State of Social Media, Part II

This is the second in a three part series dealing with the current state of social media marketing. Part I dealt with the topic of social media experts and their effect on brands’ activities in the space. Here in Part II we will look at a specific campaign as an example of the effects discussed in Part I and Part III will put forth some alternative solutions to the way most brands currently participate in social media.

Last December, Steve Rahr, a pharmaceutical mogul turned philanthropist, donated half a million dollars to help those in Africa and India affected by AIDS. But the lives of sick children weren’t the only things saved that day. The $500,000 donation also managed to single-handedly save a poorly executed fundraising campaign from falling short of its mark.

The premise of the Digital Death campaign was relatively straight-forward: a handful of the most popular celebrities on the social web were to commit digital suicide on World AIDS Day (December 1st), completely cutting off all communication via Facebook and Twitter. They would not “come back to life” until their fans and followers had donated a total of $1 million. Organised by Keep A Child Alive, Alicia Keys’ charity, the money raised would be used to provide medical support to African and Indian children and their families affected by HIV and AIDS.

Most of those involved thought this would only last a couple of days; after all, who wouldn’t be willing to make a donation to help sick children AND have their favorite celebrities start tweeting away again? As it turns out, Ms. Keys and her celebrity friends grossly underestimated their influence – five days in to the campaign, donations hadn’t even hit $300,000. Then, miraculously, Rahr came in and saved the day, much to the glee of Ryan Seacrest and the many other Digital Death participants.

In the days leading up to the donation, myriad social media pundits and experts took to their blogs, claiming that the reason the campaign was doing so poorly was due to the inherently egotistical nature of the concept or that there was no natural fit between the campaign and the celebrities involved. Maybe so, but the bigger problem with this campaign is that it comprised a bunch of different tactics, all while eschewing any apparent strategy.

The use of celebrities in building awareness around a cause or advertising campaign is a tactic that organizations have been using for years – sometimes these endorsements even lead to the creation of new brands. But the biggest problem with the Digital Death campaign was that there was no context to what these celebrities were doing. Indeed, the campaign was supported by mainstream media coverage, traditional and digital ads, and a micro-site – things all aimed at spreading the word, as it were – but they did nothing to bring things together. Instead what it did was serve to make the message work harder. Keep A Child Alive, the organization behind Digital Death, has a fairly active presence on Twitter but that doesn’t matter – this campaign was meant to be celebrity-driven. Simply sending out a tweet saying that you’re going away for a while until $1 million is raised isn’t exactly going to rally the troops, especially when those on Twitter that follow the celebrities involved don’t know why they should be donating money in the first place. If KCA would have sat down to think about this a little more they would have realized that, strategically, to build up awareness for this campaign, it would have to be done by the celebrities themselves.

And so the issue of influence is raised.  Among other things, a topic that any social media expert loves to talk about is “connecting with influencers” and the ways that brands can use them to their advantage. The rise in popularity by tools such as Klout, also point to a larger trend in the industry towards this. But as we saw with the Digital Death campaign, simply using a celebrity as part of any type of initiative won’t do anything unless it’s both relevant and unique. Twitter users that follow celebrities are familiar with them in very specific ways so rather than cutting off communications, perhaps these celebrities should have remained active, enlightening those that follow them to the strife and hardships these children and their families face even without having to deal with HIV/AIDS – and then driving the point home by shedding light on specific examples (remember, concreteness helps things stick and what’s more concrete than specific anecdotes about a young child dying from AIDS and their families’ subsequent struggles in dealing with it?).

A lot of people look to “influencers” in the social space as all encompassing and a sure thing to success. But the problem with these influencers is that, after a while, it gets old – just look at the slowly increasing resistance to fashion bloggers. The same thing is true with attempting to “go viral”. If a brand or organization is to be successful in social media, then the view must be long-term. Quick forays on Twitter and Facebook just aren’t going to work.

A strategy is absolutely crucial to the success of any social media program – especially in the case of non-profits like Keep a Child Alive where the difference between success and failure means the difference between life and death. Social media has been successful in helping a number of cause marketing initiatives achieve success – Pepsi Refresh is the low-hanging fruit of examples, but there are plenty of others – but they’ve come as the result of long-term commitments, not weeklong campaigns.

In Part I of this series, we discussed how social media experts have watered down what could potentially be an extremely powerful tool for business and today we saw the impact that tactic-centric engagement in the medium can have. In Part III we will be discussing alternative solutions to the way most brands currently use social media,

Until then, what were your thoughts on the campaign? Did you donate? Can you think of any others that fell short? Or that did well in your eyes? Let me know in the comments.


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