Last week at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, I had the pleasure of meeting Blair Cobb, the Director of AOL Cause Marketing. Their new AOL365 program is exactly the type of for-profit and non-profit partnership that I describe in We First as a critical path to a more sustainable and prosperous future. Blair was kind enough to share some insights into the program and explain what such purposeful engagement is doing for the AOL brand.
SM: Hi, Blair. Tell me about what AOL is doing in the social change space and how that came about.
BC: I’m director of Cause Marketing for AOL, which is actually a brand new department for them as of this past June. I came from the sales sector—very much the corporate business side of AOL—working with some of the top cause brands in the space, including General Mills. In sales we started to see that there was something of a ‘white space’ in AOL for when advertisers come to us with a cause marketing partnership that they’ve already cultivated, how can we as AOL be a platform for that? And how is AOL also reaching out to our own non-profit partners individually?
So back in November of 2010 we launched our Cause Module which is on the AOL homepage and reaches 15 million people a day. It is a commitment made by our CEO, Tim Armstrong, to create a platform (now called AOL365) where 365 days a year, this space is specifically dedicated to promoting causes so that every single day we promote a new cause on the AOL homepage.
We do this in two ways. The first is that we work with advertising partners of ours. Toyota was our first partner to do this, so they had an ad featured on the AOL homepage that was linked to their own site. So we used that to tell our audience, in this example, about their partnership with the Audubon Society.
On days when we don’t have advertising partners taking advantage of the module, it’s a time where AOL’s cause marketing group reaches out to do partnerships with non-profit partners and promote them every day. It has created incredible partnerships for AOL. To date we have run over 3.5 billion pro bono, added value impressions on behalf of our non-profit partners and the advertisers that support them.
It’s an incredible reevaluation of AOL’s toolbox and learning what it is we have at our disposal and discovering what value we can provide in the social cause space. It’s about our audience and our commitment to dedicating a space that, otherwise, would be going for a lot of money everyday on the homepage, we’re giving it away for free.
In the absence being able to of giving large checks to our non-profit partners, we can give them our eyeballs of 15 million people, which in most cases is more valuable than cutting a check. Yes, I sit in a large corporation, but I get to work, everyday, with advertisers who care and non-profits who are trying to get their word out.
SM: What are the rewards to a brand? Why should others follow your example?
BC: One way in which we’ve seen this start to have impact is that about fifty percent of our modules to date have been advertiser driven, so obviously there is a large sector of AOL advertisers who are deeply involved in this space, but we also have our sector of top 100 advertisers that don’t have causes. It has become a really interesting space because they know they have the home page and the space, but some advertisers don’t have causes, so they come to our group to ask who they should partner with.
This space on our website has become a great awareness tool. Connecting the for-profit advertisement with a brand’s non-profit partnership or cause sometimes enables us to drive 10 times more traffic to the co-branded non-profit page. For non-profits and advertisers, it’s an amazing way to unleash and unlock a whole different audience. When an individual sees the impact a brand is having, they are more inclined to support them.
SM: So any word of advice for any brands who are considering entering into this space?
BC: Work within your means. Every company is different, every company has assets they can bring, whether it’s dollars, space, merchandise that they can donate. All companies have a space within them, an asset or a toolbox, that they can use to give back. With us, it’s eyeballs, our audience. We are a 25-year old company with a very loyal following. I don’t think there is one definition of doing good. In the past it was always about ‘how many dollars you can raise,’ but that’s not our goal here. We just want to use our platform to help and create causes.
I would challenge all companies who are not actively involved with CSR or giving back, to take a look at what it is they have and use those assets in a dynamic, different way. I can’t even tell you the responses we’ve gotten from our advertising partners who have come back wanting to work with us more because we are the only partner out there offering this kind of added value.
I’m extremely proud of what we’re doing as a company at large. It really puts proof to action. It’s great to say that you’re in the business of helping people, but when you can actually quantify it and point to the arms of your company that you’re mobilizing to do good, it changes everything.
SM: Thank you so much for your time. So where should we look to see your work?
BC: You can visit the AOL homepage (aol.com). You can follow us on twitter @aol365 or you can go to 365.aol.com, which is our landing page experience, where we are creating a living, breathing gallery for all of our non-profit partners that we have featured to date, and bring our consumers that much closer to be able to enact and encourage and get involved with these non-profits.
Do you think more brands should align themselves with cause partners? What are some other tools corporations can use to drive social change?
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Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a leading brand consultancy that provides purpose-driven strategy, content, and training that empowers companies to lead business, shape culture, and better our world.