business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

A good will gesture goes a long way, as exemplified by the outpouring of humanitarian relief for Haiti. Good will shared through social networking goes even farther.

Consider these two scenarios:

One: You donate $50 to earthquake relief efforts while checking out at your local supermarket. Meanwhile, at corporate headquarters, the same supermarket’s foundation is making a generous donation to the American Red Cross.

Both are essentially one-way transactions. Your experience, and connection to the store, stops there.

Two: You receive an email message/Facebook live feed/tweet from your local supermarket about its charitable efforts. You make your $50 donation at the register, get updates from the store about how much money has been raised, where it is going, and how much the corporation is contributing in matching funds, and how the employees have contributed. You follow a blog or Twitter stream with fellow shoppers, see the positive messages and numbers add up, and feel good about your effort and your store.

Believe me, Scenario Two has generated a lot of good feeling out there in the blogosphere and turned what was once a one-time, one-way transaction into a two-way relationship between consumer and retailer. And it should become standard operating procedure, because turning a transactional relationship into a actual relationship - which implies greater engagement and commitment both ways - can be a powerful marketing tool for any business.

And even though the new trend toward “texted” donation has captured the media’s attention since Jan. 12, the front line of donating is still at cash registers. As expected, internet-savvy giants such as Whole Foods and Starbucks used their social networking prowess wisely in the weeks since the earthquake devastated Haiti.

The most recent headline on the Whole Foods blog reads: “Together, We Donated $2.7 Million for Haitian Relief.” The story thanked the customers in 287 stores in the U.S., Canada and U.K. for donating $1.7 million to six hand-picked relief organizations, praised the store “team members” who pledged $58,400 to the Haitian Fund to aid friends and families affected by the quake, and announced that the Whole Planet Foundation had contributed $1 million toward rebuilding Haiti.

Many other stores and their customers, such majors as Winn-Dixie and Publix among them, also donated many millions in relief funds, but I had to scour the internet and corporate sites to find the numbers. I also had to seek out the information on Walmart’s Facebook page.

Conversely, when Starbucks first announced on Facebook it would begin collecting donations for the American Red Cross, that post received 11,683 “thumbs up” responses. When one blogger demanded to know what corporate Starbucks was doing to help, the response was immediate – donating $1 million.

But it’s not just the big hitters utilizing social networking. PCC Natural Markets, a food cooperative with nine stores in the Seattle area, tracked thousands of enthusiastic “re-tweets” of its Twitter post when it announced: “It’s you, our loyal shoppers, who enable PCC to donate $25,000 to the victims of the Haiti earthquake. Thank you.” And the GoodGrocer Twitter account let followers know that shoppers at 244 stores under the SaveMart umbrella had donated $265,000 to the American Red Cross.

Of course, given the unedited nature of social networking, the agitators and complainers had their say on the blogs as well – criticizing everything from the American Red Cross to the Haitian government to the war in Iraq.

But the overall sentiment was one of support and gratitude, and a connection born of good will.

Kate McMahon can be reached via email at .
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