanting to share it with friends.
+ The game should be profitable, creating an ecosystem and economy that can direct funds to cause related projects that our community can sponsor in creating a self-sufficient enterprise that can fund it’s own growth without depending on grants or donations ourselves.
Why did you decide to add causes to the missions?
Because of the history of the project, that is what excited both Alex and I, and was what we had begun the project looking to accomplish. We began the adventure of Akoha asking ourselves “What if playing a game could improve the world,” so the social meaning aspect was always at the core. We felt that the time was right to give players a way to both make positive contributions to their communities, and see those local acts of kindness benefit other larger causes.
What has been the response so far?
It’s still early. We released an invite-only prototype in September at TechCrunch50 and in December we expanded the beta to allow anyone to obtain a deck of mission cards (or order them for the cost of S+H).
Since then, we have seen more then 2,500 missions completed in 33 countries around the world. We’ve also see the early seeds of a great community of players who are working with us to give us feedback to improve the experience.
Overall, we are very pleased with the progress so far. People have really warmed to the idea, but there are a lot of little product details we still need to improve before we are ready to expand this to a mainstream user base.
What trends have you observed with the cause-based missions vs. others?
All of our missions have an element of giving, sharing and interacting with others. Whether that mission is giving a copy of a book, inviting someone for coffee or changing a lightbulb to a compact fluorescent bulb. The missions give the players a good feeling as they share these with other people.
The larger cause-related mission of the project provides the community a joint goal to work together towards. We think this will be a winning combination for Akoha as we continue to grow.
I think there are a wealth of synergistic tie-ins for Akoha and real world cause activities such as volunteering, contributing to local charities and attending fundraising events. Do you have plans to integrate any of these elements into future missions?
We do see a wide range of opportunities for missions such as these, but we are conscious to ensure that the missions are accessible and fun. For instance, a mission such as ‘Build a well in Africa’ might have meaning, but also isn’t necessarily ‘fun’ for a wide range of audience – or involves large financial or time contributions to complete.
If missions such as “thank a stranger” are popular due to their ease of completion and the little moment of personal fun a player can enjoy by doing something they might not normally do, then these missions will spread the most. Millions of these missions being completed are very meaningful and the power of large numbers of people working together can create an economic model whereby we can undertake fundraising and charitable projects even if some of the missions being done are not all directly tied to a specific act of social responsibility.
How will you continue to incorporate cause-related and charitable experiences into the game?
Once Akoha leaves our testing and beta phases, we will have a number of mission decks being produced in partnership with causes we feel our community would want to get involved with. We’ll also allow team play where players can band together and have their Akoha missions benefit a specific cause.
Another important element of our plans are to allow partners and players to create their own missions. Right now, we are moderating missions since the templates of what make good Akoha missions are still being developed. We are still learning what works and what doesn’t. Eventually, though an organization could design their own deck of mission cards and use that in their fundraising efforts or to promote elements of a cause-related campaign. There are many opportunities to expand cause-related efforts through our mission cards – both directly and indirectly.
What do you think is unique about Akoha’s product in sparking social change? What social dynamics do you think help advance your efforts?
Tying the project to philanthropy is a unique element in gaming (although we are pleased to begin to see others also approaching meaningful gaming in this way). This is just one aspect of the social change we want to accomplish, and see occurring [and re-occurring].
The larger potential of our choice of using the real world as our play environment has seen our players looking at every day life with a bit of a different viewpoint. Our players have reported ‘being changed’ and looking at opportunities to play missions, or ideas for missions to design, now happening as they walk through a room, or down the street. This cognitive shift where players feel empowered to make a difference no matter how small in the environment and lives of those they encounter is a powerful thing that through which we are only beginning to scratch the surface of its far-reaching potential.
Finally, the choice we made to start with physical cards, real world artifacts that can be shared between players, was a risky one. We could have focused more on the technology (SMS, iPhone, Facebook) – but the choice was based on starting with the lowest common denominator. Everyone can give or receive a card. It somewhat forces players on actually interacting with another person.
This is occurring through the mail as players mail gifts to each other, in person as they arrange to meet old friends they haven’t seen in a while, and also allows players to be adventurous – and expand their universe – by playing a mission with a stranger. Somehow the act of giving someone a card that says “I’m playing a game, spreading acts of kindness – you can now pay it forward” gives them permission to approach people they may not have had the courage to approach before. It acts as a social artifact for opening opportunities through play.
That is exciting to see occur but is still just the beginning, and we have some work to do to make it much easier for our players to engage with Akoha in all manners which will include social networks, mobile and digital cards because so much of our live does, in fact, occur online.
What are your thoughts on the concept around the new ‘conscious capitalist’ where for profit companies are actively engaging in cause marketing and socially responsible business practices?
