Politicians have been fussing about the youth vote for decades, primarily because it’s virtually nonexistent. But if they could replicate Black Milk’s social media strategy they’d deliver the youth vote all wrapped up in a pair of Galaxy tights (and Question Period would get a whole lot more entertaining as well).
Okay, a little background. Black Milk is a small clothing manufacturer based in Brisbane Australia. It was started when James Lillis pawned his CD player to buy a sewing machine (??) and taught himself to sew leggings (men: think super tight brightly coloured stretchy pants).
In five years Black Milk mushroomed into a global enterprise selling dresses, swimsuits, skirts, tops, body suits and of course leggings, and along the way, created a global community of women united by a love of nylon.
Black Milk customers have pressed Lillis to use the Black Milk community to “shine a spotlight” on a troubling social issues. But Lillis will have none of it. He has no social agenda. “I started this fashion label so I wouldn’t have to get a real job, not to change the world”.
So here’s the real question: If a fashion designer whose sole purpose is “to sell tight clothes to awesome ladies” magically creates a community prepared to tackle pressing social issues, why can’t a politician do the same thing?
Develop a personal relationship
Let’s face it; most politicians on social media are boring. Their facebook pages, tweets and blogs run the gamut from self-promotion to outraged indignation at what the other guy is doing. Youth voters tune out. It’s time to learn from the master.
Lillis uses social media to foster a personal relationship with his customers (who he’s nicknamed “sharkies”). This takes effort and not a small dollop of courage. He asks sharkies for advice. I’m thinking of doing bicycle pants, what do you think? He throws himself at their feet and begs for mercy when their orders are delayed or poorly executed. He’s honest, breezy and irreverent.
The sharkies (who love their nickname by the way) feel they have a voice and their opinions matter. They’re loyal customers.
Interactive social media is not the one-way blast of partisan information that appears on Premier Redford’s twitter feed and facebook pages—citizens gamely raise concerns which hang in limbo unanswered and ignored.
Note: Calgary Mayor Nenshi is the exception to the rule. He interacts with Calgarians all the time. Here’s my favorite exchange:
- @banthedan What’s the point of the ridiculously expensive bridge again? What does it signify?
- @nenshi: I think it’s used to cross the river
Bottom line, social media is a forum for feedback. If a politician doesn’t want feedback then he should forget about social media (and the youth vote) and settle for sending us letters that end like this: We appreciate you taking the time to write and are happy to bring your comments to the attention of MLA Alison Redford now please go away. (Sorry, I added that last bit).
Develop a community
Lillis created an opportunity for his customers to connect in ways that had nothing to do with Black Milk making a profit. He allowed customers to set up sub-communities based on shared interests in fitness, pets, alternative lifestyles, geography and commerce—the BSS (“buy, sell, swap”) community is essentially a secondary market allowing customers to sell BM apparel to each other without going through the company.
Sharkies are free to post self-portraits and comment on the posts of their friends provided they don’t break Ellis’ 10 Commandments (of which there are only 8). The first commandment is “be sweet to each other”.
Sounds mushy but it’s good business because it builds cohesion and ensures that snarky commentators won’t drive others off the site. This lesson is learned too late or never by politicians and activist bloggers. A recent example was the attempt by the Broken City group to develop an all-party progressive alternative to the PCs. The effort fell to pieces when the “you’re an idiot” crowd elbowed the sincere participants off the stage.
Face to face
Here’s a gutsy move. Lillis came out from behind the veil of social media to meet sharkies face to face. These “meet-ups” cement relationships developed on-line and contribute to the feeling that Black Milk is “more like a family than a company”.
Meeting face to face is risky because it reveals one’s true personality. What if Lillis is a jerk? What if the so-called community is a sham? In Lillis’ case the risk is worth the gamble. He’s just as irreverent in person as he is on line.
Most politicians are loath to reveal their personalities. They hide behind well crafted speeches and carefully staged photo ops, but would never pop up on Youtube singing “I love my white shoes.” (Calgary’s Mayor, who else?)
Social Media and Politics
Politicians climbed on to the social media band wagon because their campaign advisors told them that a blog, twitter account and facebook page would capture the “youth vote”.
What they failed to recognize was that social media is just another tool. It achieves nothing unless it’s used by a politician prepared to interact with the community.
Young voters are attracted to politicians with integrity and humour. A politician who exemplifies these characteristics will capture their trust. Trust coupled with social media creates political power.
Lillis is a smart entrepreneur who uses social media very effectively to grow his business. There is no reason why a smart politician acting with integrity couldn’t achieve his political goals by taking a page from the Black Milk play book.
Got (Black) Milk, anybody?
My sincere thanks to all the sharkies who responded to my daughter (also a sharkie) who asked: why is Black Milk such a success. You rock!