Booker, savvy enough to get some positive ink for Newark, is not a bad role model for marketers. As Mashable reported yesterday, New Jersey radio show host Ravie Rave (with all of about 250 followers) tweeted that her 65-year-old father needed help shoveling snow, and Booker promptly responded. Booker asked where her dad lived and then tweeted, "Please @BigSixxRaven don't worry bout ur dad. Just talked 2 him & I'll get 2 his Driveway by noon. I've got salt, shovels & great volunteers." The story went on to make headlines on CNN and elsewhere.
Newark's mayor has engaged in bigger publicity stunts than that, but this is one that may well stick around as part of his brand. It's the kind of thing people will remember - he's the mayor who showed up with a shovel when someone's dad was snowed in. Even before this made headlines, he already had over a million followers to witness his conversation with Rave.
What Booker instinctively grasps is that in social media, people need to know what's in it for them. That may seem obvious, but it's not true of all forms of media. When you see an ad on television, do you really care if the marketer's doing anything for you, or do you just happen to pay closer attention if the ad's really funny or relevant? When you see an ad in a magazine for tomato sauce or over-the-counter medication, do you care if there's something in it for you, or do you just turn the page? Social media has a higher threshold to cross; to break through, that value proposition has to be abundantly clear.
When a marketer hits a homerun like Booker did, it can become part of the brand's mythology. A number of brands have had these 'Booker moments" with social media:
· Comcast, once symbolized by the technician who fell asleep on a customer's couch, became known among Twitter users and others as a company redefining how customer service works through social media.
· When Coca-Cola got started on Facebook, it built on the work done by super-fans Dusty and Michael who organically created a presence for the brand, setting the ultimate example of a brand working with consumers rather than fighting them for control.
· Jeep was one of the first marketers to harness Flickr, and it still does, making fan photos a centerpiece of its community.
These aren't all exact moments, but they're key milestones in how brands have changed the way they relate to consumers. For large brands, from Coke to Cory Booker, this becomes part of the brand lore. For smaller brands, like FreshBooks or New York's Roger Smith Hotel, social media helps define the brand entirely. In each scenario, these brands are thinking about game-changing ways to make an impact by providing value for their target audiences.
Brands can fall into a trap doing this if they're not careful. If the value proposition lives and dies by giving away free stuff through social media to boost reach or add bodies to mailing lists, then the brand just triggers a Pavlovian response where consumers are trained to expect handouts. But when the value is part of something, part of a brand identity and mission, then it starts to matter. When Dell started blogging after a period where consumers felt neglected and its brand was hurting, many wondered if it was really coming around. But when Dell started IdeaStorm to solicit customer feedback and act on it, this became a signal of Dell's revival, and part of its identity.
Marketers should look for Booker moments as opportunities. At times it might feel like a ploy, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It reminds me of a passage I recently came across, oddly enough, in Robert Wright's The Evolution of God , where he discusses how tolerance of others developed in Western religion: "What starts as a tactical ploy... can for various reasons evolve into a truer, more philosophical appreciation of tolerance... Having a pragmatic, selfish reason to coexist with people can be (even if it isn't) the first step toward thinking about them in a nonselfish way." For our purposes, selfishly trying to meaningfully connect with and provide value for consumers can make such relationship-building a cornerstone of how brands operate.
That's why I'm not too concerned over how calculating or sincere Booker was when he shoveled that driveway. If the public appreciates what he did, he will seek to build on it -- and either way, he can still inspire others.