CXO

DoSomething.org's Naomi Hirabayashi: CMO. Advocate for young people. Fan of great white sharks.

Naomi Hirabayashi tells TechRepublic about getting young people plugged into social good with a zero-dollar marketing budget.

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Image: Naomi Hirabayashi

When Naomi Hirabayashi walked across the stage to accept her diploma at James Madison University's graduation ceremony in 2006, the professor reading out names made an amendment to hers.

"Naomi Perseverance Hirabayashi." He knew that Hirabayashi had to been four schools in five years, laser focused on getting into and graduating from JMU. He knew she'd learned a big lesson — sometimes being young is hard.

In high school, Hirabayashi had participated in student government and been a cheerleader, but by junior year she'd hit a rough patch.

"I applied to one college, I didn't get in, and I didn't really care that I didn't get in. Then came senior year when it starts to all become a little bit more real. I got my shit together but it was a little bit too late," she said.

For the next few years, she went to community college, applied and got rejected from JMU, transferred to Radford University, applied again to JMU, got waitlisted, went back to a different community college nearby, and then was finally accepted.

It was, in a word, humbling. And especially after going to that second community college in an area that was less affluent, and spending time with students who didn't have much in the way of educational opportunities, it made her appreciate what she had.

So, in light of this good bit of self-searching and general tumult, and in the absence of a middle name, that professor dubbed her "Perseverance."

"Your early twenties and your late teens are so hard... you have this view of the way your life is going to go, and you should learn very early on that it doesn't always happen that way because it's life— the self-discovery and the humility," she said.

Though it's been almost a decade, she still carries that perspective with her, which translates into a certain compassion for the younger set.

Out of college, Hirabayashi moved to New York City in 2006 and went to work in ad sales for the Weather Channel. After a while, a friend from college recommended she interview with digital marketing agency Attention — with the added tip not to wear a suit.

They asked her what she knew about computers, and what her favorite blog was.

"I said IMDB, which is not even a blog," she said.

They hired her, and after coming from very pretty pre-digital training in PR, Hirabayashi eventually found a niche she really loved— social media for social good.

DoSomething was one of her clients and she joined the organization in in 2011, first as marketing director, and then as CMO in 2012.

The premise of DoSomething.org is fairly simple. They break down big social causes and help youth find ways to to get involved in them through different campaigns like "Shelter Pets PR," where kids can help find homes for rescue animals or "Nets for Nets," which encourages students to host a students vs. faculty basketball game at school to raise money to fight malaria.

Do Something is a 501c3 with a zero-dollar marketing budget. That means they have to get creative about how to effectively promote themselves, as they're primarily working within three buckets: earned, owned, and donated media.

Owned covers the social media channels they have like Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, earned is covered by their PR efforts, and donated comes from the relationships Hirabayashi helps build and maintain with other businesses and organizations.

In building these partnerships, Do Something has a strong asset to leverage — the ability to talk to young people.

Plus, they have a subsidiary agency spun out from Do Something that's called TMI, which takes the best practices of Do Something and applies it to other organizations.

This spring, Do Something is partnering with H&M for the second time for a campaign called Comeback Clothes, which encourages young people to host drives and donate old clothes at H&M locations across the country. Last year, the campaign brought in 400,000 pounds of clothing.

"We help mobilize the young people and H&M has the the resources and the program to actually make that recycle program happen," Hirabayashi said.

What's most important for Do Something is that they know how to talk to young people.

"We're not interested in marketing to parents to have them talk to their son about what they should be doing around different issues that they care about, we want to talk to that son directly and we want him to talk to his friends directly because we gave him something compelling that he wants to talk about," she said.

One of the ways they do that is through SMS texting. More than 2 million young folks get texts from Do Something, which include things like quizzes. The texts are personalized and sent out by one team member, in a conversational voice. Texts have a 97% open rate, and DoSomething.org keeps in mind that, for the most part, people only text with the people they want to text with.

At the same time, DoSomething.org also has to keep an eye out for whatever new platforms crop up — it seems like communication habits between people just a few years apart can differ wildly.

"I think it's part of the entire organizational mindset where part of knowing who you serve is knowing that you need to really make sure you're paying attention to things they're adopting or changing," she said.

So yes, that means Do Something was one of the first non-profits on Snapchat. Hirabayashi can see even from her own 17 and 18-year-old sisters that's where that segment of the population is.

Do Something could create all the campaigns they want, but if they can't reach kids, they can't motivate them to action.

"I think we're in an exciting time where working for some level of social good is becoming increasingly popular — with the studies around millennials really wanting to have that fulfillment — but that can also have so many different layers to it," she said.

In her own words...

How do you unplug?

"I love walking. I love walking in New York. I live in Brooklyn and a lot of times I will walk from Brooklyn into Manhattan and I'll walk over the Manhattan Bridge. I think there's something super healthy about stretching out your horizon and physically leaving the city, saying goodbye for the day. I love doing it in New York in particular because there's so many stimulating things to see.

"One of the amazing things about Do Something is that you can do a sabbatical after two years, for a month, paid leave. I got this amazing opportunity to go to North Central Kenya and I lived with this indigenous tribe, the Samburu, for a month, and this was in 2012. I lived outside for a month. You become so disconnected from the fact that this the way that so many people across the world live. When I came back, my goal for the year was to live outside more. You can sit in your box at work and get on the bus on the subway, or your box in your car, or your box in the gym and then go home."

What's a website or social media account that you like to read for fun?

"The Skimm is incredible. It's an e-letter everyday, and it's always rare if there's an e-letter you actually want to read. It's basically just a great run through of all of the news of the day and done in a really conversational way. It's funny, and it's informative. It's brilliant."

If you could try out a different profession, what would it be?

"Marine biologist! I want to go track and protect Great White sharks. I feel like that would be so much fun. It's so wildly different from what I do, but it would be so cool. Like 'What do you do?' 'I track Great White Sharks all day, what do you do?'"

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      About Erin Carson

      Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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