Social Enterprises, Meet the New Digital Media Imperative

To grow your business and change the world in the process, you must get your audience's attention in this digital era. Learn how with effective content.
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As a social impact leader, you’ve dedicated yourself to building a business with a mission that goes far beyond your bottom line. But what are you doing to ensure that you give your cause the same front-and-center treatment as your product offerings?

Remember: You adopted this business model because you’re passionate about creating a more just and equitable world — with commerce as your vehicle. Now ask yourself, do your customers know what you stand for and why it matters? What about the other businesses in your sector?

Unlike the average nonprofit, you have the unique opportunity to convert customers into like-minded supporters and drive systems-level change from within your industry. The truth is, anything less is missing the point. To do it, however, you must make your social impact mission the authentic centerpiece of your brand story and communications. And you must commit to leading the national (or even global) conversation about your cause.

But how?

In today’s attention economy, social impact leaders like you find yourselves in the world’s biggest and most crowded room — and everyone is shouting. If you want to grow your business and change the world in the process, you must win the limited mindshare of an ever-widening audience.

What is the Digital Media Model?

Social impact leaders are now at an inflection point. The digital-first future that everyone’s been talking about for years is suddenly here. Not only that, but it’s arrived full-force. As a business professional, you know this. More and more of your marketing and communications take place online, from email and organic search to paid media and e-commerce. Which means having a robust digital strategy is now table stakes.

But we propose taking this idea one step further. We propose leveraging your digital strategy as a force for good — one that propels once-in-a-generation transformation. In our nine-point manifesto, we make the case for why all social impact organizations, including nonprofits, social enterprises, and funders, should embrace a forward-thinking digital media model.

For nonprofits, the digital media model represents a new opportunity to embrace branding and communications, spread their message, and break free of the starvation cycle. Unlike most nonprofits, social enterprises tend to be well-versed in the art of brand and communications. After all, these skills are a prerequisite for growing a healthy business. But whether you run a B2C or B2B business, the digital media imperative applies to you, too. It’s the only way to fold your mission more fully into your brand and spark deeper, more meaningful change.

This model takes seriously your role as an innovative thought leader with important ideas about how to reform your industry and build a better world. It demands that you share those ideas in the form of scroll-stopping, advocacy-focused digital content that captivates, educates, and converts your audience to your business and your cause. Done right, you’ll authenticate your brand purpose, expand your business, and realize your true impact potential.

The Digital Media Model in Action: What It Looks Like

Patagonia is a well-known example of a social enterprise that is already winning the digital media model. For decades, Patagonia has carved a name for itself as a premiere outdoor apparel brand with a mission to practice corporate, social, and environmental responsibility.

But they go far beyond quietly adopting best practices. They’ve put climate advocacy at the center of their activities. From implementing a self-imposed “Earth Tax” and funding nonprofits to stitching “vote the assholes out” on a limited run of apparel tags in advance of the 2020 presidential election, Patagonia walks the walk.

Most importantly, Patagonia has connected their dyed-in-the-wool mission to their digital strategy in a powerful way. The Activism section of their website is a robust digital action center. It includes a wide range of captivating digital content — like this immersive multimedia piece about Bears Ears — as well as prominent calls to action. Activism is so tightly woven into the entire Patagonia experience that you can’t help but get swept up in it, even if your only intention was to buy a pair of thermal long johns.

So what might a digital media model look like for you? Consider the following options:

  • If your company has an e-commerce component, design your checkout experience so that it includes educational, mission-oriented touchpoints that encourage your customers to further support your cause. This is something Allbirds (a sustainable footwear company) does well.
  • Produce short videos that tell your impact story, explain your innovations, and advocate for your cause. Then, distribute them on your website, social channels, and on YouTube.
  • Source photos and videos from partners and/or customers using your products or talking about your services — crowdsourcing is a viable way of producing content and enticing engagement.
  • Engage in the larger conversation about the change you wish to see in the world by producing thought leadership content. Write articles for your website or industry publications, make guest appearances on podcasts, speak at conferences, or give a TedTalk.
  • Produce scroll-stopping digital experiences (a la Patagonia’s Bears Ears project) that raise awareness about your cause.

