How to engage consumers: 5 lessons from social movements

From the civil rights movement of the 1960s to marriage equality in the 21st century, successful social movements inspire people to take action, and ultimately drive long-term cultural and institutional change. The organizations leading these movements typically must find creative ways to drive mass participation and ambassadorship without big budgets.

Corporations can take insights from social movements to create authentic sustainability initiatives that inspire consumer participation and propagation. Below are five key principles of movement-building and modern examples of companies and organizations putting them into practices to drive engagement.

1. Movements show the better future waiting for you if you act

People need a sense of hope and belonging. Show the better future that they can help create. Tell an enticing, aspirational story that people want to join.

Chipotle’s popular Scarecrow video contrasts the dystopian future if our current food practices continue against a better future that we can create if we take action. It has garnered over 12.5 million views through social channels and helped build Chipotle a cult following, making the brand an unlikely leader in engaging mainstream consumers in the sustainable food movement narrative. Although the brand has been criticized for being less than completely transparent, bonus points to Chipotle for taking on the restaurant industry’s elephant in the room — its food.Google Olympics

2. Movements grow over time

To engage consumers authentically, your sustainability platform should be core to your brand, leverage key moments for recruitment, and build commitment and peer to peer sharing of content and information over time. Short-term marketing campaigns won’t deliver long-term impact or believability.

LeanIn, a global community working to empower women as leaders, took advantage of Sheryl Sandberg’s massive, eponymous book launch to build its movement over time by inviting people to engage with social content and participate in LeanIn Circles, small peer groups that meet in person using Mightybell as an online community tool that allows anyone to build her own customized social community online to build and foster smaller sub-communities that drive deep participation and develop new movement ambassadors. Using this small group approach, LeanIn has facilitated the creation of 14,000 circles in 72 countries in the last year.

3. Movements succeed through relevance

While brand plans are often set 18 months in advance, you can use tools such as CrowdTangle, a social discovery platform, to stay on top of current trends and news with your issue to deliver relevant content in social media. CrowdTangle gives you a daily feed of what topics within your issue are trending, going viral, etc.

In February, Google quickly responded to the heated emotions around LGBT exclusion in the Sochi Olympics by changing the Google Doodle on its homepage to a rainbow logo in solidarity with the LGBT community. The search giant quickly earned billions of positive, user-generated impressions across social media due to its quick response to a trending issue.

4. Movements invite citizens to participate

People grow movements. Broadcast campaigns drive awareness, but they don’t appropriately take advantage of modern social tools to authentically build community (read: customer lifetime value), extending your reach and impact. Remember to ask your audience to join and take action. Thank them and follow up with another ask. Make the barrier to entry low and add harder actions such as organizing events, volunteering or purchasing over time. Keep it simple; don’t give too many options at any given time.

Global Citizen does this well by leveraging massive concerts where it introduces the movement to end global poverty, then invites attendees to join the movement through its digital channels. Once online, consumers have a clear path of participation — such as Facebook "likes" and shares, pledges, donations and purchases, all of which incentivize action with opportunities to attend future events.

5. Movements grow through dispersed leadership and voices

Credit: wavebreakmedia via ShutterstockPeople trust friends and leaders in the issue area. Once you focus on an issue core to your brand, make sure that the issue really matters to your audience. Then give your consumers escalating opportunities to participate, making them comfortable joining and contributing to the community. This will help you to identify self-appointed ambassadors and authentic partners who can be voices of your effort. Give your consumers tools to take up the cause on your behalf. Relinquish enough control of the message to trust your consumers to be partners in the effort.

A group of sharing economy companies led by Airbnb came together to launch PEERS, a community leading the movement toward a people-powered economy. PEERS leaders and members act as an authentic voice for the sharing economy movement. PEERS invites the millions of people who play some role in the sharing economy to view content, join the movement, sign petitions, attend events, create their own events and bring friends into the sharing economy. PEERS brings out the voices of many and helps its ambassadors speak on behalf of the movement in their own communities.

Image of volunteers by mangostock via Shutterstock.