by Mongezi Mtati (@Mongezi) Brands often approach social media campaigns the same way that they would think of creating a splash in the media about a new product launch. From a distance, it seems that the idea is to have some mentions in the media — including many on social media — from a series of releases, follow the mentions and track the spike in sales.

The imagined presentations, high-fives and champagne thereafter are all worth the sleepless nights of campaign planning.

Without overly simplifying it, that is how it seems from the questions some companies and government organisations ask. It’s mostly about the numbers, the YouTube views and the number of people who interacted with content.

It’s rarely about the few who engage with the brand and use their influence to share their interest in the brand or their products. The people who care enough to stay and share their interest in a brand are the ones who are most valuable, both prior to campaigns and afterwards. Meet your brand evangelists.

But how do you find them?


It is tempting to approach people with unsolicited products and messaging in the hopes that they would take pictures and share them with much excitement. In reality, the web is so fast-paced that content not only drowns, but unsolicited products may also be a distraction that the influential avoid associating themselves with.

Sometimes it gets picked up and gathers negative momentum, which Starbucks recently learned a harsh lesson from.

In a bold move, the CEO of Starbucks, Howard D Schultz, made an announcement that the brand would contribute to the ongoing race relations discourse with the intention of raising awareness and encouraging compassion. It was a positive initiative in which Starbucks baristas would start conversations with customers and, in a parallel universe, this would have created a ripple effect of positive conversation.

In a recent media release by Starbucks, it shares the process it followed with forums and partners who would join in on the discussion. The reality on social media, and arguably offline, was different.

Starbucks invited its baristas to write #RaceTogether on customers’ cups of brew and thereby initiate the conversation, which got some vocal corners of the internet up in arms and others — such as this article on Fast Company — applauded the campaign for taking a stand.

The #RaceTogether campaign also received a lot of backlash on the social web, ranging from the sensitivity of race relations to how that was not the place to raise such dialogue.

Starbucks Coffee #RaceTogether. Pic:

Whether you think the campaign was successful or not, following some race-related discussions on the social web reveals how sensitive it is and how cautiously it should be approached.


Most of the brands I speak to either have a presence on digital platforms and need to use them for a launch, or they get onto this ‘bandwagon’ because of an overwhelming need to generate conversation among influential people who lead communities in their own right. In both instances, they act out of desperation and use the platforms for more advertising, as opposed to engagement.

Building a brand evangelist community should be based on caring for customers and taking a human interest in them, but most brands care more about the current campaign and pushing a message to predetermined masses. This leads to short-lived campaigns that do not create real connections with people who would go on to influence the buying decisions of their friends and families.


Influence has, over the time, become social media’s most-sought-after currency and the ones who deem themselves as having it are wary of how they engage with brands. On the other extreme end, brands want to place themselves on multiple timelines without considering how they would reward the people who talk about their products.

Aside from access to the latest and greatest things, people want brands to approach them with the understanding that they also want to be incentivised or recognised for their contribution — not ‘bought’, but the exchange needs to benefit both brand and influencer. It’s in the engagement that you understand what the person wants.

Grow an inner circle

Brands should start by gaining a better understanding of their current influencers, which may be done by following existing online conversations.

The people who are already interested in a brand, who are engaged and influence a smaller audience, are not always the ones with bigger networks. They are not always the most-obvious names that are part of the latest list of the ‘Top 10 Most Influential South Africans on Twitter’. Or whatever that high profile list is called this week.

“Can you get [enter your Top 10 influencer list here] to talk about our new product?” all brands would generally ask and, unsurprisingly, the lists are almost always the same.

It seems easier for a brand to interact with people who already have a platform and thousands of followers, but meaningful customer connections are not based on offering free products to uninterested individuals because of their following and existing platforms. Brands are better off listening over time and building communities, which as it turns out, are also their greatest asset.


Mongezi Mtati


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 monthly “The Word” column on word-of-mouth marketing and social media strategy to MarkLives.


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