Will the Revolution Be Tweeted?

11/01/2011 02:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 01, 2012

That's according to former White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs. A few days ago he spoke at the Council of Public Relations Firms' Critical Issues Forum on the "Social Revolution." Speaking in front fellow communications professionals, Gibbs discussed how social media has changed human behavior because people are "living their lives through technology," and consequently new thinking is needed on behalf of organizations and brands alike, to listen and respond to their audiences. There isn't inherent news in what he talked about other than to underscore what marketers have estimated for some time: a) Customers are now in control; and b) Customers are in search of value, both on- and off-line.

Brands that are entrenched in bureaucracy and other characteristics of archaic, top-down communication will often find themselves asking why customers aren't advocating on behalf of their brand. The conversation usually goes like this, "I've set up a Facebook page/Twitter account, and keep posting but no one is sharing or liking me enough to justify the cost." I'd venture to say that those brands failed to audit their audiences and find out what their needs were, and their accompanying habits for fulfilling them.

According to a study from ExactTarget, while only 26% of Facebook users "Like" a brand to get offers, 43% of Facebook users "Unlike" brands because their posts are too promotional. Online engagement with consumers cannot just be about marketing messages, and deals. You have to first understand how the audience engages online, and what they like to read about, and then find relevant and brand-appropriate ways to engage those audiences through a content strategy that provides value to their everyday lives. Gibbs noted that you cannot expect people to advocate without investing in them and giving them value on your (brand's) end. That's because online communities need to feel like they're invested in the outcome (e.g. product, movement).

Examples of companies that are successfully engaging with audiences online run the gamut of industries, from retail to electronics, and food. What they're doing correctly is listening and offering their audiences the opportunity to truly connect and feel part of something greater, whether it's the brand or a particular movement. For example, this past year I had the ability to work on American Express OPEN's launch of Small Business Saturday (SBS), which is sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. SBS is dedicated to helping small businesses by encouraging consumers to "shop small" and in turn, support small businesses in the U.S. OPEN capitalized on the slow economic recovery for small businesses, their customer base (offering $25 credit on their statement when they registered their card and shopped on SBS), and the call to action for the creation of a "movement" (shop small). These three components would not have been possible without OPEN listening to what was being talked about, creating value beyond a "deal" for their customers by making them part of a movement, and taking advantage of Facebook as a social media platform that was ripe for this campaign.

The 1st SBS campaign resulted in 1.2 million people "Liking" SBS on Facebook. "American Express also pledged a significant donation to Girls, Inc. tied to the number of 'Likes' on Facebook, and based on the popularity of the Facebook page, Girls Inc., received $1 million for programs to empower young women to become entrepreneurs." Close to 30,000 tweets were sent using the hashtags #smallbusinesssaturday and #smallbizsaturday and 41 elected officials declared November 27, 2010 "Small Business Saturday."

Whether an organization or brand has access to deep pockets isn't what's stopping some from being successful online. Any smart consumer knows that adage, "What's in it for me?" With the proliferation of social media, there's no good excuse for a brand not to know the answer when it comes to their audience, and if they don't, there's no amount of online impressions that's going to help them get their one-sided message across.