Capturing the Youth Vote: Got (Black) Milk?

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).

Galaxy Purple Leggings

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.

Mayor Nenshi

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! 

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6 Responses to Capturing the Youth Vote: Got (Black) Milk?

  1. Roy Wright says:

    Images of social media (SM) confuse people like myself who are best described as Later Day Luddites, but this latest “chat” has helped me figure out where to place it in my urban planner tool kit. Black Milk, through its simplicity, asks for advice (and truly wants it, reacts to it and lives by it) and thereby starts to build a personal relationship with each of its constituents, thus creating a team environment of “We’re in this together”. As urban planners, we often go into neighbourhoods, towns and cities looking to improve our environments through policy, through capital improvements and through social engagement. Prior to the 1960’s our professional style was to arrive with the “master plan” and just drop it onto unsuspecting residents. Public participation changed all that and people wanted to be part of the solution.

    We were taught that there are two reasons to “engage” the public. The first was to inform (which translated into a one way communication) while the second was to interact or get ideas from the general public. We were also taught not to mix the two concepts up because if you ask for advice, you had better not switch to the first model and ignore the comments as you will now have a very angry and insulted public. The “trick” is to truly believe that people from all walks of life can help you make a better plan or develop a better solution. We used public meetings, public open houses and surveys to draw people in and each one had its relative strengths and weaknesses.

    You accurately describe social media as just another tool. Recent planning exercises that have used social media to engage the public are becoming more common and indeed, are drawing youth commentary which is great. However, other tools of my vintage are still appropriate and should be used in conjunction with SM as not everyone feels comfortable with that form of engagement. However, the person, must truly be honest with themselves…do you really want to get other opinions that might differ from your own, (or worse, run counter to your special interest groups). People can tell whether you are just paying lip service to “engagement”, whether it be in the form of a meeting or chattering via social media and that is when we start to see disengagement of the electorate. Perhaps that is what some politicians want…get rid of the public so they can go about the business of governing without interference.

    Lastly, I loved the commandments such as…”be sweet to each other”. It sounded like Miss Manners in a digital age, which I feel is required if you want to build a respectful community that truly is in this together. Such honest engagement will make us better, whether it be for pants, planning or politics.

    • Roy, I think you identified the real reason why politicians are loath to use social media and other forms of citizen engagement appropriately. They really don’t want their constituents’ opinions. When they ask the question: What do you think? they risk getting an answer that doesn’t conform with party policy. (An example is the PC’s refusal to consider a different taxation model). It’s easier to engineer “public consultations” with a handpicked group of stakeholders who will give them the “feedback” they want. Their problem is that they really don’t believe, as you put it in your first paragraph, that people from all walks of life can help them make a better plan or develop a better solution.

      Citizens have become frustrated and disengaged as a result of being continually rebuffed by the politicians. This leaves the field wide open for big business and their lobbyists to create self-serving government policy with very little opposition.

      There is hope however. Advocacy groups like Public Interest Alberta and Whitemud Citizens for Public Health are successful in bringing issues to the public’s attention and providing an action plan for protest. Even blogs like the Soapbox help bring issues to light. I’ve learned a lot from commentators like Carlos, Wendy and Carol who provide links to helpful articles (and of course through lively discussions with you over the breakfast table).

  2. Carlos Beca says:

    I loved Roy’s last paragraph but somehow we manage to not be able to understand the obvious. Maybe we have been deceived too many times and being kind to others can be a major problem with con artists which abound everywhere. One just
    has to look at the latest news today. Mr. Smart Panties aka Fred Horne is not going after any of the executives that stole money from the public. As I predicted just a short while ago this would be all forgotten and maybe one day in the near future Mr. Merali can pay back the favour to Freddy. Just two years and the lawyer says that is not worth it ! Say what? So now we can steel money from the government and if you can hide it for 2 years you are off the hook. Great, just what the political class wanted to hear. The government is truly opened for business.
    It is amazing really what is going on and to think that this will not have great consequences in the future. Just watch the Senate as well. Pamela Wallin and her gang will just pay back some of what they stole and that is it. The prime Minister that was going to end the Senate or change it, brought in the greatest group of thieves of the last 30 years. At least that we know of. Judging by what is happening lately one wonders how many millions go down into their pockets every year.

    The reason these people cannot use SM effectivelly is because they are so used to be prepared for everything that being natural is not something they know or want to do. Nenshi is a different kind of politician and it would help to have some more like him. Unfortunately politics attracts people that want easy money and no ethics or morals.

    • Agreed. Fred Horne’s statement about why the government was not going to sue to recover excessive expense claims was a masterful piece of PR spin. It starts with this: “Our government was elected with a mandate to ensure government – and its agencies including Alberta Health Services (AHS) – live within their means.” Then goes on to say that’s why they brought in tough new expense policies and created strict rules around allowable expenses. And why they cut MLA pay by 8%. All that is utterly irrelevant.

      What Horne doesn’t say is that the real reason why the government won’t sue Merali for expense claims to pay for butlers and fixing his Mercedes or Ms Lahey for expensing her trip to the Mayo Clinic is because these expenses were approved by their CEO, Sheila Weatherill under the existing expense claim policy that the PC government put into place. You can’t sue someone to make them return expense funds when you, the government, allowed them to claim in the first place.

      The same thing is going to happen with Merali’s law suit for 12 months of severance. The PC government approved Merali’s contract of employment. The contract of employment provides for 12 months severance and Fred Horne hired Merali, notwithstanding the fact he got into trouble in Ontario for excessive expense claims. The contract is legally binding and Horne is going to have to cough up the 12 months’ severance. When Horne was asked about the Merali law suit he said “I have absolutely no comment to make on that issue”. No kidding, he knows that once the truth comes out it will cause another PR nightmare. Not exactly a shining example of “transparency” but typical of this government.

  3. Carlos Beca says:

    Susan I agree with you that there are groups working on issues that we have discussed here especially Health Care but the results are so minimal despite a lot of work done by many of these people. It is a hard job because there is basically no support from the mainstream media and very little from the public at large. People strongly believe that it is almost impossible to change anything in this province. The government has enormous resources and a great spin machine. Unless people are passionate about their social environment the involvement is none. Many people in this province do not even know who Fred Horne is. If you do not believe it, try it, ask the question and you will be surprised. Public Interest Alberta does not even exist on the radar of the majority of Albertans. Being in close relationship with the Unions makes it even worse.

    Summarizing, I am not really sure what can spark a reengagement of Albertans in the process. What has happened in Alberta and in Canada in the last while is serious and there is hardly a sound of protest. What else is needed for us to revolt against the Senate in a way that the Federal Government cannot ignore?

  4. Carlos, you’re right. This is a very steep hill we have to climb. I take heart in the progress we’ve made in forcing Health Minister Horne to backtrack on some of his privatization decisions and Human Services Minister Hancock to backtrack on PPD. These are but small steps, but we have to press on. (It can be quite a grind though!!!)

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