Developing a Human Asset Strategy

The election of Barack Obama as president was historic and momentous. The political and cultural implications are being written about nearly as quickly as they’re occurring, and we’re all trying to understand if what we saw constitutes a major shift or represents the best piece of evidence of what’s been swelling up from the grassroots for a long time.

Marketers on both sides of the political aisle, especially those who have built careers in interactive media, are amazed by the strength of the message, as well as the methods by which it spread. We have a lot to learn from this living case study. Let’s look at how the Obama campaign grew the asset of its opt-in list to something truly valuable: a movement.

Four Levels of Human Assets

Nearly every company has a human asset — a collection of names and contact info (at least) that is all theirs. They own it outright and have the sole right to contact. This could be the list of people who have purchased from your store, opted into a newsletter, or are a part of a loyalty program. We should refer to this as a human asset. This is owned and can either appreciate or depreciate over time.

There are four broad levels of value for human assets: lists, groups, communities, and movements. Lists are the least valuable (note: not non-valuable) and movements are the most valuable. A human-asset strategy involves moving the individual members of that asset up this value chain. To understand how to do this, we need to first develop a solid definition framework for some pretty common terms.


A list is a collection of names and contact info. The people whose names are on a list may not even know, or might have long forgot, that they’re on a particular list. Consider the number of times that you’ve performed a search on a shopping comparison site and bought a product at the best price. You’re on that company’s list, and you may find a few e-mails from them in your in box on occasion.

About all you can do with a list is broadcast to it. Potentially, if you know some detail about an individual member, such as a location or past purchases, you can have a system that automatically customizes the e-mails. But that’s it. Again, not to say this is without value. An e-mail campaign to established lists is probably the most popular online marketing tactic, and represents a consistent revenue stream.


The primary difference between a group and a list is the members’ sense of their participation. People actively join a group and have a sense that others have also joined. The best example is Facebook groups where groups are listed with the number of members it includes.

In most groups, a small number of people create and manage the group, a slightly larger group of people post and reply to messages, and a very large group of people sit on the sidelines and watch. Each group is generating and receiving value.


The jump from group to community is significant. It comes when members of the group get a sense of their interconnectedness and the power that comes with it, as well as the potential effect from the outside.

Communities often form to solve a problem. It could be simple (your favorite show is being canceled) or huge (stopping domestic violence). The problem could also be more like a challenge, like capturing all of the pop culture references in “The Simpsons.”


The most powerful groups of people form a movement. The difference between a movement and a community is subtle, but powerful. In a movement, people feel a sense of destiny and deep belonging. They feel that they were naturally led to the movement from their beliefs, and that their belonging in the movement affects not only their future, but the world at large.

Pretty heady stuff, huh? You can see this clearly in the Obama campaign, but this feeling isn’t totally reserved for big social movements. The elements of a movement are found in people who believe that Macs are the absolute best computer, that Target’s dedication to affordable style is good for the world, and that flying should be stylish and fun (think Virgin America or JetBlue).

Growing your Human Assets Online

If your collection of names is an asset, focus on growing its value. Since much of this asset is online, interactive marketers have a clear path of appreciation. Here are four things you can start to do that all center on making a human connection between your company and your customers.

  • Get their story: When was the last time you looked at the people on your database? Creating a simple survey that asks people their attitudes toward your brand and your category can be extremely revealing, and help find customers who are advocates for your brand.
  • Share data with them: People who feel a connection to your brand want to be involved. Some e-commerce and community sites have created a stronger bond by sharing data with their consumers. That data includes identifying best-selling products, how much they’ve spent, and in what ways. If it’s possible to open access to the information you have collected about them, people will begin to see your brand as a bit more human.
  • Show them your vision: Not every CEO should blog, but every company should show its customers and the world who they are. Engage in social media, whether it’s blogging, Flickr accounts, or Facebook pages. These are simple to set up and let you communicate with your customers without trying to sell something. They show what sorts of people work at your company, the way you want things to be, and what you’re working toward. This begins a deeper relationship by giving people an idea they can buy into.
  • Pick a goal: People need to know the direction and destination. Setting up a mini-site that communicates your goal and let’s people participate (by doing something like joining a Facebook group or even leaving a comment) is sometimes all you need to do. Your goal doesn’t need to put humans on Mars. It could be teaching kids how to swim, getting everyone a passport, or having well-designed office cubicles.

As markets tighten, your human assets will become increasingly important. Continue marketing and selling to them to maintain revenue streams. The first step: make sure the asset is in great shape and ready to be put to service.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.