Can Marketing Save The World?

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UN Sustainability Development Goals

I have an unusual vantage point from which I view digital disruption opportunities.

As a content marketing strategy leader, I see businesses seeking to drive results by delivering high-value content that helps people achieve their goals and aspirations. Meanwhile, as a juror for the World Summit on the Information Society, I analyze dozens of projects a year from non-governmental organizations, academia, and startups, that seek to drive UN Sustainability Development Goals by doing exactly the same thing.

I see intrinsic and extrinsic forces converging to create a vortex of business and not-for-profit methodologies and programmes.

Intrinsic forces like compassion inspire us to serve something greater than ourselves. Yet, businesses struggle to find ways to operationalize compassion beyond silos of corporate social responsibility programmes, largely funded as internal charities under constant threat of shifting priorities.

Extrinsic forces, such as the social, economic and environmental crises we face, simultaneously demand a response and present new opportunities for delivering value. These forces are already combined with those of the digitally empowered citizen, who shapes society and imposes crowd authority over brands. The digitally competent individual determines when, where and how businesses shall engage them. They are judge, jury, executioner — or even competitor — of our brands and governments.

The pressure to establish relevance has led to business strategies and conceptual models that merge social and business value. Examples include social entrepreneurialism, social innovation, stakeholder value theory, purposeful business, cause marketing and shared value.

Furthermore, there is increasing understanding that social and business value are inextricably coupled. To paraphrase stakeholder value maven Richard Freeman, acting as if economic forces have no social impact and as if social forces have no economic impact, and to apply interventions on one side that do not address the other, is an intellectual and managerial failure to address business conditions as they actually are.

Yet businesses struggle with the existential and operational implications of this convergence. Many organizations are reeling from the ‘disruptions’ of digital to their more or less status quo conception of their core offerings, how they are delivered, markets are to be made, customers are to be won and retained. Today, social value still tends to be more of a brand activation campaign activity or corporate side-hobby than a core business strategy.

On the advocational tactical end, we see mass communications campaigns such as Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’, and Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ that address societal issues related to women’s self-esteem. Similarly, but perhaps more daringly, we see P&G addressing transgender adoption rights in India.

On a more business strategy integration level, we see social value linked to business performance, such as Tom’s one-for-one approach, wherein the case of their shoes, for each pair purchased, someone in need also receives a pair.

On an economic activist level, we see Arzu Rug’s global market access for Afghani women carpet weavers — an empowerment outcome available to families only if women are allowed to go to school and receive healthcare, resulting in the reversal of women’s literacy rates from 90 percent average illiterate to 100 percent literate for those in Arzu.

But must we, on one end of the spectrum, remain at an advertising-variant campaign level, or on the other, utterly transform business models to manifest social and business value convergence?

Enter content marketing. By identifying core needs among those we want to build relationships with, then innovating and delivering content and application products that serve their capacity to achieve those goals, we have the opportunity to support human capacity development as such.

Results can include economic empowerment or even saving life itself.

One of my favourite examples is Aponjon from Bangladesh, an SMS-delivered health information service for pregnant women designed to reduce infant and maternal mortality. Multiple communications per week synced to fetal development help identify warning signs and encourage prophylactic behaviours. Within 16 months, Aponjon achieved 600,000 subscribers, charging a nominal fee for those who could afford it, and the same service free to the super poor. Eighty percent paid the fee, thereby making the programme self-sustainable.

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Ask any marketer when they last time got over half a million demographically targeted, individually identified General Data Protection Regulation-friendly (GDPR) options to receive multiple communications per week, creating loyalty opportunities, a direct profit and a flexible channel for new value streams and value-adjacency communications. If you are in a business that needs to create a market for anything tangentially related to healthcare (for example air quality), it is hard to imagine a more effective platform or audience. Bear in mind this example was a Bangladesh-only initiative. Imagine scaling a common solution across the rest of India, Africa and Latin America. A marketing database of 1 billion people starts to look feasible.

Another example is a smoking cessation study I was involved in with the University of Michigan called Real U2. We proved –using science! — that content personalized to the sentence fragment level, driven by deep psychographic assessment, goals, and outcomes, can improve smoking abstinence. Our test group was nearly 300 percent more likely to be 30 days tobacco-free than the control group. Think therapist in a box. A good one. Applied in a business context, the data, personalization models, and product potential implications are tremendous. Not just for health-related products, but also for learning how to reverse-engineer personal profile models from other data.

These are extreme examples of what Jay Baer might call Youtility. Jay made an early dent as an evangelist for high relevance delivery in the business and content marketing space with his book by the same name.

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These are indications of how a seemingly ordinary practice such as marketing can become extraordinary. In Killing Marketing, Visa Head of Content Stephanie Losee says “the potential for content marketing to transform business goes far beyond acting like a media company. It’s about realizing that our assumptions about what marketing can achieve may be wrong”. In the remainder of the book, Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose go into depth on how rethinking marketing can turn it from a cost center to a profit center. What could be more profitable than including human capacity development and life-saving strategies as core to the innovation model for the value of the content that is provided?

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This focus on human capacity development does tend to pull content marketing solutions away from entertainment to a more practical focus. In other words, you are less likely to build human capacity by trying to go viral with a cat video substitute. Your content needs to solve a problem or create an opportunity, not just cure boredom. Trying to make every advertisement into a Super Bowl advert, or extend your advert into a feature-length film will certainly create less boring advertising, but is unlikely to make a substantial difference to human welfare.

Instead, you can apply humanly empowering forms of relevance to your audiences. For example;

  • Deliver thought leadership that changes the way a person sees the world in a manner that reveals new actionable approaches
  • Provide timely information that empowers individual agency
  • Support diagnosis of a person’s current situation and provide a prescription for a path forward
  • Help people achieve mastery of a skill that can increase prosperity or transform the economy
  • Reduce the time it takes for a person to do or know anything; help them understand deeper layers of the meaning of life to uncover the sacred that lies buried in the profane day-to-day

Do any of these things and you are not only using content to build better and more profitable relationships and uncover new business model opportunities, but you may actually change the world by increasing people’s capacity to manifest it.

Written by

Content marketing leader, sustainable business strategist, artist, philosopher, public speaker, working on behalf of the Light side of The Force.

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