In 2006, Majora Carter gave a powerful TED talk on her work fighting for environmental justice in the South Bronx. She recounted an exchange she had with former vice president Al Gore earlier in the conference in which she asked him how environmental justice advocates were going to be included in his new marketing strategy. His response was a grant program. She went on to say: “I don’t think he understood that I wasn’t asking for funding. I was making him an offer.”
Continuing after the ovation that followed that comment (in which Al Gore participated), she described how this is another example of a top-down approach that just doesn’t work. People on the ground have knowledge and hard-earned experience that needs to be brought to the table when decisions are made.
This top-down approach that Al Gore exemplified can also be seen as one pattern of organizational social media use. In this approach, social media is seen as just another way to deliver advertising to passive consumer recipients. Because consumers are moving away from traditional media sources such as television and print newspapers and magazines toward online news, media and social networking sites, organizations need to follow them there in order to reach them. And organizations might allow customer feedback (by having comment fields on their web site, for example) because Web 2.0-era customers will be upset if they can’t talk back. But in this top-down strategy, communication is intended to be primarily one-way, from organization to consumer. In this approach, organizations use social media because they view it as a requirement.
However, a second approach, similar to the one Majora Carter argued for, is one in which people are seen as crucial sources of experience and wisdom. They are partners, not passive recipients. Social media is used to maintain a channel between organizations and their clients. After all, customers know better than anyone else what they need and want, what works for them and what doesn’t. If asked nicely, they can, and often want, to give deep insights into how organizations can serve them better. Organizations can then do more and better business while customers get better products and services, a scenario in which everyone wins. Social media provides an opportunity for this type of organization-customer interaction in a way that is lightweight and real-time, and more efficient, targeted and responsive than traditional methods like market research. It also allows customers to invite organizations into their lives in personal and significant ways, thus fostering relationships that can be mutually beneficial. In this approach, social media is viewed as an opportunity.
People do expect to be able to talk back now, and organizations do need to follow their customers to new forms of media in order to reach them. But organizations can choose how they will respond to these changes: they can open new channels of communication with their customers out of necessity, or they can look at it as an opportunity. The latter is almost certainly more productive for all involved.
And in the end, it may be the customers who are making the offer.