The Power of Digital & Innovation Firsts: Using Social Media for Social Good

By Carrie Kerpen, CEO

Last year (RED) marked its 10th anniversary. (RED) has raised $465 million with 100% going to HIV/AIDS programs in sub-Saharan Africa. 

When Chrysi Philalithes first started working for (RED) in 2009, she wanted to create a digital mantra for the organization – and as (RED)’s digital lead it was in 140 characters. “Participation not promotion, dialogue not monologue, leading not following, empowering not excluding, inspiring not forcing.” 

(RED) has done a tremendous job activating social media for social good. (RED)’s secret to success? Focus on being first. Always innovate. Have partnerships at the core.

Below, Philalithes shares her thoughts on the organization’s “digital firsts” strategy and explains why it’s important to stay curious in a rapidly changing world. 

What Got Her the Job: Healthy Stalking and Serendipity

Philalithes is of Greek-Cypriot origin, born and raised in London, and a self-described “web 1.0” person. After launching her career in politics and then advertising, her entrepreneurial spirit got her into the digital world early on as a founding team member of Espotting, Europe’s first paid search network. Philalithes ran Marketing & Communications and helped grow Espotting to 250 people across eight European markets. Espotting sold for around $170 million.

The company that bought Espotting then asked Philalithes to move to New York to run marketing and communications for the group. After selling Espotting Philalithes knew she wanted her next move to have purpose and impact. “I remember going in to my founder’s office saying, ‘I want to keep my skillset, and do it for something that has purpose.’”

Coming from the entrepreneurial world she was drawn to ideas that used innovation and creativity – not to traditional charity models – and then she discovered an organization called (RED). "I fell in love with the (RED) model. It was so smart and innovative." 

When people ask Philalithes how she ended up at (RED), she says, “healthy stalking and serendipity.” You can add to that patience - it was a two-year journey. 

After coming home from work one day, Philalithes turned on the television to see Bono launching (RED) on “Oprah.” Immediately, she said, “That’s the company for me.”  Next she made two phone calls, one to Columbia University, where she enrolled in a human rights program so that she could immerse herself in the issues. The second call was to someone she thought could help get her resume in front of the (RED) team, thus beginning the “healthy stalking.”

Needing to do more to get in front of (RED), Philalithes saw an article about the organization in a trade magazine, so she decided to write a letter to the editor with her viewpoint. The letter was published and she then looked up the person from (RED) quoted in the magazine, took a few attempts at figuring out her email, and eventually managed to get through to her and began a dialogue. That’s when serendipity struck. The founder of Espotting, Seb Bishop, called Philalithes one day to let her know that he’d been asked to interview for the international CEO role of an organization called (RED). Her response: “You have to go for this interview. And please let them know about me.” He got the job and Philalithes was one of his first hires.

Digital & Innovation Firsts

Everyone from (RED) comes from various backgrounds, including music, advertising, publishing, and entertainment so they have done some incredibly innovative things in marketing. When Philalithes joined (RED), she saw the brilliance that the rest of the organization was creating and the large brand campaigns led by Sheila Roche who launched (RED), and with the (RED) team, looked to apply that in the digital realm. That’s how (RED)’s digital strategy was born. Says Philalithes, “One of the key things we wanted to do was put a stake in the ground of doing digital firsts and push the (RED) brand forward by giving people even more innovative and creative ways to get involved in the AIDS fight.”

(RED)’s “digital firsts" strategy was born with a partnership with Twitter. In 2009, (RED) and Nike went to Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, with an idea to do something the social network had never done before: change the color of its tweets. Nike and (RED) were launching their global partnership and went to pitch their idea: On World AIDS Day, every time someone used hashtags #RED or #LaceUpSaveLives (the Nike campaign at the time), it would turn the tweet the color red. “Thanks to the Twitter founders’ commitment to social justice issues, Twitter turned red – literally” explains Philalithes. This campaign resulted in over half a million tweets turning red in one day, with over 50 celebrities and brands kicking off the campaign, from Ashton Kutcher to Shakira and Coldplay. (RED)’s tweet launching the campaign became the most retweeted tweet at that time. Twitter helped put (RED) on the digital map. 

Thus began the pattern of digital firsts, using social media for social good. (RED) became the first non-profit with over 1 million on both Twitter and Facebook. Today (RED) has a digital audience of over 6 million. Back in 2012, (RED) set the record for the most amount of money raised using Foursquare check-ins with a partnership with Starbucks. In 2013, the organization set the first world record on Vine (RIP). In 2015, (RED) partnered with Snapchat on their first-ever global filter for good. The filter was created in collaboration with Tiësto, Jared Leto and Jimmy Kimmel and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated every time the filter was used. The goal was to raise $3 million – (RED) reached it with 15 hours of the campaign left to go.

(RED)’s biggest digital moments have been with the App Store. In 2014, Apple and (RED) collaborated on ‘Apps for (RED)’, to bring the power of the App Store to the AIDS fight for the first time. In 2016 for World AIDS Day they worked together once again on 'Games for (RED)' - 20 apps created unique content for (RED) only available on the App Store with 100% of the proceeds going to fight AIDS. Thanks to Apple, the developers and everyone who played, ‘Games For (RED)’ raised $9 million which can provide 30 million days of life-saving HIV/AIDS medication.

Constantly Innovating In A Rapidly Changing World

It can be difficult to stay up to date and engaged in this rapidly changing world, how does (RED) keep managing to stay one step ahead? "It comes from leadership. (RED)'s CEO Deb Dugan is always pushing us as a team to think bigger and brighter." Curiosity, Philalithes feels, also helps. "If you’re curious, even if it's about a medium, platform or technology that isn’t intuitive to you, you’re curious as to why it’s intuitive to others. And I'm lucky to work with such brilliant and bright people at (RED) who are constantly curious." 

Philalithes also had the benefit of coming up in the startup scene, which taught her how to take calculated risks and be comfortable with being first to market. "When new tools, products, and companies arise, it’s important to hone your intuition to know which are right for you and your brand and to then give them a try." Philalithes believes in giving things that feel right a try, even if they haven’t been done before and then running with what works.

Says Philalithes, “One of the biggest things I learned being in digital early was to try a bunch of new things and to ‘fail quickly’ and concentrate on the things that are working." 
 

Carrie Kerpen is the CEO of Likeable Media, a social media agency. She is passionate about social media, and connecting women in digital via her podcast, All The Social Ladies. Tweet her @carriekerpen

This blog was originally published on Forbes.