Marni Edelhart: Hi this is Marni Edelhart Director of Content and Experience for the Pivot Conference on the line with Shelton Mercer, Fortune 100-bred Innovator, Entrepreneur, Speaker and Philanthropist Shelton Mercer is CEO of Mashable Award winner and celebrity-driven crowdfunding pioneer TwitChange, founder of the Mercer Advisor Group and recent founder of Big Data and entertainment startup Predictive Pop. Shelton started his career with enterprise tech giant Lucent Technologies and has advised and directed solutions for dozens of global market leaders including Disney, NBC, Warner Bros, GE, KPMG and Johnson & Johnson.
A deep passion for people on the planet has fueled Shelton to mobilize thousands to donate, volunteer and advocate, lead multiple-service missions to crisis points and developing nations, connect corporations, brands and governments with social impact initiatives and hold significant NGO executive and board posts. Shelton has received numerous honors for his work including Top 50 Social Good Leaders You Must Follow on Social Media by the Huffington Post, Hero and Humanitarian Award from the Pennsylvania Senate, and Champion for Haiti from the Haitian Professionals of America. Good morning, Shelton.
Shelton Mercer: Good morning, Marni. Thanks for having me.
Marni Edelhart: My pleasure, it’s exciting to speak with you and a mouthful to describe all the good you’ve done, so I am very excited to learn more.
Shelton Mercer: Thank you very much.
Marni Edelhart: You launched TwitChange in 2010. Can you tell us about your inspiration for TwitChange and how it has developed and surprised you since launch?
Shelton Mercer: Sure, the Haiti earthquake hit in the beginning of 2010 January and of course people remember. It was one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the history, in our modern history. And I had been working at the intersection of some really good philanthropic efforts in particularly with Stop Hunger Now and the UN Foundation and people of that nature. And so we were helping to mobilize folks around hunger relief and trying to get crisis relief down to Haiti. And we had some great events with literally thousands of people helping to package meals and send supplies and donate money. And I mean we’ve literally had people like I package had the Vice President Dr. Joe Biden and Mayor Michael Nutter from Philadelphia and sports broadcaster Ron Jaworski people like that package meals and send those down to Haiti.
I’ve taken multiple trips to Haiti as well. And it just became that that was really great, but there was a way to bring my worlds together. I’ve worked with in Hollywood since 2000 and I guess really 2007 and was able to bring all of that energy of working with celebrities and working with media groups, also with nonprofits and businesses and it just made sense. And so our team got together what can we do that was going to be innovative and exciting. Social media had risen, Twitter was starting to really get its legs under it and it was a big deal to have a celebrity follow you or mention you on Twitter. And so we held the first ever Twitter auction in 2010. Eva Longoria was so awesome to be our headliner, another 200 plus celebrities joined her to basically auction, celebrity follows and mentions on eBay.
And we ran a 10-day campaign and were able to raise close to a million dollars through people bidding on celebs to follow them as well as other celebrity autographed merchandise and things of that nature. And that began a real movement. We did several more auctions like that. We’ve done a Super Bowl Weekend where we took over Times Square and put Troy Polamalu and Shaquille O’Neal and Kim Kardashian up on big billboards with American Eagle Outfitters billboard. And we’ve raised money for veterans, US veterans and military families. We’ve raised money for girls’ education in India that way. And it’s really become — we were pretty much a trailblazer in this whole crowdfunding celebrity social media movement. And there’s other players now, we have some real good partners that we work with.
And how we’ve what’s really I guess I don’t know if it was surprising but encouraging is that you can leverage the power of influence to do a lot of things. And so in my professional life often I am helping celebrities and brands figure out ways to get audience and fans to do things, buy a ticket, download an mp3, tweet out a message or buy a product or/and attend an event. And so bringing that together with TwitChange has been pretty exciting We’ve run those Twitter auctions, we do celebrity experience raffles. So we will now do very accessible ways that people can donate you know 10 to $25 even as low as that for a chance to have a trip of a lifetime to go meet a celebrity somewhere in the country, in the world actually or have some exclusive celebrity experience that they just couldn’t get.
And then that money is going into directly to nonprofits and social good organizations. And I have been just really pleasantly pleased with the way that we can get so many fans, literally thousands of people have participated. We’ve helped to put millions of dollars into the social impact sector. And my celebrity friends and colleagues are just always excited to get involved with TwitChange and anything that we can do to tell their stories. They’re very passionate, some of them have raised money for their own foundations and own nonprofits. Others have joined in to some of our bigger multi-celebrity campaigns but all in all we have really settled into telling great stories of change via twitchange.com, whether they’re celebs or just every day celebrities.
We tell stories about regular people who are doing things to change the world. And then these campaigns that we are able to run now are very accessible. So you don’t need to have ten thousand dollars to bid on a celebrity, in an auction. You can have ten dollars to donate to a cause that you care about and you could win a trip to London or to go hang out on the set of The Avengers or a trip to Hollywood, to walk the red carpet at the Oscars. All those are things that people love to do and they’re doing good at the same time. So it’s become a maturation place and it’s a really, really fun thing that we’re doing with TwitChange.
Marni Edelhart: It does sound like a lot of fun. Many brands are looking to build authentic relationships with their customers. What has your work with celebrities that TwitChange taught you about effective social engagement?