As you consider your options for your digital strategy, remember this: While your mission must be woven into all aspects of your brand, your products and services don’t have to be included in your advocacy content. Let yourself commit fully to your cause. Have faith that developing best-in-class, non-marketing content related to your case will ultimately generate revenue.

A Digital Media Model Roadmap for Social Enterprises

Cosmic’s digital media manifesto serves as a roadmap for social impact leaders to use in adopting this new model. Following is a brief summary of each of the nine points included in the manifesto — as well as a note about how it applies to social enterprises like yours.

Depending on the current state of your digital strategy, the following proclamations might seem daunting. Don’t fret. The speed at which you adopt this model will vary. The important thing is to get started. Here’s how.

  1. We will win in the attention economy. Your job is to make your social enterprise stand out in a crowded marketplace. You already know that, of course. But if you’re laboring under the impression that your only task is to compete with other companies in your sector, it’s time to broaden your vision. Like every other entity, you’re fighting for attention in a much more expansive and chaotic playing field: The entire Internet. Your commitment to your cause is one of your key differentiators. Use it to raise awareness, drive change, and grow your business, too.
  2. We will thrive in our niche of the ecosystem. By virtue of committing to a cause, your social enterprise has a place in the social impact ecosystem — the vast constellation of nonprofits, funders, activists, and social enterprises that are working to build a more just and equitable world. Nonprofits and funders are well aware of exactly where they fit into the social impact ecosystem based on which cause they support and how they do it. But for social enterprises, this concept may be novel. By understanding where you sit in the broader picture of, say, climate activism, you can start to identify opportunities to partner with other, synergistic players to scale your impact.
  3. We will build and nurture our brand. You’ve already built your brand. Now it’s time to ask: Is your mission built into your brand’s DNA? Or is it a sidebar? If your social impact aspirations are anything but front and center, your brand needs revamping.
  4. We will adopt a digital-first culture. Most B2C businesses — especially e-commerce models — already understand how to be digital-first. B2B companies, on the other hand, often keep a lower profile. Either way, it’s time to step up your digital presence. In particular, look around and figure out where the conversation related to your cause is taking place online. Then, you must commit to showing up in those places and engaging in the conversation.
  5. We will publish scroll-stopping content. In short, content that grabs your audience’s limited attention, engages them emotionally, and converts them into committed supporters. This content should go beyond simply highlighting your social impact credentials and elevate your cause in your audience’s consciousness.
  6. We will mobilize a coalition of passionate, active supporters. You have an incredible opportunity to convert your customers into committed supporters of your cause. Your products or services may very well be your audience’s entry point. But when it comes to creating change, they are really just means to an end. Activism and impact are your true goals. Once you have your audience’s attention, it’s time to mobilize them. Give them opportunities to take action by supporting a synergistic nonprofit or pointing them to additional resources.
  7. We will craft a distribution strategy. How will you distribute your content? Via which channels? And on what cadence? You must have a strong, consistent distribution strategy to connect with your audience. Get creative and think outside the usual channels. For example, can you partner with a like-minded nonprofit and leverage each other’s platforms and audiences to expand your reach? Finally, B2B companies should challenge themselves to break out of their silos and expand the number of channels in which they are active.
  8. We will build a sustainable revenue stream. As a social enterprise, you’ve been thinking about how to build a sustainable revenue stream from day one. The good news? The digital media model will strengthen your business by building your audience, nurturing brand loyalty, and diversifying your traffic sources.
  9. We will lead the conversation. Many social enterprises focus on leading the conversation within their industries but not within the social impact ecosystem. And that’s a missed opportunity. By leading the conversation in both realms, you can move both your business and your mission further, faster.

Want to learn more about how Cosmic can help your social enterprise embrace the digital media mandate? We’d love to hear from you.

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