At today's panel, Putting the Social Back in CSR (CSR = corporate social responsibility) at the Paley Center for Media, Jamie Daves, executive director of Think Social, began the discussion by reminding the audience (and panelists) of social media's potential. Characterizing it as both dangerous and powerful, he drew upon examples where revolutions in communication methods had profound impact on the world at large (e.g., the printing press and the proliferation of the Gutenberg Bible). Panelists included Deb Berman, managing director of JustMeans, Bonin Bough, the global director of digital and social media at PepsiCo, Virginia Miracle (not "the" Virginia Miracle, but very close), senior vice president of digital strategy at Ogilvy, and Chrysi Philalithes, Red Campaign's director of digital strategy and marketing. Today's panel was meant to encourage people to think about the relevance of social media strategies to corporate social responsibility initiatives. A quick poll of the audience at the beginning revealed that while many people would like to make purchases from companies whose values were aligned with their own, too often a lack of information, convenience, and awareness prevented them from doing so. Historically, CSR initiatives were at the whim of the corporation—as a consumer, you had to believe that the corporation was doing what they said they were doing. However, as discussed by the panelists, the intersection of social media and CSR initiativcs increases transparency. People have endless ways to talk about their lives and consequently the impact of these initiatives can no longer be smothered if the result is negative. Social media places power in the hands of the individual. If CSR initiatives fail to meet their goals, the backlash will be manifest in the brand's reputation. As Deb Berman pointed out, you don't need a press release if everyone is talking about you—but this can work both ways.
While much of the remaining conversation focused on measuring ROI and clicks and other such quantitative program measures, PepsiCo's Bough struck a chord by commenting on the need for establishing social relevance with any campaign. After all, the best measurement of success for a CSR initiative would from the individuals impacted by such a push. I met up with Bough momentarily after the talk to get his perspective on qualitative measures for social relevance. Bough emphasized the important of bidirectional dialogue in the social graph—essentially, to determine the progress of an initiative and mark the realization social relevance, Bough noted that you have to track the conversation. This means that no longer can corporations simply push out media and promotions, they have to take stock of the feedback and the conversations happening around their initiatives. I was particularly struck by Bough's assertion that when the conversation changes, you know the direction of your initiative and you know what your next steps should be. This kind of direction mandates that all participants must be active both in producing and consuming information, and ultimately shaping CSR plans.
I want to take a moment to address a question that the audience seemed a bit hesitant to discuss: Daves asked whether we thought that social media had relevance for individuals in third world and developing countries. Only one person made the assertion that we should not underestimate the social media tendencies of our international neighbors, pointing out that information from Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake came from private citizens using Twitter and uploading photos taken from their phones. The truth is that the larger public has very limited understanding of how social media is mobilized in these settings, overlooking that it is an important means of inexpensive but effective communication. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are used by immigrants to retain ties to family and friends still residing in native homelands. Similarly, these media can be sources of information pertaining to the outside world—consider for example, China's lock down of social media in an event to control the input and output of information to and by its citizens about the state. Social media is mobile media, and most social media applications are in fact accessible on cell phones. A year ago, the UN reported that globally 6 in 10 people have a cell phone; that there were 4.1 billion subscriptions worldwide. And this is particularly true for poorer countries where mobile technology has become readily accessible thanks to prepaid plans:
Prepaid phones and SIM cards are a key reason mobile subscriber levels are growing so rapidly in emerging regions. In the traditional postpaid market, the registration of demand called for a commitment to subscribe to a mobile service for one or two years — in other words, it involved a mobile phone purchase (subsidized or not, depending on the market), 12 or 24 monthly service obligations, usage charges, and a service connection fee (sometimes waived), not to mention a credit check. The introduction of prepaid responded to — and further stimulated — the market for occasional or variable demand. It allowed adoption of mobile phones by users with variable usage needs and variable means to pay for access to the mobile network (Kalba 2008).
"Variable means to pay for access" is important: phone sharing and bartering for minutes and access is commonplace. We cannot overlook the reach of social media. I'm interested in your thoughts on social media and the developing world. Talk to me below.