Paying it Forward: Year of The Ant Style

aev-image.jpg

In January, Sean and I announced that we were merging forces to launch a new and improved Ant’s Eye View. 2009, as we coined it, would be The Year of the Ant.

Our business is focused on companies and their customers play out the mantra “everybody go home happy”. We are working to change the world. To properly kick off the year, we decided to do some charitable giving at the start of our year (and the first part of our journey), rather than waiting until the end of the year. We wanted to pay it forward and make a difference at the start of our new venture.

But we didn’t want to do it alone. After all, we run a company focused on social connection, so we had to figure out a way to get our clients and friends in on the project.

We developed a pretty cool project that ended up donating $1000 USD to FIRST LEGO League. And whether the clients and friends realized it, they were learning a few things about social groups and communities too. More on that later, but first, here’s how things went down:

  • Sean and I knew we wanted to do something charity-focused to start the year. We brainstormed some ideas for how to best get our clients and friends involved in the process.
  • We decided to send postcards (front & back) and reply cards to a select group of about 150 people. These cards announced our new company, as well instructions for recipients to select one of three charities on the reply card and send it back to us.
  • After about 4 weeks, we had 50 reply cards come to us and a number of people contact us directly to talk about the concept.

The concept was quite simple, yet we had a pretty impressive response from our group. We’d formed a small scale social activity, and interesting there were a number of lessons between our project and most community strategies we develop. Allow me to share a few of those lessons.

“Social Media” and community building isn’t always about the internet.
While it might be more fun to focus on the cool new internet tools when we talk about social activity, it’s amazing how much power the offline, tangible experiences still hold. Most of the feedback about this project focused on how fun it was to get something in the mail. In your “social” projects, are you truly considering the concept of “social”? Using twitter to gain customer insights might be a great idea, but have you also thought about attending fan group meetings? Have you considered buying beers for your influencers at dinner the next time they’re at a conference or event?

Low tech tools are often most effective in starting conversation.
One of our recipients called us after receiving the mailer and asked “Why didn’t you just send an email with the info?” Bingo. She called us up because we’d reached out in a way that was more compelling that what she was normally used to. Email can absolutely be engaging and compelling, but printing and sending a physical mailer created an artifact that generated interest.

Providing low impact participation helps get people involved.
It’s easy to create content, right? YouTube makes uploading video quick and easy, right? Perhaps. But in an age of User Generated Content, don’t forget that creating good content is still time consuming and often above the skill and/or interest level of a vast majority of your audience. Interestingly, most people don’t equate the amount of participation to successful participation. An activity that takes 5 seconds and one that takes 5 hours still give a sense of engagement, where participants at both ends of that spectrum feel like they’ve “participated”.

Develop programs that allow anyone to easily get started, while also providing additional methods of engagement for the truly enthused. Our mailer had a very simple dynamic – read card A, check a box on card B then mail it back. Everyone who received it could quickly participate. We had a number of people who even wrote comments on the card to share their enthusiasm for the concept.

Every social group has it’s One Percenters.
What impressed me the most about this program is that despite not having a space for it, a small percentage of participants in our project found space on a small, business card size card to share handwritten comments. Even in our offline program, we found our One Percenters!

Decision making can be done without outsourcing the process.
We’ve all heard that tired old saying “think outside the box”; but that’s really a pretty dumb idea. Thinking outside the box really means that you’re approaching your design challenge haphazardly, void of real world context. If people instead said “think in a large, flexible box”, I could get behind that. Constraints are good to have; constraints inspire thinking and move the process along more quickly.

One of the biggest fears of working with communities is that by engagement is an all or nothing approach. Either you turn over your entire product strategy and roadmap to the masses or you simply wall off the company from the customers and never engage. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Imagine if we sent our a card that said “Please write in the name of your favorite charity”… how many response cards do you think we’d have gotten? In our program, we did the hard work of narrowing the choices to three that we were happy with, then asked our community to pick one. We didn’t turn over the program to the community, we turned over the part that mattered to them, based on a structure that mattered to us.

Make the group part of something bigger than either one of you.
It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about your own business needs, but your business needs are not what inspires, interests, or excites your community members. We created an idea that was more grand that our business or the businesses of our community. We focused on the idea of paying it forward, doing something good to generate good karma for the year. Who wouldn’t want to participate in helping us achieve that?

Paying it forward is the rule of law in communities.
I’ll be honest – I hope that we get some new business out of this program. But that’s a side effect of doing something cool for and with our community of clients and potential clients. Great community and social activity happens when you set aside your own needs and do something to helps those around you. And the funny thing, as any successful entrepreneur will tell you, is that when you do that, business comes to you.

Have a good time, pay it forward, help your community do something good for them. Incredible results will track you down.