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Cause marketing and social conscience in online business 

With so much information available and being exchanged online, today's consumers are becoming more cynical towards business given its involvement in many of the world's woes. 

The result of all this new consciousness is many shoppers are now gravitating to businesses that make an effort in addressing social injustices and environmental issues.

What is cause marketing?

Cause marketing involves a partnership between and business and a non-profit group to benefit both parties. The business generates more sales and kudos for assisting the the non-profit and the non-profit usually benefits from an increase in donations - either as a result of the business donating directly, or the increased exposure provided by the business for the cause.

Here's a couple of examples:

- Company A offers a special discount to customers who donate to Non-Profit B. 

- Company A donates X% of their profits from sales to Non-Profit B.

What is a social conscience?

When you mention the word "corporate" to many folks, they often equate it with the words "greed", "destruction" or "evil". It's an association that is somewhat well deserved. Many businesses achieve success through an at-any-cost approach; wreaking havoc on their staff, the wider community and the environment.

Having a social conscience in relation to business is recognizing, acknowledging and acting upon social and environmental issues. For example, a business may decide to start paying for carbon offsets in order to help negate the impact of their electricity consumption; or the company may choose to sponsor a village in Africa to help those people to achieve a goal of self-sufficiency. Another example would be to replace a toxic ingredient in a product with something that's a little more earth friendly.

In a nutshell, it's about giving back to the community and minimizing negative impact in operations. The concept is also known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); where business decisions are not based solely on dollars; but social and environmental consequences of business activities.

The importance of having a social conscience.

It may all sound a little warm and fuzzy; perhaps even to the point of bleeding-heart to some business owners - but aside from the aspect of it just being the right thing to do from an ethical point of view, it makes perfect sense to green your operations or get more involved in a community in order to boost your bottom line.

Here's some statistics from a 2007 survey of over 1000 US adults; carried out by Cone; Inc. - a brand strategy and communications agency.

  • Over 66% of Americans consider a company’s business practices when deciding what to buy.

  • 92% state they have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause they care about.

  • 87% are likely to switch from one brand to another if quality and pricing is the same, but the other brand is associated with a good cause.

  • 30% have recommended a product or company after hearing about a company’s commitment to social issues.

  • 22% have used the Internet or other technologies to engage in grassroots activism.

  • 66% look at what a company is doing in the community when deciding where to invest.

The mega-companies have understood these dynamics for quite a while. Unfortunately, some use cause marketing and social conscience type approaches to cover a multitude of other sins. Here's a (perhaps) hypothetical example: a major hamburger chain that spends millions on sick kids, meanwhile fueling the destruction of the Amazon. 

These strategies aren't just tax deductions; it's very, very clever marketing. They give potential customers a greater reason to shop and buy when they may not have otherwise done so. "Hmmm.. I don't need a burger, I was going to make a sandwich at home, but what the heck, some of the money will go to sick kids." Through buying from a company that supports a cause, the consumer feels involved in doing something good.

One of the very important points from the Cone; Inc. study I feel is that so many consumers making a purchase decision will opt to buy from a company with a strong ties to worthy causes - to the point they'll switch brands.

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Small online business and cause marketing

While the major players have millions to spend on sponsorships, community giving and cause marketing; even the smallest of online businesses can get involved and make a big splash among their current and potential customers. Here's some ideas:

Cause coverage

At its simplest and no-cost level, displaying information about a cause on your site and in your newsletters can improve client perceptions of your business. Non-profits love coverage and will often reciprocate your promotion with a link on their "partners" pages if you draw their attention to it.

Sponsorships in developing countries

Our family sponsors three children in Africa - we didn't do this as a tax deduction or for the purposes of marketing; we just feel strongly about the issue of poverty in Africa. We also publicize the child sponsorship program here, which has resulted in other children being sponsored. 

The feedback we've had has been wonderful and it's a great feeling knowing that the kids we help have a better chance in life - in fact the entire village benefits from our small contribution each month. Your business could sponsor a child or children, perhaps posting regular updates on your site or via email on how they are getting along. 

Many child sponsorship programs have also expanded into other areas, such as offering sponsorship opportunities for agricultural and water related projects. You'd be amazed at how much can be achieved in developing countries with small amounts of money. All very worthy stuff, and excellent kudos for your business when you promote your involvement.

Loan to entrepreneurs in developing countries

This is a fantastic idea - micro-loans to small business owners in developing countries. One of the easiest ways to get involved in this is Kiva (it's something else we participate in) - it costs as little as $25. 

It's not a donation, it's a loan - you'll usually get your money back which can then be used to assist other Kiva entrepreneurs. I've written a little more about Kiva here. As with the child sponsorship, you can promote the businesses you are assisting on your site; provide progress reports etc - a great way to get your customers and staff involved!

Financial membership of groups

There's many non-profit organizations out there doing some amazing work and you can help finance their efforts through taking out a membership. The more elite groups can be quite expensive to join, but the lesser known non-profits tend to have membership fees that are a good deal cheaper - and they could really do with the cash. So, instead of being a member of one group, you can likely assist multiple groups for the same amount of money. Display the fact that you're a member of these causes throughout your site by displaying their logos. Link the logos to a page on your site outlining the function of each group.

Green your operations

With all the coverage global warming has had of late; the environment is a huge issue in many people's minds. It's time that all businesses made a concerted effort to "go green" - after all, without an environment to sustain us, it makes trade rather difficult :). 

