Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Co-operative starts a social media revolution: beyond reporting

As many corporations are trying to get their heads around how they could best use social media especially for corporate communications, it's always useful to keep an eye out for best practice case studies. Take the Co-operative Group's recent campaign called 'Join the revolution', which I believe is a refreshing example of proactive use of social media for sustainability engagement. 
The Co-op is, and I quote from the corporate website, the UK’s largest mutual business, owned not by private shareholders but by almost six million consumers. It is the UK’s fifth biggest food retailer, the leading convenience store operator and a major financial services provider, operating both The Co-operative Bank and The Co-operative Insurance.

Bringing the Co-op story to life through a competition
Recently Co-op had redefined its social and sustainability goals in its groundbreaking Ethical Plan, which specified almost 50 commitments in the two areas. However, as opposed to just having a nicely designed plan up on a microsite or downloadable in a PDF format, the Co-op decided to bring its Ethical Plan to life.

In the past six months I have been running a few social media workshops on effective story sharing using social media and one of the points I have made is that competitions really seem to work well in this space. People love to rally around a cause on-line for a period of time with the objective that something concrete might happen as a result off-line. That's exactly what Co-op also decided to do: generate online buzz with a competition delivering real outcomes off-line.
Using crowd-sourcing
As opposed to just taking the decision on a board level on the causes to dish out the money for and then reporting back to the stakeholders in the next year's sustainability report, the Co-op decided to do something different: it instead posed the question to the general public and allowed them decide which cause would be worthy of the Co-op funding. Of course Co-op had pre-identified a selected number of projects across the UK that it considered matched its social and sustainability goals. Joe Public could then vote on any of the causes. 

Setting the context with consistency
More importantly, it wasn't just a random post on an official Co-op Facebook page inviting people to say what they thought - there was a carefully executed campaign in place that was designed to generate wider interest. Microsites, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos, advertising on the corporate website as well as traditional media were all working in-synch. On the landing page of the 'Join the Revolution' campaign microsite, the below video was setting the context for the competition and illustrating how it all connected back to the historical Co-op story.

A call to action was to 'join the revolution' and hit the phrase in Google where great SEO meant that the search result brought Co-op's campaign on top. A good achievement on its own right if I may say so considering all the worthy revolutions happening around the world as we speak ;)

So was it working? 
A more telling argument than any of the above that Co-op's campaign was actually doing the job in generating positive online buzz was actually the way I happened to stumble across it. It wasn't via a Google search or by visiting the Co-op website, but via my Facebook news-feed that I first learned about the campaign. Of all times it happened to be a Friday evening too when visiting a Co-op website was the last thing on my mind. However, it was difficult not to notice the campaign as a lot of my friends on my social network were actively campaigning for getting votes - and funding - for one of the projects. The JIMAS Community Centre Project in Ipswich, that some of my friends were lobbying for, actually ended up winning £5k.

While I can't tell you the exact figures on the amount of conversation, coverage, positive buzz or number of new Co-op members the campaign managed to generate, I think just the way I heard about the campaign is enough to illustrate that Co-op was doing something right.

What can we learn?
If you are looking for a way to bring your corporate values, vision and purpose to life, here's one case study definitely worth considering. In my view some of the key lessons we can learn are the following:
  1. Consider bringing your values to life by crowd-sourcing and competitions.
  2. Use great storytelling that sets the context for online engagement. 
  3. Have clear calls for action. 
  4. Offer easy ways for participation.
  5. Enable people to easily share it.
  6. Facilitate conversation around issues your audience cares about.
  7. Show that you are listening and are acting based on the feedback.
  8. Have something concrete happening off-line as an outcome.
  9. Move beyond corporate reporting to engagement and conversation.
Another thing to note was how well the Co-op embedded the social media conversations on the Join the Revolution microsite showing an active buzz around the campaign. The message was clear: Co-op was open to the conversation and genuinely interested in listening to its stakeholders. And more importantly, it wasn't about Co-op talking at its membership rather than the company enabling its audience to talk amongst itself on a Co-op branded social media platform.

When it comes to social media, it can arguably be good to just try things out, take one step at a time and just set up that Twitter profile to start with. However, if you truly want to make an impact it all boils down to clarity of purpose and carefully executing an integrated strategy. Whilst the social web may seem random and chaotic, there are definitely strategies and tactics which can be deployed to boost your corporate reputation and encourage positive conversations around your brand.

Next time if your business is looking to donate a sum of money to support worth-while causes, why not do something a bit different? And when it comes to your sustainability communications, I believe it's time to move beyond just thinking about reporting to a more living and dynamic conversation.