Dear Carrotmob: Tips on Social Movements for Social Entrepreneurs

Earlier today I gave a presentation to Steve Newcomb of Virgance and got a fascinating peek into his world. In amongst a wave of articulate critiques of a business plan I put together with some friends, he made an off the cuff comment that we should “start a social movement” to assist with our marketing efforts. Fascinating.

As the world of sustainable business puts more and more toes in the pool of collective social action I’m hearing the word social movement get thrown around more and more, generally with little regard for what it takes to actually get one going or the complicated ecosystems that make them tick. There’s well intentioned excitement about merging business and social organizing, but a widespread misconception that a social movement is basically just a  participatory values-based marketing campaign. As someone who’s actually started a social movement, I’d like to set the record straight.

Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because There’s A Good Cause– There are too many good causes in the world and people are too busy.

Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because People Get Fired Up- When people are fired up they do whatever action is in front of them then go home and talk to their friends about it. The action and the conversations are great, but they won’t come back.

Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because People Are Empowered To Make Change– Empower people to make change and they’ll do it, feel great and then wander off. They won’t build on the experience and self organize.

What makes social movements happen?

In my experience, social movements happen when people make friends impacting a cause that is related to a personal struggle. Feminism and the civil rights movement are fantastic for tapping into national and international struggles that mirror intrapersonal ones. There’s a reason it’s “Students for a Free Tibet” and not “Suburban Housewives for a Free Tibet”, Tibet is only a powerful personal metaphor for a certain demographic.

The “making friends” part is what gives movements their self-organizing properties. A movement has to be a way to work on yourself AND on your relationships AND a cause, otherwise people won’t consistently put in the time. Movements can evolve new tactics and strategies only when the process of evolving those tactics and strategies is also a way for people to do meaningful work on themselves and form stronger connections with their friends.

Carrotmob is a fascinating example of when social movements work and when they don’t. They’ve been wildly successful as a specific tactic and hit a wall trying to evolve into anything more.

As a tactic they’re all checkmarks. They’re pushing for sustainable business- a cause that’s personally relevant to anyone trying to reconcile their desire to live their values and their desire to have a financially successful career. Organizers essentially plan parties at local businesses that are going green, flooding them with business as a sustainability incentive.

It would be great if this could translate from targeting small, local businesses to targeting large ones (Steve Newcomb talks about Carrotmobbing Coke and Pepsi), but there’s a big problem. In order to do that you have to switch from a series of one-off tactics to a self-organizing social movement. All of those Carrotmob organizers in all of those cities will have to start sitting down and strategizing, hitting up conferences together and thinking about how to make that giant Carrotmob happen.

That means getting people who’ve been using Carrotmobs as a way to deepen their connections with their existing social networks to spend time away from those social networks making new friends on the internet. If MySpace proved anything, it’s that people generally aren’t in the market for new friends on the internet, especially  people who have enough offline friends to organize massive parties. You also lose the personal significance. Carrotmobbers are attracted to the idea of sustainable business because they want to save the world and get paid doing it, and they won’t spend time and energy organizing a sustainable business-oriented social movement unless there are sheckles down the line.

Dear Carrotmob,

Here’s what it would take to make that Pepsi/Coke Carrotmob a reality:

1. Make Relationships Between Organizers Attractive

Ask yourself: What can a Carrotmob organizer get from being online friends with another Carrotmob organizer that they can’t get from all of their offline friends? The big answer is respect and recognition from their peers. Their friends will congratulate them, but may not really get the work that went in to what they’ve accomplished.

The way that many communities do this is by creating a system to welcome and mentor new members. When a new carrotmobber comes on the scene, create a way for them to publicly voice their questions and insecurities. This will make some existing carrotmobbers feel wise and experienced, and will get them engaging online to address the questions. Once they begin to recognize and respect one another for the answers that they’re giving they’ll start discussing tactical issues, complimenting one another, and forming the relationships that will take things to the next level.

2. Show Them the Sustainable Money

In order to put serious time and energy into Carrotmob, organizers will have to feel like they’re saving the planet while advancing their own careers. They don’t have to get all of them jobs, they just have to know that whatever they’re doing is legit enough to get put on a resume.

