October 15, 2009

How To Rally Your Community, Leveraging Social Media

Social media is a tool. Last month I said social media is infrastructure, and I have compared Twitter to the new e-mail or a parallel Internet. Because of this, enterprising folks are finding ways to leverage these new tools for practically every facet of business, not just for social media marketing, or daily minutiae, but for rallying the community to support charity. I've talked a lot about the #BlameDrewsCancer phenomenon, featuring my good friend Drew Olanoff, but as we learned today at the Blog World Expo this morning, he is not alone in his efforts to leverage social media communities to take on cancer and other causes. The panelists all agreed it takes effort, persistence and consistency, making an abstract illness personal, real and tangible.

Drew has been relatively lucky in his challenge with cancer. His battle with stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma is very possibly nearing its conclusion, with 10 chemo treatments out of 12 behind him, and positive feedback from his doctors. But not everybody has a happy ending. Jay Scott, father of Alex from "Alex's Lemonade Stand", told us about how his daughter passed away at the tender age of 8 1/2 after fighting with cancer her whole life, and devoting her efforts to raise money the only way she knew how - selling lemonade on the family's front lawn. Jay and his team have rallied to continue her cause and make it into a movement that has inspired hundreds of thousands.

The tools that Jay, Drew and others have used to punch cancer in the mouth are the same tools we all use. Drew said, "It's not rocket science, it's word of mouth. If you have a passion, be passionate about it and use the tools in front of you." But he added it takes a ton of effort. He said, "It's not Field of Dreams here. You have to go after people and be aggressive. Whatever got your attention, I don't care what it is, I got your attention. All these tools are is platforms for people."

Meaghan Edelstein, who battled cervical cancer and won, said the main push from social networks is in the name itself: social. She said, "You have to get people excited. People are on social networks because they want to do something, so give them something to do."

But as you can imagine, fighting a faceless killer and rallying people to a cause is not as simple as setting up a Twitter account and Facebook page and watching the activity roll in. It takes serious work that is genuine and personal.

Meaghan said to "be authentic" and be a real person with real messages, and recognize that the smallest blog or least-followed Twitter account is just as important to embrace as the household names. "You are not too good for anybody else, and you have to remember that," she said. "You have to thank them and participate. That's what makes things authentic and social. If you don't have these things, you have to get out of the arena."

But all the effort in the world won't make a difference if the story doesn't sell.

Jay said "you have to have a good message, and if it is powerful, people will tell their friends about it," adding, "I can't believe how powerful retweets are. It helps if people have a million followers, but it also helps from those people who have ten followers."

When cancer took on Alex Scott, and took her away from the world much too soon, it may have been a short-term win for cancer at huge expense to her family and us all, but it turned out to be a massive mistake on cancer's part, because the cause has lived on and Alex has become a symbol for rallying for a good cause. Each of the day's panelists made it clear that their battle with cancer had gotten personal and their community has come to their aid.

Find out more about the causes: