When attempting to connect consumers with causes, there is no greater tie than tapping into the local community. While high profile causes are important, often tmes, unless it affects someone directly, it is difficult to forge that compelling personal connection. And there are many types of local causes that need support, where consumers can relate in a meaningful way and be instrumental in making a direct impact that ultimately affects them personally.
Recognizing this need, Shannon Kelly, a brand strategist, “trendscaper” and founder of In Your Head, a strategic consultancy specializing in top-of-mind awareness marketing, decided to create a program to foster her Seattle community, and help local businesses thrive in a challenging economic climate. So she developed City Stimulus, an affinity-based grassroots program designed to reward participants for shopping and supporting their local retail establishments and restaurants. The goal was to incentivize local shoppers to forego the super-mega-big-box in favor of the mom & pops, and help level the playing field to keep dollars in the local market.
You began City Stimulus as a way to help local establishments thrive during tough economic times. How did you come up with this idea, and why is it important to you?
In November with the holiday season approaching and large big-box retailers slashing prices, I knew City Stimulus could be a vehicle for change if small businesses had a local champion. So I stepped up, and three weeks later, we launched. It was a response to the doom and gloom: I was bombarded with earnings releases, bailout speculation and rumored stimulus packages that did not impact our community as a whole.
How did you implement the program? Who did you seek out as partners in this endeavor?
I knew we needed to create a loyalty program that was web based to eliminate printing costs and spread the word quickly — fast, cheap to implement and easy to use. The best solution was a downloadable City Stimulus membership card on the website that, once the user provided their name/email, would produce a printable card.
We targeted businesses in three high-density neighborhoods to provide exclusive offers or special awards that would entice customers to shop/dine/drink locally. I collaborated with Fried Eggers on the design and local businesses like Havana, Goods, Tulip and Butter London in the programs infancy so that I could better understand possible obstacles from a business point of view.
The Stranger, a local weekly that embraces local community events, provided online and print advertising and LazerQuick printed posters for display at the participating locations.
How did you get the word out and promote City Stimulus?
Press releases and a number of participating businesses utilized their mailing lists prior to launch. City Stimulus was also featured in the DailyCandy Seattle weekend guide on December 4th, the first day of the event.
What grass roots tactics and efforts did you employ? Which were the most successful and why?
We had a Facebook group of 200+ members before the website went live. Once the website was up (Thanksgiving Day), I personally sent emails to bloggers so that the message went viral. Word of mouth at participating businesses as well.
How did the community respond to the initiative? What impact were you able to make through your efforts?
We definitely increased awareness with 8000+ visits to citystimulus.com for a one-week period after launch and 6,500+ visits came from the Seattle Metro area. We also received 1,500+ unique membership downloads and City Stimulus was featured in media/press from 20 sources including blogs, newspaper, radio and TV. Overall, CityStimulus.com had 26,000+ page views from 26 countries, 46 states so clearly the message resonated with a larger audience even beyond Seattle.
Participating locations sales or volume were dependent on each store/restaurant’s specific offer. Generally, the more enticing the offer, combined with increased awareness via email campaigns, resulted in more traffic.
What was your biggest challenge in getting this program off the ground?
Communicating a message of local beyond food. Sustainability is not just about the foods you eat or purchasing organic produce; it’s about the social, cultural and economic success of our community. Local businesses support artists and builders, farmers and cooks, designers and bankers. By spending locally, we keep more money within our communities.
Can you share some of your key learnings?
There is a lot of passion for shopping, eating and drinking locally. Once approached, it was remarkable how many people enthusiastically participated and passed the word on to others.
Also, it’s surprising how little sharing and discussion takes place among small businesses facing similar challenges. City Stimulus helped create a business community as well as bringing in customers.
Do you have plans to make this an ongoing initiative?
Yes, we are looking at additional events and an iPhone application in the near future. The promotion and offers might change depending on the economy and community goals. I’d love to explore events in other cities that might rally around the concept as well.
How do you think this initiative could scale in other markets?
It’s pretty flexible so I think that what is important is that each community/city/neighborhood has a stake in the success. Depending on the business industries, consumer profiles and scale, I truly believe City Stimulus could work in any city as long as participating businesses have density.
Where do you see the greatest opportunities for the community to get involved in rallying around an effort like this? How do you think cause marketers could harness that community element in advancing their initiatives?
I’m a firm believer in the customer experience. In order for a community to rally around an effort, it has to be easy and provide value and meaning. Because there are a variety of businesses and promotions, anyone could participate at the level they desired — $1-$1,000. Flexibility in the level of needed commitment gives folks less committed to a given cause to “try it on” and perhaps participate for non-cause related reasons. However, the awareness derived from participating may draw them to the cause in the future.
Do you think a personal connection to a cause is critical to your success?
Absolutely. To this day, I truly believe that people need more information in order to make better choices. Look at the success of farmers markets and you can begin to understand that perceptions are shifting around local goods and personal relationships.
Do you think having a community invested in their local area was the key contributor to your success? How can you nurture that connection to feed future initiatives?
For sure. This was all about maintaining great local choices — passion for keeping the community filled with rich, authentic experiences. I think the message was resonant and future initiatives can build from the momentum. Once people participate, they take ownership — City Stimulus is just the agent for raising awareness.
As a “trendscaper,” what trends have you noticed in cause marketing?
On a macro level, in light of a dismal global economy, we are all re-examining our priorities. A cause, just like product or produce, needs to exemplify quality and longevity. Food, fashion, and lifestyle are returning to basics — less flash, more nurturing, more familiar.
Do you think all of the cause-related marketing campaigns happening right now are a passing fad?
I hope not. The risk is certainly that once people feel safe, fat, and happy again, they will return to bling and excess. Cause-related marketing is resonant, but like any marketing, it needs to evolve and it needs to make sense. If consumers perceive the cause tie-in as gimmicky or unrelated to the product being offered, it will weaken the effectiveness of cause-related campaigns.
What advice would you give to cause marketers who want to communicate an authentic purpose [as City Stimulus did] and make an emotional connection with customers?
Emotional connection and authenticity stems from a quality product and belief in the message. Measure your climate before launching a community-based marketing effort. City Stimulus came on the heels of the presidential election and a lot of bad economic headlines. Community was top of mind and was, therefore, well received.
Shannon’s ability to connect Seattle residents with an issue that directly affects them in a unique and innovative way sparked significant change in the community, and has led to local ambassadors who continue to support the effort, even outside of the program. This successful initiative demonstrates the power of uniting consumers with a common purpose that they can champion, and for which they can directly benefit from their contributions. When crafting a cause-related campaign, don’t overlook your own backyard. Grassroots efforts are very effective, and as they gain momentum in each local market, it spurs sustainable growth on a mainstream level, where individuals become personally invested in change and committed to long-term solutions. The key is to create consumer partnerships around a cause so that it lives on well after the campaign ends. Change is a lifelong endeavor, and when you curate a network focused on making a difference, it gives longevity to the cause, where consumer action is the message, not the marketing.