As someone who spends a good amount of time on Twitter, I’ve had the great fortune of connecting with some truly amazing people, many of whom continue to educate me on cause marketing — sometimes without even realizing it. One such person is Cyan Banister, founder of Zivity, an online portfolio site for models, artists and musicians to share their body of work with fans, who basically backed into cause marketing at the request of her users, a few of whom wanted to donate the proceeds of their collections to various causes.
A socially minded entrepreneur, though she wouldn’t necessarily call herself a philanthropist, Cyan was already a champion for social change with a few causes that she supported personally. But she hadn’t considered building a cause platform into Zivity until she realized that her customers wanted it, and that the focus of the site in generating exposure for her models, artists and musicians could also serve as a prime vehicle for creating awareness around important causes and social issues that her users support.
Unlike most brands that arbitrarily select a high profile charity on which they hinge transactions, Zivity and its sister site, TopFans, hinge causes to real people (their users), creating a meaningful connection where sales is the byproduct, not the driver. The result is an authentic cause relationship between the company, its users and fans, all of whom become mutually invested in making a difference through various spotlighted charities. And through this organically generated effort, Zivity has achieved the critical balancing act between marketing the brand and the cause simultaneously while the charities take center stage.
I connected with you on Twitter after the TED conference, and was really impressed by your commitment to giving back, and the ways in which you integrate causes into your business. Did you set out to build a revenue model that would be tied to charitable activities?
I wish I could take credit for that, but the idea originally came from one of our published artists on Zivity who asked if she could automatically send all of the money she made on our site to the charity of her choice. It was great feedback and that feature is still in the pipeline, but we need to build out many of our social functions first. Many of our artists run their own promotions for their favorite charities without the actual software functionality being built into the site by using simple tools such as messaging and wall posts as I did with my ACLU fundraising. 100% of my royalty payments on Zivity are sent directly to the ACLU.
Can you tell our readers about the company you founded, Zivity.com and why you decided to create it?
Zivity is a community-based fan collaboration and art monetization platform for models, photographers and videographers. Currently, we are focused on artistic videos and photography that features the art of the female form.
When I started Zivity, I identified that modeling and photography was an underserved market where meaningful online monetization models didn’t exist. As the company progressed, we realized that our business model also extended to other online media and unlocking the power of real artist to fan interactions.
What has been the response to date? What recent successes can you share?
Zivity has been well received from its inception. People are pretty excited about the site and what we’ve done so far.
We’ve been working on a lot of cool things over the past two years and we’ve learned a lot about artist/fan interaction. We’ve applied those learnings to another broad-based site for a mass-consumer market called topfans.com. We like to call it our NBC to our HBO. Our philosophy in our company is that everyone is a fan of someone.
The great thing about TopFans is that artists can motivate fans around their various causes that they support by running contests and getting them involved through direct communication with their most motivated and loyal fans.
What causes have you supported to date, and what are your future plans for integrating cause-related initiatives?
The artists on our site support several causes through their artists payments. In addition, I personally give money to the ACLU, Methuselah Foundation and Reason.org. I’m passionate about individual liberty and the extension or improvement of human life.
I launched a site focused on legalizing state marriages or allowing civil unions with the same rights as state marriages in all 50 states in our union. The site is called http://harvey.milk.com. We’ve sold a few thousand bracelets to date and net proceeds are sent to the ACLU. The Milk project is a social enterprise and not a nonprofit by design.
I don’t set out to start businesses that incorporate causes or philanthropy into the business models, but if you can, and it makes sense for the stakeholders, then it is a great thing to do. On Zivity and TopFans, it makes a lot of sense because it is something our customers want, and can actively support and champion through the service.
How do you select the causes you support?
I tend to stick to what I’m passionate about and that’s the advice I give others. Support what you love and what makes a big impact. I’m incredibly passionate about liberty and value creation, so my giving naturally manifests in those areas.
Do you measure the impact of your efforts on those causes? How do you communicate the results of cause-related campaigns to your customers?
The only site that has a cause built into the product is the http://harvey.milk.com project and we broadcast on a regular basis how many states we’ve reached and how many wrists out there are walking around with our bracelets on them. We’re getting ready to start running contests for inviting people to the cause and we’ll be able to measure and share those results as well.
Do you involve Zivity users in the campaigns to rally collective support for the causes?
Absolutely. We have fan messaging tools where you can message anyone on the site who’s voted for your content. This is a great way to get your fan base to rally behind causes you support, and help generate mass exposure for them.
What do you think is the most critical element for implementing a successful cause marketing initiative?
Understand what your customers would want to contribute to and how it relates to your product. For example, a great cause on Zivity is breast cancer. I’ve seen one fundraising event that spanned several platforms and included Zivity around raising money for cancer-related causes.
Are you able to generate awareness and exposure for these causes the way you can for the models, actors and musicians on your sites?
Yes, every time we’ve promoted a cause it has actually travelled further than the announcement of a new set. People are fundamentally good and want to help those in need, so we see that working every day on Zivity.
What have you been able to raise for your charities to date?
I’ve raised a little over 1k for the ACLU through a few photo sets on Zivity and I’m only one of hundreds of artists on our site, so the collective impact we’re able to make is significant. We’ve raised considerably more on http://harvey.milk.com.
How would you define the concept of conscious capitalism?
Having a mission to make positive change in the world and make money at the same time. Your success is determined by just how profitable you can be at that mission.
Who do you think embodies this concept well?
We have an investment in a startup that is franchising schools in Africa called Bridge International Academies. They allow local residents to access a high quality private education at a low cost.
As a start up and socially motivated entrepreneur, what insights and key learnings can you share with our readers?
Follow your passions and give customers what they want. Be flexible, because you can’t get so rooted in your cause that you lose sight of your business or your customer needs. Keep in mind that profits are what make your business self-sustaining, and ultimately feed the causes you support.
What I like most about the path that Cyan took is that it was organic. She didn’t manufacture a tie to a cause or try to benefit from the halo effects of a high profile charity to advance her business. She listened to her customers and forged authentic connections with causes that she and her users are passionate about, and her business continues to grow as a result.
Far too often, cause marketers think that a big media splash around a charity will earn them “consciousness points” to sustain them long after the promotion ends. But the fact of the matter is, while a cause-related initiative may generate some short-term sales increases, the brand connection usually dissipates with the campaign, Why? Because it was an isolated tactic, and consumers don’t remember tactics. They remember commitments. And companies like Zivity who may not be solving the world’s problems tomorrow, but have a genuine commitment to giving back and using their profits to serve the greater good, are far more memorable than a cause branded teddy bear. Ultimately, you want consumers to believe in you and your brand, not in your ability to orchestrate a multi-faceted campaign with brightly colored tsotchkes.