Very economical first steps in greening your online business include:

  1. Recycling whatever you can and using recycled products in your manufacturing and administrative processes

  2. Replacing incandescent light globes in offices with CFL's

  3. Offsetting your electricity usage with green tags or other forms of carbon offsets

This is really only just scratching the surface - greening your business is an area with huge possibilities and it really doesn't have to be expensive or complex. For example, if you work from home, then you are already playing a part by not having to travel to and from work. Going green will likely also put you into the realm of networks where related cause marketing opportunities exist.

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Offer discounts to group members

If there's particular sorts of causes you'd like to be identified with, approach the relevant non-profits and offer generous discounts to their members. This works best in conjunction with non-profits that have a large membership.  

Do this for multiple groups and have a unique page for each explaining the offer. Even if the group itself doesn't publicize the special deal; word has a way of getting around a non-profit's membership. 

Offering discounts to members of particular groups can also help spur on people to take up membership with that group - it's something you can mention to the non-profit in your approach.

Donate part of your profits

As mentioned earlier on, sometimes a shopper may not be totally sold on a product, but if they know that part of the profits will go to a good cause, that could be the tipping point required to convert them from browser to buyer.

When you do go to make the donation, don't make it anonymous, let the group know it's the result of your customers' purchases. If you haven't been able to forge stronger ties with the group by that stage, there's a much better chance you will once they see the donations rolling in.

Don't view the donation as a loss - see it as a gain or simply as a critical operating expense. If you strike the right chord in your choice of causes, it can generate more sales to make up for any shortfall.. and then some.

Working with community and non-profit groups

When you start approaching groups you'd like to involve in your cause marketing and social conscience strategies, the best piece of advice I can give you is to be patient. 

Unlike the mainstream business world, these groups - especially the smaller ones; are often primarily staffed mainly by volunteers. It can take a really long time to get something off the ground in terms of a formal partnership - expect lengthy pauses in communications and don't be afraid to tap them on the shoulder from time to time in order to get things moving. 

Some groups will also want to see something happening at your end of things before they'll make a move on their end. It doesn't hurt to run with something like the discount/donation offer I mentioned, then draw the group's attention to it and offer a more in-depth involvement. You making the first move can be a sign of good faith that you're not just after free publicity for your business with no benefit for the group.

If you're approaching the more well-known or "elite" non-profits, you may find you need to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to get a partnership happening. They can be quite corporate in their approaches; and to be quite honest, sometimes downright arrogant. A recent example of this was when I was attempting to seal a deal with a major environmental foundation. They wanted business plans submitted, guaranteed royalty levels, contracts signed and ten tons of other paperwork completed just so they could take the cash we were wanting to give them and for us to be able to say that we were an official donation partner. For this reason, sometimes it's better to focus on less well known non-profits in order to avoid the red tape.

Important note: if you decide to go ahead with promoting discounts to community group members or donations to non-profit groups before having struck a formal deal with them, don't try to give the impression in your promotions you are a formal donation partner. Keep the language loose e.g.

"Buy any of our products and we'll donate 10% of your purchase value to X!"


"Through a special partnership with X, we'll donate 10% of your purchase value to their efforts in saving the yellow-bellied long nosed skink!" 

.. and of course, make good on your commitment to donate when the sales start happening. To be caught out not doing so is business suicide - the publicity you'll get through not following through won't be the kind you want.

Flaunt your social conscience

Having done any/all of the above, don't hide your social conscience or green candle under a bushel. Promote what you are doing on every page of your site and have a special page dedicated to environmental and social commitment initiatives.

Email your clients and let them know about your efforts and encourage them to forward the details on to others. Use tools like tell a friend forms so your customers and visitors can easily let others know directly from your site.

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Pick your causes wisely

If you're targeting a state, national or international market, sponsoring your local little league team isn't going to stir up the necessary emotions of many visitors to your site to a point that it will make a difference in their purchase decision. 

By all means support the little league team, but also try to find a cause with broad appeal. Anything to do with health and the environment are usually best bets - just make it somehow relevant to your company.

Be careful also in the types of causes you support as they may polarize your customers to some degree. Depending on your target customers, anything too far to the right or too far to the left can be a little risky. 

Also be wary of arrangements that could be seen as you profiting from the misery of others through arrangements such as donating to relief efforts of a local natural disaster via the portion of a sale. Currency, scale, nature and location of the disaster can take what is essentially a good cause marketing idea and turn it into a public relations nightmare. If you want to support the victims of a current major local disaster, that's admirable - just do it without any strings attached. This is a really difficult area to provide specific examples; it really depends, so be sensitive and give careful thought as to how your campaign may be perceived.

If you have staff, consult with them about the types of causes you might be able support. Getting staff involved with the decision making process is a great team building exercise and can provide them with a added source of pride in their employment.

Perhaps even ask your current clients for ideas - a simple survey asking them "we want to give back to the community - what sorts of causes do you suggest" - and then list areas of interest.

Make cause marketing a passion 

I think one of the most important things about cause marketing is to select a cause you are *genuinely* passionate about. If you don't particularly care about saving the yellow-bellied long nosed skink from extinction; find something else to get involved with that does interest you. Your passion, or lack thereof, will be reflected in how you promote your involvement.

Cause marketing, social conscience and Corporate Social Responsibility are not new concepts, but as the results of the survey I quoted above show, it's becoming increasingly important to consumers - and what's important to them needs to be important to your business. 

The great thing about getting your business involved in the community is that it doesn't have to be expensive or complex; and there's also the tax deduction benefits for any expenses you do incur in the process.

... and heck, when all is said and done it's just good to do good where you can. It adds a wonderful new aspect to running an online business :)

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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