Marketers Need to Embrace Peer-to-Peer Activities

The sharing economy

In those partnerships, the marketer determines how it wants the peer-to-peer relationship to function. But how about when the peers themselves tell the marketer what to do? Enter five-year-old Carrotmob, which is similar to a cause marketing agency—only with a twist. It uses social media to help groups of people, or “mobs,” organize how to spend money with a brand, but only if the company puts its money where its mouth is by way of commitment to social responsibility (call it mob rule).

For example, “mobbers” spent a total of some $3,000 at a cheese shop in San Francisco this past February after it agreed to install bike parking and water-saving technology. Members of an online community of self-identified Carrotmobbers dream up a campaign, sign up a company, then organize their peers to participate. The grassroots concept caught the eye of none other than Unilever, which became a Carrotmob partner last September and is working on more programs for this summer.

Unilever was won over after it took a peripheral role in a campaign last year at Fresh & Easy stores in Pasadena, Calif. About 250 Carrotmobbers agreed to shop on a certain day if the stores installed non-ozone-depleting freezers. On the designated date, whenever a mobber bought at least three Unilever products at the stores, Unilever gave a donation to an environmental group. Lou Paik, Unilever’s shopper marketing manager, says the Carrotmob approach “gives us new ways to achieve our sustainability goals.”

While the peer-to-peer concept might seem cutting-edge, it’s really just a new take on old-fashioned bartering, as marketing experts point out. “There’s no fighting human nature,” says Ian Greenleigh, senior manager of content at agency Bazaarvoice. “Peer-to-peer commerce in the digital age is just a better way to do what we’ve always done, or wanted to do.”

The real difference is in how peer power can bolster a brand, even an entire category—just as Airbnb expanded the travel market with its cheaper, more varied accommodations, JWT’s Mack points out. Brands, she says, might “leverage consumers’ rising trust of strangers and proclivity for sharing to improve the marketing and consumer experience of existing offerings.”

Hassett Ace Hardware in the Bay Area has reaped enormous marketing benefits by way of the Repair Cafe, which has generated major media coverage (including a front-page story in the San Jose Mercury News) and social buzz. The cafe “shows that our store walks the talk of being part of the community and shows we are family-run and customer-service oriented,” says Jocelyn Broyles, Hassett Ace Hardware’s brand manager.

The peer-to-peer nature of the Repair Cafe is crucial to its success, according to Broyles. “It would send a whole different message if people came to our store to pay us to repair their things,” she says. “The cafe involves community members helping other community members, working to fix items that often have strong sentimental value. This interaction results in an amazing local connection, which our brand wants to be associated with.”

One cafe organizer, Peter Skinner, CFO of a local software company, calls the social element of the concept powerful. “Owners waiting around for their turns get to know each other—the common thread is their broken items. Fixers help each other on tricky jobs, people linger and chat around the coffee table,” he says.

Some may wonder whether these brand-supported, peer-to-peer partnerships can scale—but not Unilever CEO Paul Polman.

In announcing the Carrotmob partnership last year, the head of the world’s second largest marketer of consumer goods said: “I envision a 21st century form of business where the everyday consumer is helping to shape the social contract.

“It’s a business world,” he stressed, “that is moving from value-based transactions to values-based partnerships.”

Joan Voight is a contributing writer for Adweek. Follow her @shapelygrape. 

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