by Mongezi Mtati (@Mongezi) South Africa sees at least five service delivery protests per day, some of which receive more media attention than others, and they all become the talk of the town. Let’s look at what makes these worth talking about and what we, as marketers, can take away when thinking of building a community of evangelists and managing them.

Mongezi MtatiThe communities in which these protests happen don’t seem to have anyone leading them; everyone pulls together and engages with the issues of the day. They don’t seek a single person with thousands of followers; they don’t make any one person the hero and the ultimate evangelist for their cause.

In most instances, when brands start or build evangelist communities, they tend to focus more on those with a larger following. They discount the fact that almost everyone is an influencer, or that they can be. These are people who drive actions, who spread the word and connect the people in their networks with a message — mostly a marketing one.

Service delivery protests are not as thoroughly planned and executed as marketing and advertising strategies are. Their strength lies in the collective action of communities. What can your next strategy include that every protest already has?

[Note: these are by no means all the elements that make up protests but a few that this piece could focus on. I have also steered clear of socio-economic and political issues.]

1. A united goal

One of the things that bring people together, for both service delivery protests and brand evangelism, is a common, united goal which is known to everyone and which everyone stands for. The goal may vary from transforming something in society to rallying behind a brand of choice.

The message behind it is normally easy to spread and the people involved know what it means from day one. There are no long lists and heavy marketing speak that alienate the layman.

So, it all starts with a goal that the community adopts as its own.

2. Start the conversation

The communities start far-reaching, localised conversations that go far beyond their surroundings through various platforms.

Without the benefit of ‘expert marketers’, the message still reaches out to relevant stakeholders. Aside from burning tyres, community members get the word across from one person to the next, everyone knows what the single-minded message is, and anyone can speak on behalf of the protesters.

Most marketing messages get lost in translation, thus leaving brands on one side of the fence and would-be evangelists on the other side. People spread the message about what they perceive a brand stands for, while the brand itself says something else.

So, the most successful word-of-mouth campaigns have a single-minded message that spreads from one community member/one engaged and passionate evangelist to another.

3. Amplify a single-minded message

Most — if not all — the protests that I’ve seen have a common thread running through them, mostly as the result of corruption or local amenities that are not being attended to. The community members have over time, according to reports by community members themselves, attempted peaceful communication. Their message is clear to everyone present and the perceived authorities at whose attention the message is aimed.

If you have ever walked into a store, with the intention of buying something, and no one is there to assist you, not only are you more likely to leave but you are also likely to share that experience with your network and warn them against the store.

We all know this but we think a different set of rules apply. What the protests prove — about four to five a day — is that the same rules apply to everyone indiscriminately.

Customers want to be heard; even the most difficult ones want to be listened to, which is more often than not the reason cited for loyal followers and positive testimonials — when handled well.

In most instances, brands care more about the people with a larger social-media following, without realising that people lead communities which may number anything from two members to 1000 offline — and you can’t track any of it.

Wouldn’t you rather have the peace of mind of knowing that you have evangelists spreading a positive message about you, whether or not there is an active campaign running?

4. Garner community interest

In the midst of all the things that separate them at other times, community members stand together when they want to get their message across. We have seen this in everything, from e-tolls to Eskom’s load-shedding and, in every single instance, where people have looked past political differences and focused on issues that affect broader society.

Customers also come together for brands that they believe put them first or stand for something the community deems worthwhile.

In what is dubbed the biggest crowd-funding campaign of all-time, free computer operating system Ubuntu called out to its fans and evangelists ahead of attempting to launch its Ubuntu Edge smartphone to the public. Unlike brands of a similar and international following, Ubuntu released its plans publicly and called upon its community to support the development.

Although the Indiegogo campaign fell US$19 million short of its target, it still managed to raise US$10 267 352 worth of pledges from 22 053 backers worldwide.

Similar to the media coverage we see almost daily in South Africa, Ubuntu Edge pulled together its evangelist resources. It received coverage on some of the top sites, such as this Mashable article which was shared 1300 times.

Have a look at these statics from Indiegogo below:

Ubuntu Edge Infographic from Indiegogo

5. Let the community lead

One of the many things that the advent of protests shows — over and over again — is that people want to stand for something. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, as shown once again by the solidarity against e-tolls. The influencers among us are constantly leading the conversation, in what seems to be an informal structure, and the word gets out.

Service delivery protests are part-proof that there are influencers in every community, most of whom go unnoticed and whose pleas are ignored. There are people in every brand’s community who lead the pack, individuals who support you by talking to people in their network, and they are the ones who also rally the masses to your message.

They may not have the thousands of followers whom you expect would tilt the scales, but collectively they influence enough people to cause a dent.

Do you know who these people are? Or do you think you can control the conversation and limit the outcome?

Mongezi Mtati (@Mongezi) is the founding MD of WordStart ( Apart from being a kiteboarding and sandboarding adventurer, Mongezi connects companies and brands with measurable word-of-mouth. He contributes the new “The Word” column on word-of-mouth marketing and social media strategy to MarkLives.

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