I’m a pretty ardent capitalist. I think capitalism is the single most powerful tool to bring about changes in people’s socio-economic status. But, at the same time, like any tool, it can be applied in ways that are very negative.
Traditionally, companies served a community and were rewarded with business. Whether a local store or restaurant, there was a connection to the community. As we saw the rise of large, multi-national, efficiency-driven organizations, I think there was a shift away from this fundamental truth of business. This was aided by the mass market nature of television and broadcast advertising. There was no need to serve a community, just advertise to a large enough audience with something that made them feel desire, envy, insecurity or sold the hope of a product so that consumers craved it.
With people looking for more meaning in their lives, they are starting to become more conscious of the brands they support and what those brands stand for. I think its positive to see the pendulum swing back to incorporate some more cause-related values in the companies we associate with.
I, personally, in over 12 years of being involved in social enterprise have seen the benefits that it provides employees who feel engaged with the mission of the company, partners and customers. I do, however, have a concern that many companies will start to move into the practice of ‘ethics washing’ their brands the same way we saw ‘greenwashing’ become popular. This practice has them spending more on marketing dollars telling people how ethical or green they are than actually incorporating those values into what products they create, sell and how they engage with their customers.
Is Akoha an eco-minded, socially responsible company overall? What green and sustainable practices do you support? What environmental and social issues are important to you?
We are a small, 10-person startup, and we all believe in the causes we support. This means we are all involved in various volunteer activities in our community (our company organizes local Montreal community events to benefit a number of charitable organizations), we also recycle in the office and keep an eye on the types of products we buy for the office. This is simply a matter of being authentic. Even though we are small, we can do our part.
Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? What other ventures are you involved in?
For my personal projects, I want them to all have an aspect of social meaning. In 1997, I was the co-founder of a security and privacy company that was at the heart of the debates around civil liberties online. We were focused on how to protect things like privacy, information control and making sure that Internet users retained the same rights we enjoy in the real world when online. I personally experienced how it provided our employees, investors and partners a sense of larger meaning. It was incredibly rewarding even though many aspects of the product didn’t work and we ultimately had to change to survive.
It was a great experience, and one that I choose to always incorporate into my future projects – create meaning, while making money.
I’m also involved in venture capital and angel investing in various technology projects where I encourage entrepreneurs I work with to get involved in meaningful activities. This is more from a mentorship standpoint with the entrepreneurs. I don’t impose, since they are not my companies, but hope to serve as a positive guide in their endeavors.
What components do you think are critical for executing a successful cause marketing program?
Authenticity, grassroots and social. I think you need to have an authentic message or story, get it into the hands of an audience that cares, and make it easy for them to share it and adopt parts of that story as their own.
A large company can run advertisements showing that they donated to a cause but I don’t think that is all that powerful. It may be a good ad campaign, it might include a commercial that is particularly touching that stands out during a 4-minute commercial break, but I question its long-term value.
Companies such as Whole Foods and Tom’s Shoes create an entire consumer experience around a cause. These stories are authentic and allow people to say “I buy shoes at Tom’s Shoes because…” They want to tell their friends about how each pair they buy has a pair of the same quality being given to the underprivileged. It becomes a story that people wear on their feet and can be proud to share. It’s genuine, simple and incredibly powerful.
How would you advise other companies on effectively integrating cause-related activities?
Forget about your company’s product and think about its story. Think about the story for its ability to inspire your customers to make it part of their own story. We all live with the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell our families and friends. Those stories can be empowering or they can be pretty banal. If you can tie your story to a story that people are proud to tell themselves – and their network – then you’ve done something special.
How important do you think intention is when it comes to cause marketing?
It’s the number one ingredient I believe (Authenticity). There will be products that are designed to ‘address a socially responsible customer base’ that are more financially motivated, but they will fail to address the larger potential of evangelizing a customer base and making them proud of the products they associate themselves with.
What innovations do you see on the horizon for social media and social change? Where role do you think cause marketing will — and should — play in that?
Never before in our history has the power of the individual been so great to affect the many. I think it’s a testament to our own progress as a species that we can start to link the best of our values to the products we consume or produce. Social media gives a small amount of people the power to reach millions. I think it’s time for those prophets of change, the disillusioned, to start to create their own stories. They may not all be entrepreneurs, or captains of industry, but they can be part of the sea of change that is occurring. And it’s easily achieved through what they choose to put on their Facebook page, their online profiles or even what links they share with friends.
… is to find your story. Austin offered many compelling points as it relates to cause marketing, but I think the most important of which was about telling an authentic story, and reaching consumers in ways that they can relate personally in making that story their own. By doing so, you not only connect your customer with your cause in a powerful way, but with the story behind your support for that cause. Then, it’s instantly transformed from a marketing message to a tale of inspiration, possibility and change.
And, thanks to the power of social media, who doesn’t like to share an inspirational story with ten or twenty thousand of their closest friends and family online?