There's a unique place in social media where communities rise up and leaders drive discussions about issues that go far beyond the communities themselves. At some point discussion turns to mobilization and action. In the offline world it's traditionally called "grassroots advocacy" or "issues management," and the tone of this work tends to be political.
The job of the grassroots advocacy / issues management professional is to build diverse coalitions of support around a single cause or suite of interests to influence the decisions of someone in power. As this profession moves aggressively into social media, we can look to leaders in the marketing profession for case studies and we can learn from their successes as much as their mistakes. The principle that resonates best to me is the idea of participation as marketing - not a new idea by any stretch, but it reminds me of the days of working on local political campaigns, shadowing the candidate at three-bean suppers, knocking on doors, completely immersing myself in a community and becoming part of it to build credibility and earn votes within it.
On the campaign trail, however, you wanted the endorsement of the local ironworkers' union, the local chapter of the sierra club, and the local chamber of commerce. Sometimes the priorities of these communities would conflict, but you need them all to win. To get them to stand together on a stage with you meant you needed to find the issues they all had in common and position yourself as the strongest possible advocate for them.
With only a handful of exceptions, this cross-community coalition-building is essentially missing from social media. This is missing from the online marketing campaigns of most companies. And it's missing from all of the political campaigns.
The political campaigns first. Right now, they appear to be almost completely ignorant of blogs that don't write exclusively about politics. Check out Mica Sifry's piece on TechPresident asking the campaigns about which bloggers endorse them. The discussions on these blogs pretty much focus on three things - something outrageous that someone on the other side said or did, the war in Iraq, or the latest polling numbers. Many of them also spend some time asking their readers to donate to campaigns.
There's nothing wrong with reaching out to people whose primary interest is politics. The offline analogy is getting the endorsement of your local ward committee. But if the candidates stop there, they won't win. Some online communities beyond "all politics all the time" have asked for access to the campaigns, and with only one or two exceptions, they've been rebuffed. This is a huge mistake, and it will come back to haunt them.
The truth is "political blogs" are actually a very small percentage of blogs as a whole. But thanks to the Pew Internet Project, we know that people who write and read all blogs - not just political ones - tend to be more educated, more informed and more likely to be leaders in their offline communities. They care about the issues that affect their daily lives and the lives of others across the world.
Everyday people are using communications technology to achieve social change, and it has nothing to do with the fact that Fred Thompson or Barack Obama are on Twitter. Net video in Myanmar is just the latest example. Activists used cell phone text messaging to stop construction of a chemical plant in Xiamen, when the government shut down other forms of communication. Technophiles who once cared about policy only as far as it extended to their work are now branching into larger issues. Environmentalists are using Google Maps technology to track the largest polluters in a given area and their proximity to places like schools or parks. And yes, the moms are fighting back at those who would interfere with breastfeeding.
One thing is still missing in all these examples, however - the advocacy all takes place within a single defined community, and uses a technology tool to spread the word within that community, and then relies on more traditional forms of media to deliver a message more broadly.
So what does all this bloviating mean? First, it means companies should look at online customers as something more than customers. People who operate online care about issues. Right now they don't typically see companies as advocates - if anything, many online actors see companies as the source of a specific problem. It doesn't have to be this way.
Second, it's long past time that people realize the incredible power that can be harnessed if more than one online community participates in a discussion. Of course, the reason online communities develop in the first place is that they're distinct from everyone else. Moms. Greens. Gamers. Political folks. Foodies. Sports fans. Investors.
What can link them all together? Issues. Moms want clean drinking water and a safe place for kids to play - so do environmentalists, and actually so do sports fans. Moms care about education, so do political folks and investors. Gamers care about education too - smart people write videogames. Furthermore, issues don't have to have a political party or a candidate's name attached to them.
How can communications professionals build these alliances? You have to identify the issue and the communities, and position yourself as an advocate on an issue, not merely a participant in a discussion.
Advocacy and networking with advocates is distinctly different than participation marketing. No disrespect intended to marketers, not by a longshot - but advocacy requires, in my opinion, a higher level of sincerity and credibility. You're not asking someone to try a product for which there are competitive alternatives. You're asking people to embrace an issue - and some may see very little, if any, room for compromise - or you're embracing it yourself. Transparency is non-negotiable. If you hide your motivation, you can never do this again. You're taking a risk, because taking a strong stand may not be appreciated by all. You have to get smart on an issue, which tends to take more time than getting smart on the product you're marketing. And then, to do this better than anyone, you have to map out a path of intersecting communities and interests and identify opinion leaders that fit comfortably in all worlds.
And you have to be able to sleep at night. You can't embrace an issue and promote it online if it doesn't resonate with you. You can't be credible with others if you're not sincere yourself.
It helps to have a background in politics, but it's not necessary. Of course, the campaigns are better positioned than most companies to reach out to other online communities. They may start in earnest after the primary. They should start now.