It’s not in character for these advocates to boast, which is appropriate, really, for the cause they are supporting leaves little to boast about. They could of course, if they were the bragging type, brag about the 300,000 Facebook fans they acquired in just 70 days; or the one million unique visitors to their 911day.org and fan page during the first 9 months of 2011; or even that their “I Will” campaign reached the #1 global trending topic on Twitter last Sunday.
But perhaps the most notable thing the 911Day.org organizers started, but won’t tell you, is that they were the first organization to promote the idea of 9/11 as a day of charitable service.
10 Years to “I Will”
This past week marked the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy and in its aftermath, the 911Day.org movement. Founders Jay Winuk and David Paine started the movement when on September 11, 2001, Jay lost his younger brother Glenn J. Winuk, an attorney and volunteer firefighter, who was killed in the line of duty when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
Although both these anniversaries passed year after year- only the 9/11 tragedy garnered the attention is so justly deserved. For Jay, David and their initiative, it was challenging not gaining any traction. Yet they soldiered on – achieving some small but inconsequential victories.
“To me it felt like over the last decade we were a little like The Little Engine that Could. It was never easy. Every year was a struggle to raise the money we needed and for some years we were running a deficit. We were not raising enough money to cover our costs. My wife and I donated a lot of money in the early days to keep this thing afloat. There were quite a number of years when I wondered if this thing was ever going to go anywhere,” explained Paine.
To most of us, there may not have been enough determination to keep the movement alive. Yet most of us are not David or Jay. It’s not that we don’t care about promoting a day of service; it’s that our will to press on diminishes over time. The motivational equivalent of poor management, where efforts are perpetually ignored, triggering enthusiasm to fade.
Fortunately, Paine had a burning passion for the idea, explaining, “We really believed in it. We believed in it before anybody else did. I truly believe that people fundamentally are good and when given the opportunity to express that compassion, they will willingly and generously do so with very little effort. I just felt that if we stuck it out, it would come to pass; it would come to fruition.”
Hope came as President Obama and Congress passed a law that make September 11th a federally recognized National Day of Service and Remembrance. “That helped generate a significant increase in interest, adoption and awareness. That was a big development for us and because of that we were able to raise about $700,000 in 2009,” Paine emphasized.
How 911Day.org became the most recognized 9/11 social movement (think differentiating strategy and social media execution)
Adverse, dramatic events often result in positive outcomes. It also helps to have extremely talented and forward thinking people at your side. One such person is Kirk Souder, Executive Director of the Public Relations firm GOOD/Corps.
Paine gives Souder credit for helping to organize a group of architects that, “came and donated a lot of their time to develop not just the execution elements like what kind of campaign elements do we need, like Public Service Announcements (PSAs), fan pages, marketing tactics but more important, what’s your brand strategy?”
The set of elements that raised the thermostat of awareness for the movement wasn’t the Website, Facebook Fan Page, Twitter account or email messages sent out; but the communication strategy and supporting platform that enabled 911Day.org to achieve its goals.
“At GOOD Corps we’re very, almost maniacal about starting off with an end in mind and real results. There’s a lot of public service work out there that just kind of puts out some nice PSAs and they’re done with it. We really wanted to center everybody on what is our objective? We set out to say let’s really go for hundreds of thousands of tributes. What would we need to do to make that happen?” explained Souder.
The first significant breakthrough occurred when Souder’s team realized that “volunteerism” to most people means days, weeks or even months of time spent on an activity. They concluded that if they positioned the movement that way, they would not achieve the cultural penetration they were seeking.
Souder explains, “From the beginning what we really wanted to do was to literally change the meaning of 9/11 from one of negativity to one of positive construction, positive change, people doing good things for one another. To have a level of cultural penetration, the first thing we did was to say ‘let’s frame up for the American public what we mean by tribute.’ It can be any one of three sizes really. It can be a dedicated day or two volunteering. It can be something in the middle which takes an hour. Or, your tribute can take a single minute. For example having a positive, social discussion with your child, reading a book to your grandmother, or whatever you want it to be.”
The simple but genius idea here is that they made the act of tribute wholly inclusive. They redefined the act of volunteering to include micro acts of tribute. Here, it’s safe to say, no one’s inner voice is going to provide an excuse not to participate since the act of volunteering covers all manner of lifestyle and social status.
But 911Day.org still had an awareness and branding problem. They needed a simple tagline that resonated with the American public in order to make it shareable and viral. So after some heaving brainstorming, Souder’s team presented a few ideas to Paine and 911Day.org and shortly thereafter “I Will” was born. Think “I will do this tribute act on this day,” where the first two words of any tribute start with ‘I will.’
