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Japan Illustrates Power and Limitations of Social Media Campaigns

Presidio Marketing | Wednesday April 13th, 2011 | 1 Comment

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Erik Hansen

The response from businesses in the tech sector following the devastating earthquake in Japan has been an illustration of both the power – and limitations – of using social media for social cause campaigns. By now you may have seen Google’s Japanese-language version of their amazing Person Finder application, a powerful tool used in crisis situations to enable people to help victims and families locate one another. And this is only one tool in Google’s overall Crisis Response toolkit. Other tech giants, such as leading cloud enterprise CRM provider Salesforce.com, have launched similar philanthropic efforts. For almost a month following the disaster, Salesforce.com provided a prominent donation link directly on its customer login page for its application, enabling donations that are matched dollar by dollar by Salesforce.com Foundation. Even at the South by Southwest Media Conference (SXSW), the day after the earthquake a group of media bloggers and a social cause web startup created a website and giving program called SXSW 4 Japan that has now raised over $100,000 in donations to the American Red Cross for Japanese disaster relief efforts.

Microsoft took a different approach using Twitter, but in the process committed what became an interesting public relations gaffe.  Microsoft’s idea seemed innocuous: offer via its Bing search engine Twitter account to donate up to $100,000 for Japanese earthquake relief. However, there was a catch: people would have to retweet the initial message and Microsoft would donate one dollar for each retweet. The backlash on the Twitterverse spread quickly with critics accusing Microsoft of using tragedy as a marketing opportunity. Microsoft withdrew the offer and simply donated the $100,000 directly.

Malcolm Gladwell, social science author and thought leader, has been very critical of the perceived importance of using social media for activism and cause campaigns. Gladwell insists social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook foster weak ties, whereas true social activism is borne from strong ties and motivation, not participation. He points out that social media increases participation while simultaneously decreasing the level of motivation that participation requires. As Gladwell puts it, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

Yet we do see examples of social media cause campaigns that are successful. Look at an organization such as TwitChange, which has raised over $500,000 to build a school in Haiti following the devastating earthquake last year. How did TwitChange do this? By auctioning off the chance for people to be followed, mentioned, or retweeted by their favorite celebrities. TwitChange creates a branded theme with a clear goal for each campaign, a template that every organization utilizing social media for cause campaigns should follow.

Social media tools should be viewed for what they are: powerful new communication tools for rapidly spreading knowledge. Using strategic, thoughtful, and original messaging, they enable social activists, non-profits, and businesses to quickly and effectively engage stakeholders – which is the first step to affecting change.


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  • Jared Brown

    Well done Erik.

    Good to see large tech firms utilize their deep pockets and resources to fill social needs. How companies go about pursuing these “philanthropic efforts” can be a bit of a tight rope walk. Corporate marketers will most definitely want to use these opportunities to boost brand image, which is not necessarily a bad thing so long as the company actually is creating positive social utility.

    I disagree that Facebook as a whole decreases motivation. I think it enables people who would otherwise do nothing to at least spread knowledge (hopefully not disinformation). Fundraising efforts are also an effective tool through Facebook, and speaking from first hand experience where I have donated to causes I otherwise probably wouldn’t have.

    The easier you make it for people, the more likely they’ll do it.