by Abby B. Strunk

Why is it that some marketers see social media as their best hope for building a brand while others see it as their biggest nightmare? On one hand, some non-profit organizations are excited about the prospect of being able to connect with a mass audience without needing a big budget. Others feel that putting themselves “out there” in the wide-open and very complex social media sphere will lead to a total loss of brand control.

It doesn’t matter which you believe; since social media came to dominate our culture, businesses and organizations handed control of their brands off to the general public.

When the summer starts, our marketing department takes the opportunity to conference-hop to keep our fingers on the pulse of trends. At every conference we attended – including the Brite Conference at Columbia University; What Teens Want, also in New York City; and Social Media for Social Good, in Washington, DC – there was a common thread. To be successful, you’ve got to inspire your audience – whether they are teens or adults – to be your “evangelists.” You’ve got to work with them. You’ve got to believe in the wisdom of the crowd.

BBYO is currently celebrating 85 years of shaping the lives of young Jewish teens. As a teen-led movement, BBYO has always put power in the hands of its community members. Social media takes this concept to a whole new level. Since becoming independent from B’nai B’rith just seven years ago, BBYO has seen a resurgence in teen involvement. In addition to this growth, tens of thousands of alumni, parents and friends who care about BBYO have formed groups in communities throughout North America – some have developed through professional prodding, but most have emerged organically. BBYO’s new Friends & Alumni Networks (FANs) are the engines driving BBYO. Powered by the grassroots organizing skills they learned as teens along with the fond memories that have been rekindled as a result of Facebook, these groups are the organization’s most valuable assets.

Participating in the conferences referenced earlier is an interesting experience. I have the thrill of Interacting with experts like marketing powerhouses Seth Godin (author of The Purple Cow and Tribes) and Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?) and big brands like McDonald’s and American Express with multi-million dollar advertising budgets. While intimidating, I couldn’t help but to feel that we were the lucky ones. We – a Jewish non-profit – had something that some of the world’s best known brands were desperately trying to obtain. We actually have a community of people who have a deep passion and affinity for our “product” – an audience that is willing to take decisive action on behalf of the brand because they want to. The evangelism is authentic.

With countless BBYO-related Facebook groups, blogs, twitter feeds, YouTube videos, causes, we can’t possibly control what’s being said about our brand. But, we are confident that our evangelists will create a movement bigger and stronger than our own marketing operation could ever create.

Here are just a few of the ways BBYO is building a movement by putting power in the hands of our community:

  • We’re asking our stakeholders to submit stories, photography, videos, logos and t-shirt designs. We’ve learned that authenticity is much more important than production quality or perfect branding.
  • We’re tapping “alpha” stakeholders, and encouraging them to mobilize their networks. In other words, we’re identifying individuals within our community who love serving as BBYO brand stewards and giving them the tools and resources to help them do it better.
  • We’re sharing ideas, campaigns, videos, logos, etc. with our community members. We’re asking their opinion, and we’re listening. If they’re not fans of what we’re creating (and they’re not always!), we just ask them to do it!

Be brave enough to relinquish control of your brand. Put control in the hands of your community. They will reward you by moving your mission forward.

Abby B. Strunk is Director of Marketing and Communications for BBYO, Inc.