Souder went on to explain, “We believed could turn this into a cultural meaning where everyone was going to use that sentence in their own way. So that’s how ‘I will’ was generated.”
Creating the Social Communication Platform
One of the skills of a public relations firm is to communicate a message in a clever and appealing way. So it was a pleasure for Souder’s team to see how open 911Day.org was to many of their new and innovative approaches. Approaches ranging from creating a digital quilt of “I Will” tributes posted online to forming strategic partnerships with Nascar, the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and critically, the Creative Artists Agency (CAA).
“Even though people on the outside regard us as a kind of nonprofit, we took it on as if we were doing this work for any big brand in America and how could we integrate this across all different technology channels, all different kinds of communications channels? That’s what we did,” said Souder. And all of it culminated in to the number one trending topic on Twitter on 9/11; but more on that later.
Souder’s team used a mix of both offline and online communication channels to promote awareness. Offline they leveraged TV and radio spots, print, outdoor advertising. One of the more creative things that occurred was a Times Square takeover by 300 Broadway stars who sang New York, New York in support of the campaign.
Online they placed digital banners on relevant websites, created social network campaigns, and organized tweet campaigns to funnel prospective volunteers to their website and Facebook fan page.
There is a noteworthy observation that might have some currency with CMOs. The key to the success of the awareness campaign was not the offline/online multichannel communication approach, but how they presented the content to the recipient.
“We created a number of scenarios of different people talking about their tribute. We were careful in how we supplied the audience with a range of content to where they would see people do something as simple as forgiving another person, or having a conversation with a loved one, or even a larger commitment to volunteering at a homeless shelter. We were very strategic in how we lined those things up,” Souder explained.
The New Game: Participatory Brand Relationships for Social Causes
One of the most striking things about Souder’s experience with the “I Will” campaign is the level of audience participation they received. He aimed for awareness and acquired participation. For that he has many people to thank (see below), but the key things he learned are:
- Brands have to identify that there’s something about the core business of the brand that is making a positive social impact in the world.
- They have to enable people an easy and accessible way to participate in that higher cause or purpose
Souder emphasized, “If brands do that, they will be successful. They will move the audience from passive viewers to advocates and champions of the brand.”
For brands the lesson seems to be come full circle back to Peter Drucker’s ever popular maxim, “That such objectives (social responsibility objectives) need to be built into the strategy of a business, rather than merely be statements of good intentions.” It’s essential to note however, that Drucker cautioned that the enterprise must first and foremost resist responsibility for a social problem that would impair the performance of the business.
But does the new age of the Social Enterprise allow brands to promote worthy causes related to their own profit goals while minimizing the expenses? Better, do these new social strategies and tools allow companies to simultaneously profit from selling their products to an engaged audience while helping society profit from a participatory community?
This sense of community empowerment and brand advocacy — where both society and brand benefit — is what makes the experience of the 911Day.org’s movement such a potential game-changer for brands. And in case you are wondering, companies like American Express, GlaxoSmithKline, Best Buy and Chase all recognized the value of participating.
This could get interesting for all the shared social causes that intersect with brand values. For example, American Express lost 10 people in the 9/11 attacks. Their shared cause with 911Day.org dovetailed nicely into a powerful campaign that motivated 600,000 people to volunteer for service. Responsibly, American Express probably did not profit from this campaign, but in other circumstances it will make sense to benefit financially.
Our Social Advocacy Future
It’s now all about social engagement. Brand and community interdependence are on the horizon. The biggest change is the natural consequence of an empowered consumer through free access to social media. Social Darwinsism is the new game, where brands that tune in and adapt to changes in customer need thrive and those that don’t risk extinction.
911Day.org and their partners demonstrated how a brand sponsored social cause can lead to a powerful and mutually beneficial relationship. A case study in which brands become karmically linked to their community’s social causes.
One modern example is IBM’s Smarter Planet, where IBM positions their existing products as having a positive impact on the planet and by extension their bottom line.
David Paine and Kirk Souder each tell me their work on the ‘Day of Service’ is just starting. That the next 10 years is just as important as the last 10. Paine emphasizes that it’s a positive movement but also a tribute to the people that lost their lives. He sums up the future of movement well, “I intend to ensure that this becomes a ubiquitous ritual in the United States and it realizes its potential to transform the borders of the United States and reach people in other parts of the world.”
This will be hard. Some difficult challenges lie ahead, but they will be made much easier thanks to the lessons learned from this experience. Perhaps you can join them.
Special note: These companies and people also said “I Will” to remembering the victims of 9/11 and supporting ‘Day of Service’ cause: