The Other Side of Social

Congresswoman Lois Capps poses a question to the White House’s Juan Sepulveda via Skype.

This past weekend, in Santa Maria – a small city with an interesting story on the central coast of California – I was reminded of the big opportunity that most marketers are missing, and what Latinos can do to educate them.

The scene was a conference called #Cause 2012 (I was co-producer), and the topic was bridging two worlds that don’t meet frequently enough – the world of social media, and the world of community organizing. At Allan Hancock – one of California’s leading community colleges – 70-plus leaders in the activist, non-profit, and small-business communities gathered with social media folks to learn from one another. The ties that bind were many – I’d guess that close to 90 percent of attendees were of Hispanic descent. And some had experience in both community organizing and technology. But the most important common point of reference was something we took time to explore, on the main stage and in breakout sessions. Both organizers and social media pros know something about this thing we call social.

When Worlds Collide

On some level, this should come as no surprise. Community organizers of course have been doing the social thing far longer than social media folks. And a close look at the political campaigns credited with mobilizing people with social media (Obama 2008, the Tea Party movement, the Arab Spring, and the latest phenomenon, Occupy Wall Street) shows that they all owe their success to savvy, under-the-radar organizing. Still, a great portion of the marketing community seems to be unaware of this. And an even greater portion of that community is entirely unschooled on the basics of organizing. That was the driving concept behind the Santa Maria conference. Bring those two communities together and good things might happen.

But there’s perhaps an even bigger surprise for marketers, and we addressed it in the first morning session: the role that Latinos have played in advancing and popularizing the art of organizing.

There are several ways of looking at this. First, there’s an interesting bit of history, and we discussed it throughout the conference: under Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers movement (which originated in the area just adjacent to the California central coast) had a profound influence on the way community organizing developed over the past half century. What few people know is that one of Chavez’s chief strategists, Marshall Ganz, later became the chief community strategist for the Obama 2008 campaign, the current standard for organizing in the political world. What has Ganz been doing since then? Advising a number of emerging civic leaders and groups in the Middle East, some of which have had a role in the Arab Spring. Through Ganz, one can draw a direct lineage of practice from the fields of California to the streets of Cairo. While it would be wrong to say that “La Causa” has been the only force in community organizing (there have been many influences), it has been an inspiration to countless movements. “Si se puede” became “yes we can,” and has been translated at least figuratively for other movements.

Then there’s the trend that we have been covering for more than a year right here on ClickZ. If you’ve been following this column you will know that Latinos out-index all other ethnic groups on public social networks like Facebook and Twitter. We click on more ads and are generally more receptive to innovations in digital advertising. And we’re also more likely to buy new mobile technology than other groups. But, again, it’s not just about the tech. Latinos also appear to be organizing faster to represent their interests in the online world. Witness the emergence of groups like LATISM (I serve on the board), Being Latino, and Hispanicize, which have struck partnerships with major brands, formed alliances with major media companies, and held conferences throughout the U.S. – all in the last two years. And if you look at the main artifact from the efforts of each of these organizations, it’s the live, in-the-flesh meeting where real relationships are formed and deals are made. Yes, digital is helping like-minded Latinos find one another, but after they do, they then find ways to meet in person.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, and why we thought it would be smart to bring the online and offline folks together. When each group learns from the other, the gain is not just additive, but potentially transformative. This weekend, in Santa Maria, we had the opportunity to tap into an existing social-media-and-community-organizing project – The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics – which recently began a tour of U.S. cities where it is bringing federal officials to meet with people at the local level. The group couldn’t meet with us in Santa Maria this weekend, so we connected via Skype. A digital overlay to a mostly analogue day, the Skype chat provided conference attendees – everyone from Congresswoman Lois Capps (D – CA) to first-year college students – with something special: virtual access to a senior government official. It was an interesting fusion of online and offline interaction. But the offline stuff was just as interesting. In the conference breakouts, there were discussions that are hard to find at most social media conferences – voter registration (a session done entirely in Spanish), managing a movement, taking care of yourself when social media potentially exposes you to harm (altercations with the public), etc.

Looking back on the weekend, I keep asking myself, how different is the learning today in central California from the trainings conducted during Chavez’s time? Well, not only have the issues changed, but we’re now tackling new kinds of challenges. That Latinos are playing such a prominent role in meeting these challenges is an inspiration, perhaps, if you are a Latino. But if you’re a marketing pro and not Latino, you may want to take a close look anyway. The fusion of online and offline is the future, and Latinos are already there.

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