My Talk at the HBS Social Enterprise Conference

A few months ago, I had the great opportunity to go to HBS and run a workshop that centered around digital marketing for social enterprises. I encountered this opportunity through GA, where I'm teaching the third installment of a very hands-on digital marketing class.

Despite an explicit interest in socially-based enterprises at past points in my life (I still have a passion for zero-impact architecture and renewable energy; basically, the off-the-grid lifestyle), I hadn't been actively involved in the community, by fault or by accident. I was thinking I would throw a few slides together and then go get a few beers.

Then I got the resumes. These people were impressive. Many folks have graduate degrees. Many folks have other degrees in focused but impressive areas of study, like Computer Science and Theoretical Economics. Others are in the process of getting their MBA's at places like "Harvard" or "Stanford" or "M.I.T." or "Wharton." You know, the small liberal arts schools.

So I changed the talk. I had to speak about marketing, the topic I knew best, in short but frank terms. I had to be a 'domain expert,' but because of the other expertise in the room I would have to make my domain narrow and interesting.

Here's where I ended up with the talk, with quick bit of narration following each slide.

Gave a quick blurb on who I am and why I'm here talking today. I've spent time at a non-profit and been advisor to another, did a term at a media startup, worked at an ad agency for three years, and ended up back in digital advertising technology.

Figured we should start with digital marketing as topic. Wanted to speak really quickly about what digital marketing means; I still feel like it's just marketing in a world that's mostly digital - a small but subtle difference that helps alleviate imposter syndrome in audiences (and myself).

It's been moving so rapidly, and lots of people have this intrinsic feeling that they're lost. That they're behind. That they've somehow missed the boat.

The fact is, the whole digital marketing industry is very nascent. And in its early stages, there are leaders and followers. The leaders are very sophisticated; they spend millions of dollars a year on digital marketing and often have incredibly sophisticated operations teams behind their efforts. These are brands like Red Bull and GEICO and Nike, who have large teams charged with making sure their digital marketing footprints are large and influential. Together, they contribute a huge amount of the total digital advertising market spend.

Emarketer estimates this number at somewhere in the neighborhood of $50B. That's not nearly an insignificant market. For comparison, the TV market is estimated at around $70M. And just as an FYI, Facebook is estimated to take home about $4B of the total digital market, Google about $20B (I think both of those numbers are low, by the way). But that $50B number doesn't represent the full potential of the market - not even close.

Most estimates have small businesses marked down as responsible for somewhere north of 50% of the Unites States GDP; yet only a very small percentage of their marketing dollars are being directed toward digital channels.

This isn't because theyre slow to react, or technologically inferior, or just old and clueless. It's at least in part because the tools weren't there yet. Google Adwords as we know it is only about ten years old; Facebook is just getting out of diapers in year five, and Twitter is barely toddling less than a year after its public release.

That's all about to change. All of the advertising tools on these platforms are just becoming available, and they'll continue to be useful for some time to come. They deliver reach and scale at prices that haven't been possible before today. These self-service tools have the power to disrupt the whole industry, and social enterprises are uniquely positioned to benefit.

Social enterprise isn't completely different from for-profit business, but there are two big differences that I actually think make social enterprises naturally pre-disposed to marketing success.

The first is that social enterprises, by definition, have an vested interest in helping make society better. They are all about doing something that benefits lots of people without asking for a whole lot in return. This means that they have a built-in 'human interest' angle that can be used as a starting point to tell a great story. Many other kinds of organizations need to manufacture their stories in order to generate broad appeal. Social enterprises (hopefully) don't need to do this kind of manufacturing. The mission is the message.

The second thing that's unique to social enterprise is that their stated objective is impact, not profit. Marketing is, in many ways, itself all about creating impact among a target audience. So the fact that social enterprises have impact as a core competency makes them unusually pre-disposed to marketing activities - many of the core principles are the same.

So what happens when we combine the digital marketing and social enterprise?

Well, we've already said that the biggest takeaway from the digital marketing landscape is rapidly expanding access to tools that enable reach at scale, and that social enterprises have built in human interest and impact as a core competency. That seems like a great situation to have on our hands.

And one that makes for happy social enterprise marketers.

But in general, these two things together represent a great opportunity for marketing success.


Phew. I then pivoted into the more workshop-y period of the session, starting with a simple framework I use often to introduce a structured way of thinking about marketing. It's based on the premise that a lot of folks start by thinking about marketing activities (OMG I need a Pinterest, like, yesterday!), without actually thinking about the higher-level marketing objectives that really match up with the business. I'll spare the narrative, but here are the slides I used to demonstrate the framework:

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All in all, the workshop was a great experience and an awesome opportunity. The folks at HBS did a great job organizing (shocker) and all of the attendees and participants were beyond impressive.

At the end of the day, there are some really great social enterprise ideas out there, and I think lots of them line up really well with today's digital marketing tools and objectives.