A strategic partnership or two with big name marketing firms could deliver this sense of professional credibility. It’s an appealing play- edgy, sustainable and socially networked. Create an aspirational class of paid professionals (NOT on your staff, out in the “real world”) who get to live their values making Carrotmobs all day, and make them visible to organizers looking for a career path.

Now you’ve got an excuse for people to take time out of their lives for Carrotmob and a set of relationships where innovation can happen. The rest is just gardening. Listen to the community, give it what it needs and then help it evolve to fulfill that need itself. You may not wind up squaring off Pepsi and Coke, because that’s your idea and movements (like gardens) aren’t built to follow orders. But you’ll wind up going somewhere interesting.



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2 responses to “Dear Carrotmob: Tips on Social Movements for Social Entrepreneurs

  1. Hey David!

    Thanks for the super thoughtful and smart post… I just got back from vacation and saw this. I think you’re basically right about most of this, but I think you have envisioned Coke vs Pepsi happening in a different way than the way I had envisioned it happening. You say that the big problem that prevents C vs P is this:

    “…you have to switch from a series of one-off tactics to a self-organizing social movement. All of those Carrotmob organizers in all of those cities will have to start sitting down and strategizing, hitting up conferences together and thinking about how to make that giant Carrotmob happen.”

    I agree with you that this is a bit of an unlikely scenario. You suggest step 1, which I totally agree with…maybe that could create the relationships needed to make this happen, but I see Coke vs Pepsi being planned centrally, by Carrotmob staff.

    Obviously, this is a people-powered movement, but what does that need to look like? I see two main types of Carrotmob. The small scale community campaigns that have already been happening will continue to happen and those will be driven entirely by local community leaders who are excited about doing things for precisely the reasons you described. Now, for Coke vs Pepsi, I think the “people-powered” part of that campaign is simply that the campaign needs to be transparently developed in front of the global Carrotmob community, there must be buy-in from the community about the goals and tactics of the campaign, and the community must have a voice so that they will be excited about the results of the campaign. But I don’t think the community needs or wants to *plan* the campaign. I think these campaigns will be planned by paid staff at Carrotmob HQ. I think many other campaigns will eventually be planned by paid staff at other organizations…for example you can imagine a “joint” campaign between, say, Rainforest Action Network and Carrotmob, where RAN brings the expertise and does the legwork they are good at, and then taps into the Carrotmob network/infrastructure to achieve their goals with a big campaign.

    What you describe in step 2 is a little bit beyond what I had imagined, but I suppose it could work. There has been interest from a few existing organizers who have been asking if there’s a way that they can get paid, or financially benefit in some other way via sponsors etc. I think there’s a way that could happen, but I haven’t yet come up with a way that I’m actually comfortable with. Either way it will obviously require an online reputation system, and some type of mob-driven democracy, as you imply. But I’d be interested in hearing more about what exactly you envision with the marketing firms. How do you think that would work exactly?

    Thanks again for the thoughts!

    Founder of Carrotmob

    • David Jay

      Hi Brent,

      Thanks so much for your well thought-out response! I hope you don’t mind me using Carrotmob to make my point about the interaction between self-organizing movements and business. I think that planning things as more in-house and less emergent makes a lot of sense with where you’re coming from, I respect you wanting to create something that’s more focused and controlled.

      Whenever we get a chance I’d love to talk to you about what role self-organization DOES have in your strategy (to the extent that you’re comfortable sharing that), specifically what you mean by “buy-in from the global community.” That’s a hairy beast depending on what you’re getting them to buy into, and I’d love to rap with you about ideas for generating that buyin.

      As far as step 2- I don’t think it makes sense unless you really want to create levels of volunteer involvement beyond mob organizers (it sounds like that’s not your focus.) The basic idea would be to mirror what Yelp did with the Yelp Elite: creating an aspirational class of people who “live the dream” of the community’s shared internal narrative, managing entry into that class based on praise that community members receive from other community members for their work, and and then making the class visible as a way to drive participation for everyone else. (I’ve got a short theory paper on applying this concept to social ventures if you’d like to check it out.)

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