When it comes to trending stories involving the internet, news about leaked emails, debates about online privacy or celebrity Twitter feuds tend to make it to the top of our feeds. What often gets lost in the chaos of controversy are the acts of kindness, both large and small, that take place online every day. For instance, today I saw Reddit users supporting each other through everything from meeting birth parents for the first time to the early stages of sobriety, people fundraising for a wife who lost her husband and three children by the category 5 Hurricane Dorian, and teens using their own social media pages to educate their peers about the health risks of vaping, all before I even finished my morning coffee.
Dana Klisanin, founder and CEO at Evolutionary Guidance Media and award-winning psychologist, studies how we can use the internet to foster this kind of behavior, known as digital altruism, where people show selfless concern for others online. “Digital altruism is about using digital technologies to help others, the way you might slow down to help someone cross a busy city street—except with digital tools,” explains Klisanin. “By using the internet mindfully, we can co-create a kinder, more compassionate world.”
Businesses can play an important role in supporting and encouraging digital altruism. In fact, many are already creating new opportunities for digital altruism to affect positive social change. Here are a few ways companies are using the internet to empower customers to spread kindness and take action on behalf of others.
1. Fostering community
Building an online community where customers can support and help each other is one way businesses can foster and encourage digital altruism. A primary example is Reddit, which supports thousands of online communities called subreddits. Users participate in subreddits, such as “r/relationship_advice” or “r/NewParents,” by giving each other advice and sharing personal experiences. It's these kinds of intimate and authentic community interactions that differentiate Reddit from social media channels such as Instagram or Twitter.
“It’s not about being a thought leader or amassing a certain number of followers on your profile. It’s about what you deliver in the comments and the real interactions created between users,” says Evan Hamilton, community team manager at Reddit. “So instead of people posting content that’s going to grow their reputation by being divisive or smug, they focus on providing value in their comments to stimulate real conversations.”
Businesses can play an important role in supporting and encouraging digital altruism. In fact, many are already creating new opportunities for digital altruism to affect positive social change.
But companies don’t have to be a social platform to treat customers as a community. In fact, many are already doing so through community forums, which also reduce support costs and improve overall customer satisfaction.
Take my own experience with Apple Support Communities. My twelve-year-old cousin accidentally downloaded malware on my computer. With no Genius Bar appointments available, I looked to my fellow Apple users. Someone responded to my desperate post with instructions on how to remove the malicious software. I wanted to hug Ian5757 for his kindness.
Another example is Sephora’s Beauty Insider Community. Here, I’ve received advice from other customers on how to use different products specifically for my skin type.
However, building an online community where altruistic behavior prevails requires more than just creating a space for it according to Reddit. “We empower volunteer moderators and users with the tools and technology needed to govern communities and keep Reddit a welcoming place,” explains Hamilton. “By allowing users to signal the value of content with upvotes and downvotes, we’re essentially providing them with the opportunity to hold one another accountable and self-regulate what’s appropriate for their community. Moderators are also empowered to remove content that doesn’t fit the community’s tone or abide by community rules and site-wide policies.” Reddit also uses machine learning tools to detect policy-violating content and address any bad actors on the platform. Likewise, support teams will want to implement strategies for ensuring that community forum posts are relevant and appropriate for the benefit of the group.
However, building an online community where altruistic behavior prevails requires more than just creating a space for it.
Another Reddit pro tip is to structure the larger community around intentional, niche communities. “Reddit isn’t one place, it’s thousands and thousands of individual communities. This allows people to find the community they can relate to and interact with the most, rather than feeling like they’re competing on a global conversation stage,” explains Hamilton. For a brand’s community forum, this might mean including subgroups tailored to customers’ different interests and needs. For instance, Sephora’s community is made up of different groups, such as “Skin Care Aware” and “Lip Lovers.”
2. Encouraging reviews
While people leave reviews for a number of different reasons, writing a review to improve someone else’s experience is another form of digital altruism. An altruistic review might include flagging that a leasing company unfairly held your security deposit to warn future tenants or letting other customers know that a pair of jeans runs small to help them avoid the hassle of a return.
Reviews are no joke to consumers. In fact, 88 percent trust online reviews as much as a recommendation from a friend or family member and every one-star increase can lead to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue.
Companies are beginning to understand that reviews matter, leading some to reward customers for positive ratings or even pay for bots to write fake reviews. However, to foster an altruistic review culture that customers can trust, companies must keep ratings authentic. This also includes learning from negative reviews rather than removing them, even if it’s tempting.
Companies are beginning to understand that reviews matter, leading some to reward customers for positive ratings or even pay for bots to write fake reviews. However, to foster an altruistic review culture that customers can trust, companies must keep ratings authentic.
Customers will likely be happy to leave reviews as long as companies give them the opportunity to do so. In fact, almost 80 percent of reviews originate from follow-up emails asking shoppers to review their experience, according to a study by the Spiegel Research Center.
[Related read: The trust economy and why it’s okay to get a bad rating]
3. Contributing to open-source projects
Companies are also encouraging digital altruism by contributing to open-source projects. An open-source program means that its source code is free for anyone to modify and make copies of for their own use. Similarly to when someone adds their knowledge to a Wikipedia page, it's considered an act of altruism to edit a project’s source code and make it better. Likewise, altruism shows up when a company creates opportunities for people to learn from the code built by its employees.
