BC Hydro's Green Gifts: harnessing Facebook gift-giving energy for conservation

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When you're a company looking to make your first foray into the thickets of social media, building your own online community from scratch – and taking on everything from usability issues to platform selection to how you get that critical mass of people to sign up in the first place – can seem pretty daunting, and with good reason.

British Columbia's public power utility, BC Hydro, is taking a different tack: a toe in the water that could well signal a bigger splash to come. Instead of building their own stand-alone entry in the Web 2.0 sweepstakes and trying to lure users from other sites, they've headed to where people are already participating in droves: Facebook.

We've worked with BC Hydro to create Green Gifts, a brand new Facebook Platform application. Green Gifts lets you send a free virtual gift to your friends, including an icon-sized environmentally-themed image, a personal message from you, and a practical Power Smart tip for conserving energy and reducing your environmental footprint.

Green Gifts front page

And it's that tip that's the key to the whole thing. Virtual gift-giving is huge on Facebook (as your notification inbox attests soon after you join it). We want to capture just a little of that activity... and give people a chance to devote it to energy conservation.

Which is emblematic of the approach we're recommending to many of our clients who are new to the social web (and more than a few who are old hands). You don't have to create the next Facebook, YouTube or Flickr to successfully engage your public; especially if you're starting out, join them wherever they're already participating:

  • Chances are good your potential users are already voting with their feet - or, more to the point, their browsers. For instance, judging by the figures for the Vancouver and Kelowna networks alone, there are well over half a million British Columbians registered on Facebook, and the number keeps growing. The province's goal of becoming energy self-sufficient by 2016 makes it urgent that BC Hydro's message reach as many ears and eyes as possible... and Facebook's an ideal vehicle.
  • Look for opportunities that offer plenty of participatory infrastructure. The Facebook Platform is loaded with features, beautifully usable and highly flexible. (Want to program in PHP? Go ahead. Java? Sure. Flash? Knock yourself out.) The documentation is extensive and, at least as far as functionality goes, thorough. (Facebook's admirable determination to prevent spam and abuse, on the other hand, translates into unannounced notification restrictions and usage algorithms that had us climbing the walls once or twice. Eh, we lived.)
  • Look for the culture of participation among the users, and work with it. Facebook is a place where people come to keep touch with each other, and often it's a light touch at that. Green Gifts gives users a way to connect, while spreading the word about conservation.

So if we've seemed a little more excitable than usual these past few weeks, now you know why: we've been working on one of the most fun projects we've taken on so far, on a topic that's core to our social mission, on a platform we've been itching to dig into for the better part of a year, with a client that has the (ahem) power to make a real difference in sustainability.

We've had the privilege of working with some first-rate people, too. Agencies that operate in strict regulatory environments often have to find their way carefully in new media, but we were impressed at our client's determination to get their feet wet in the world of social networking.

And on the project team, we had the pleasure of working with folks like Jeff Reifman of NewsCloud fame and Communicopia's Jason Mogus. But the guy who truly blew us away was illustrator extraordinaire Jeremy Crowle, who produced some absolutely gorgeous icons for the first round of gifts:

bikefruit baskettreetoilet

I hope you'll check Green Gifts out. You can find it right here.

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