How Can Brands Master the Art of Building Social Movements?

So it’s the 21st century, and lots of brands want the public to know that they’re invested in the most powerful social movements of the day — be they environmental, ethical, or cultural. We also know that audience engagement is often the most important element of a successful social media-powered PR campaign. Social@Ogilvy recently conducted a study and published a white paper on the phenomenon, and we had a chance to talk to the firm’s “Global MD” John Bell about its conclusions.

What inspired you to conduct this study?

Our original motivation came from working with major brands on the idea of creating a movement around a major issue that both coincides with business goals and serves the larger social good. The Pepsi Refresh project, for example, not only benefited the company but also the communities that received funding. The “members project” from American Express was similar.

We’ve been designing big social programs for a while, but when considering the word “movement” we asked: how big is big — especially when the idea is centered around a brand?

What were the study’s parameters?

We examined a number of campaigns in four different categories: political (The Obama re-election campaign), social (the Earth Hour campaign), brand promotion (Pepsi Refresh, AmEx’s “Small Business Saturday“) and big entertainment phenomenon (“Gangnam Style”, Justin Bieber).

In order to measure the success of each campaign, we looked at “social actions” in the aggregate: users linking to pages, sharing content socially, watching videos, etc.

We focused on social because it’s a new key ingredient that makes it possible for people across territories to come together in a way that was never possible before. It also significantly lowers the cost of mounting and promoting such campaigns.

What did the most successful campaigns have in common?

The four most common characteristics of successful campaigns were:

  • A single. laser-like focus on asking people to get involved
  • A sincere, genuine sense of the motivation behind the project
  • Low barriers to entry (no membership fees, requirements, etc.)
  • A commitment to the people and the resources, meaning that whoever managed the campaign made sure to accurately gauge and allocate the time and talent required to make it work.

What were the most influential elements of campaigns in the different categories?

On the political side, paid media was the biggest driver. The size of the Obama for America organization, for example, directly correlates to its influence.

On the opposite side, social movements require truly organic growth rather than big spending. It’s more about convincing people to take action with a compelling DIY-style message.

For brands, it’s also more about paid than earned content. But they’re already more adept at using strategic paid media.

In terms of entertainment, the trends are more unpredictable, but in most cases they’re also based on a strong marketing push. There are two kinds of pop culture breakouts: Bieber (who is very active in social, DIY marketing) and “Gangnam Style” which was a completely unpredictable hit. We included them in the study because, despite the inconsistency, they had very high reach and engagement numbers.

Did the brand projects face more scrutiny from the public?

We didn’t touch on that issue directly, but the fact that there weren’t a ton of examples in the branded category that got huge reflects on two things: the first is public skepticism. It’s hard for brands to pull this off because aligning business needs with legitimate social causes is really hard. Too many brands think they can have a movement that sells a lot of products, and that’s the wrong way to approach it.

The second point: It is hugely difficult if not downright impossible to harness the power of a meme. Marketers are getting craftier at insinuating the organic nature of these campaigns. And it does happen, it’s just not “harnessable”, no matter how hard we try.

Would you like to share any final conclusions?

At the heart of everything is word of mouth and engagement.

The key principle to keep in mind is the application of what we call “behavioral triggers” (like buttons, calls to action, etc.) that truly compel the audience to engage. These are well known but not really understood at the moment, but we can say that brands that are really sharp about embedding those triggers will always do better. When we have a client that aspires to make something grow organically or “astronomically”, we can design a program using behavioral triggers to spark high levels of sharing or word of mouth. Whether the campaign becomes a runaway hit, however, is anyone’s call.

PR pros: have you worked on similar projects? Does your experience sync with the findings of the Ogilvy study?