“I see open-source contributions as a civic duty, a moral obligation to the rest of the world,” explains one engineering blogger who often gets asked why he spends his spare time writing software and giving it away for free. “It seems that a large portion of Silicon Valley tech companies are focused on some self-serving vision or niche problem that only the founders and their friends have. I don’t want a culture where the only problems being solved are the ones that tech people have.”
Firefox and Linux are two of the most well-known software products that fall under the open-source umbrella. Examples of companies that fund or participate in open-source projects include Facebook, Google, Zendesk, and LinkedIn. "We believe that open sourcing projects makes our engineers better at what they do best. Engineers grow in their craft by having their work shared with the entire community,” says LinkedIn.
4. Creating social media campaigns with an impact
Social media is a particularly great medium for brands to foster digital altruism. Klisanin credits this to its interdependent nature and ability to expand a company’s reach. This means a brand’s actions can quickly and easily be multiplied by consumers, starting a ripple effect with potentially exponential impact.
One example of the impact social media can make for the greater good is 17-year-old Greta Thunberg’s use of Instagram and Twitter to protest the lack of action around climate change. Her #Friday'sForFuture climate strikes went viral, inspiring millions to reshare her posts, driving nation-wide awareness to the climate crisis. Or, the 2012 Ice Bucket Challenge might sound familiar. To promote the awareness of ALS, participants were challenged to either dump a bucket of ice water over themselves or make a donation, and then nominate friends through their own social media pages.
Social media is a particularly great medium for brands to foster digital altruism… a brand's actions can quickly and easily be multiplied by consumers, starting a ripple effect with potentially exponential impact.
Klisanin encourages businesses to get inspired by campaigns like these. “In working with brands to help them find new ways to stand out, I often recommend they begin by looking at their own structure. Do they already champion a cause? If so, social media campaigns can be designed to support the cause, providing terrific opportunities for digital altruism and creative engagement,” she says.
For example, The Body Shop, which champions cruelty-free make-up, skincare, and hair care products, launched a #ForeverAgainstAnimalTesting campaign to petition against animal cruelty. As a result, it took 8.3 million voices from all over the world to the United Nations to call for a global end to animal testing in cosmetics.
Customers perform an act of altruism when they participate in a company’s social impact campaign because it requires them to take the time, even if it’s only a minute, to reshare a post to drive awareness towards a cause or watch a video to learn more about it.
While one retweet might seem small, it’s the power of hundreds or even thousands of retweets coming together that make the real impact. Klisanin defines this idea of people working together to make a difference online as collaborative heroism.
While one retweet might seem small, it's the power of hundreds or even thousands of retweets coming together that make the real impact.
“Instead of being behind a computer, the rise of smartphones and social media means that individuals are mobile. Rather than being about the lone hero or the collective, collaborative heroism is an integration of the two—the power of the individual and the power of the collective, combined,” she says. She explains that one difference between this form of heroism and traditional forms is that collaborative heroism is defined in terms of actions that aim to achieve the Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has the most world consensus as far as humanity’s joint aspirational goals.
[Related read: Putting brand values behind brand politics]
5. Inspiring customers to use their purchasing power as a form of activism
While supporting digital altruism doesn’t have to involve money, making a conscious effort to purchase from brands that make an impact is another way customers act altruistically online. In fact, 66 percent of respondents said they’d pay more for products and services from companies dedicated to positive social and environmental impact, according to one survey. Studies also show that Gen Z consumers, who are expected to account for 40 percent of customers by the end of this year, already hold brands to higher standards, viewing their purchasing power as a model for activism.
An example of using your purchasing power as a form of activism might include increasing your online shopping budget to buy clothes from a brand committed to sustainability versus fast fashion, or purchasing a prom dress from ThreadUp, the world’s largest online thrift store, as opposed to getting the brand new one you’ve been eyeing. Many companies today are re-evaluating their processes, supply chain, and where they purchase their goods to find areas to be more ethical and sustainable. In turn, this enables consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions that support a more socially conscious and eco-friendly world.
An example of using your purchasing power as a form of activism might include increasing your online shopping budget to buy clothes from a brand committed to sustainability versus fast fashion.
Companies also empower customers to make altruistic purchasing decisions by creating new opportunities for them to give back. One example Klisanin gives is AmazonSmile. It donates 0.5% of the purchase price of an eligible product to a charity the customer chooses. Similarly, Bumble launched Moves Making Impact, where it donates to a woman making a positive change in her community for each first move on the women-centered dating app. Or, Bombas donates a pair of socks to someone in need every time a customer makes a purchase.
The rise of the cyberhero
Klisanin defines people who take positive action online, such as by making an effort to help others gain access to lifesaving food, water, and medicine or to protect animals and habitat, as often as possible, as “cyberheroes.” She explains that while we may not think of digital actions as carrying much risk in the United States, people using the internet to bring attention to injustices can risk jail sentences and even death in some countries.
And, people who perform acts of altruism online aren’t doing it just because it’s easier or more convenient than doing similar acts in real life. “Early on, research showed that people taking online action, for example, signing and sharing petitions, were also more likely to be the same people taking action in the physical world, for example, participating in nonviolent protest marches,” says Klisanin.
Perhaps it’s time to focus less on acquiring customers through bundle deals or flash sales and start winning their business by inspiring them to take action on behalf of others. With a more altruistic mindset, businesses and their customers can work together to make the world a better place, one click at a time.