Jan 12

What We Can Learn from the Latest Social Media Meme (Aside from the Color of Your Underwear)


If you’re like me, you found yourself with a lot more insight into the color of your friends’ underwear last Friday than you might have expected earlier in the week.  Our friends were being encouraged to post the color of their bras on their Facebook status, we later learned, to promote breast cancer awareness.  In fact you don’t even have to be a regular Facebook user to have heard or read about this – perhaps you saw it on Good Morning America or, like me, woke up on Saturday and saw a bra taking up 3/4 of the Washington Post’s Style section. Susan G. Komen for the Cure found itself the unwitting recipient of the lion’s share of resulting publicity and support illustrated by their dramatic increase in Facebook fans by over 1000-fold (yes, you read that right).  Immediately, many of us are asking – what can we learn from this to guide our own social media efforts?

There is no doubt a lot of debate going on regarding the ‘who?,’ ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ of this phenomenon whether in the mainstream media, in social media blogs, or simply in heated email discussions over the weekend like the one I had with colleagues.  People and organizations eager to mirror this provocative and mysterious meme are asking questions like: what makes this so interesting, would this has been as effective with a true ‘ask’ included, does the message get diluted when others misunderstand or piggyback (illustrated by a male Facebook friend in this status update: “plaid”), has it resulted in an increase in true awareness or support and is it offensive to the very people it aspires to help?

But this speculation made me wonder – what is the true value of this debate to non-profits looking to make an impact in social media?  Perhaps you are already hearing a chorus of “how can we do something like THAT?” in your organization.  But we have to remember that this doesn’t appear to have been started by an organization – Susan G. Komen for the Cure and American Cancer Society insist that they had nothing to do with it – and for every awareness-raising meme that catches fire, there are millions of good-intentioned wannabes gathering dust.  I believe that the lesson that cannot be lost in this story is that a well-rounded social media plan not only aspires to engineer and ignite a movement, but also provides an actionable road map on how to react when you or your cause receives attention – good, bad or ambiguous.  Does your social media strategy include a plan for how to take advantage of these opportunities?  Have you done the following?

  • Talk with everyone on your team and develop a common understanding of how to identify opportunities in news, discussions and trends
  • Determine a loose criteria for how to quickly classify a discussion as positive, negative or mixed for your purposes and determine whether it warrants your involvement
  • Have a plan for how you will integrate your messaging and a specific ask of your supporters in various scenarios
  • Outline how and when to use the tools at your disposal – e.g. your Web site or blog vs. Facebook vs. Twitter, etc. – to take advantage of opportunities and most effectively activate supporters
  • Develop and implement a plan on how to continue to engage your supporters and cultivate the discussion as the issue plays out
  • Continually refine and update your approach to integrate lessons-learned both internally and from others

A significant portion of the ongoing debate on this bra-color meme centers around the value of the awareness – is it inspiring action or fooling people into thinking they’re doing something when they’re at best doing nothing and at worst actively trivializing a horrible disease?  But whichever side you find yourself on, I believe we all should recognize the potential here.  The true opportunity lies not in waiting and debating but taking advantage of this opportunity and using it to educate and activate.

As we post this, the boomtown that is the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Facebook page continues to be flooded with more new fans and a string of posts like “Black,” “Blue,” and “Pink, of course!” and Komen has begun to reach out to these new supporters by both pointing to media coverage and asking them to become a part of the breast cancer movement. A similar message has also been posted to Komen’s Twitter feed.  What would your reaction be on social media if you found yourself the recipient of even a fraction of this avalanche of publicity and interest?


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