MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Wendy Cohen at the SMASH | April 13, 2011

On April 7th, 2011, the MHB program hosted a social media summit at the USC Davidson Center in downtown Los Angeles. The first-ever SMASH, or Social Media Advanced Skills Huddle, amassed industry professionals, graduate students and professors for short lectures and brainstorming huddles. In the continuing MHB Weekly coverage of the event’s distinguished speakers and key ideas, today looks at digital campaign strategist Wendy Cohen.

Ms. Cohen, the Director of Digital Campaigns and Community for Participant Media, has worked on controversial and highly-successful films including Waiting for Superman, The Cove and Food, Inc. Her company, which weaves social issues and political activism into documentaries and dramatic films alike, has received three Academy Awards, produced more than fifty high-profile projects and raised tens of millions of dollars for its various causes — animal rights, homelessness and American education among them — in just seven years of existence. Ms. Cohen explained how Participant’s creation of online content, from microsites to Twitter feeds, is unique to each film, and customized for audience, topic and tone.

She used the case study of Food, Inc., which examines the cruel and unhealthy slaughtering techniques of the American farm system, to start her presentation. The social media story behind the movie is unique and inspiring: once the film was released, the Twitter community started attaching the #foodinc hashtag to posts about nutrition, cooking, vegetarianism and countless other topics both directly related to and merely inspired by the documentary, with such frequency and fervor that Participant felt no need to create its own Food, Inc. Twitter account. Instead, it relied on this existing and continuously-updating content to heighten exposure to the film; as Ms. Cohen explained, the internet allows companies to “be where the conversation is already happening” as opposed to redirecting the discussion away from forums where individuals feel comfortable. (Facebook pages, however, are still a must — the Food, Inc. profile has nearly 300,000 fans.)

With Waiting for Superman, a contentious look at America’s failings in public education, the strategy differed. Because the film engaged with targeted audiences based on identity and location, Participant used a website with sections for parents and teachers, as well as respective directions for activism. It also created a statistically-daunting and visually-mesmerizing PSA, “Shock and Awe,” which ran in theaters as a sort of trailer and eventually made its way to YouTube:
To close her presentation, Ms. Cohen shared an anecdote to show the versatility and unexpected benefits of social media in an interactive world. On one of Virgin America’s first wireless flights, she explained, an airborne lawyer tweeted about just having passed the bar — prompting Virgin America, from its own Twitter account, to urge the plane’s other passengers to buy the lawyer a drink. Someone did exactly that in the air, creating an entire in-flight network within minutes thanks to a few well-placed tweets. Twitter is at its finest, said Ms. Cohen, when used as an outlet for customer service.

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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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