Shelton Mercer: Well the keyword there I think is authentic. We also do a lot of traditional kind of work with celebs where we’re managing their social media accounts, and helping to drive their audiences via their digital presence. And so what we found is that authentic voices, a real great connection with fans and customers is important. What you see now happening, is something that I’ve always espoused, is that if you are a consumer or a corporate or a personal brand that you be your most authentic self in the social sphere. I mean of course you can’t tell everything, everybody everything. But if you recall the rise of Twitter became this – we were able to get through the velvet rope with celebrities.
So many celebs still do, love their own Twitter accounts because they’re able to get close to fans. Now you know, there is some minefields that can happen, and some of us who work with them in the capacity as marketing teams and brand teams, we get a little nervous when celebs want to pick up their phone and start to tweet or do their own Instagram. But it has, authenticity is key, being able to relate and to respond to fans is really key and to customers. And so what I do is I translate even the dynamics of whether it’s a celebrity with twenty million followers or if it’s a brand with a few hundred thousand followers, I am helping our clients to do the same things.
Get strong, consistent messaging, have conversations with your audience, whether it’s fans or it’s consumers or it’s other businesses that you’re selling to, and make sure that that is something that you’re doing on a very regular basis. Giving them compelling content that they want to engage with and making sure that you’re listening to what people are saying about your brand is probably some of the most important lessons that we’ve learned. And you can’t respond to everything, you know and sometimes brands and celebs get into trouble because they want to respond to every person that’s a naysayer or is negative. We are just trying to help them be very wise and very deliberate about how to communicate. But again the most important thing is really in your question, being authentic, being real, being accessible is a way to be successful in social.
Marni Edelhart: Yeah I think that not responding to everything can be very, very hard sometimes, but super important. So like many serial entrepreneurs you have built and currently lead multiple businesses. How do you determine which enterprises are right for you, and what projects that you working on is most exciting to you right now?
Shelton Mercer: Yeah so you know I always say entrepreneurship is like you’ve got to be able — be willing to be a bungee jumper or a skydiver. You know you jump out airplanes and jump off of a cliff sometimes, but you know you got a real plan of how you’re going to get to the bottom or get to the top or whatever, and whatever floats your boat with that statement. But you know the emphasis is leadership. I really have the privilege right now to — we’ve had some great success, built some great companies, exited some awesome companies as well. And the thing that I have settled into is leadership. To me leadership is vision. It is recruiting people to share the vision with and including a space for their vision as well.
So I have some amazing people, partners and staff, and advisors who are part of my enterprise, if you will, with the multiple companies that I have the privilege to either lead or co-lead. And it has been that methodology and that real-value system I have for including people into the vision, making sure that our pathways are clear and our goals are clear. And then having really bright, brilliant folks that are operating at the highest level that I can do more of guiding and directing and making decisions. I think that’s the most important part of leadership is being able to make decisions, making good decisions, and making them in a pretty quick time. And sometimes you got to be a little more patient about pressing the button but I think a lot of leadership is making decisions.
And so I have really been able to be judicious about what I put my hands to. At this point in my life I most — pretty much everything I do I either have majority or a large part of ownership of that’s very important to me as we build for the future. And it is really exciting right now. I actually recently have launched a new company called Predictive Pop with my co-founder Jon Gosier, who’s actually hosting the Pivot Conference this year. I am very excited for him, and we have just had — we have had an amazing ride with our brand new company and it’s so exciting. We figured out some technology where we can help solve a problem for the music industry right now where revenues for recorded music are at an all-time low.
And with the rise of streaming and social which is really great for the proliferation of music it hasn’t been so great for the profiteering from music. So we’ve come up with some technology and some tools that we’re putting into the hands of musicians and their management teams. We’re putting before music executives, label executives and everybody’s excited. We figured out some ways to put billions of dollars of unrealized and brand-new revenue into the music industry, looping in consumer brands into the mix as well. And so I am extremely excited about Pred Pop, we’ve been able to have some awesome conversations and working on some really great collaborations with top household name artists, top music labels and some of the top brands in the world.
And so Jon and I are just chomping at the bit to continue to tell the world about what we’re doing. We put out a music canvas just very recently with 25 years of top music hits and visualization of how they are connected, with some YouTube integration and really funky, really sexy kind of stuff that looks like eye candy. But when you get behind it you realize there’s so much power of data and technology going on that’s driving our music data canvas. That is pretty exciting as I talk to people in the space that have just been pretty much a very overwhelmingly positive excitement about what we’re doing with Pred Pop. So it’s probably where you can hear my voice, it’s probably a thing that I’m really, really excited about.
It’s the most recent thing and we’ve got some other things that are very exciting too, but Pred Pop is really at the top of my list. And has me charged in going every day to try to build something significant and major.
Marni Edelhart: Yeah you can definitely hear it in your voice and I’ve seen the canvas. And it’s pretty fun to explore, I try not to let myself give up too much to that on any given day.
Shelton Mercer: But it’s pretty immersive, right. It could you take you in there and suck you in there.
Marni Edelhart: Exactly once I start digging in, I am like oh no there goes my day. So I want to switch gears a little bit because I want to focus on some of your work in developing nations. And I am just curious how the time you spent in developing nations has informed your business practices?
Shelton Mercer: Wow. Yeah that’s a great question. You know I think that that part of me has — is a real key part and I think that I’m always — it’s really important that people, and not to get any accolades but people know how passionate that I am about helping places in the world that need the most help, and helping to try to bring equity and justice to other peoples in the world. I’ll tell that it’s — probably the biggest thing it’s helped me of around business practices is it’s a value that I’ve always shared. But one, understanding people’s stories and giving basic respect to every person you meet is something that I am a real stickler about. Anyone that works with me whether it’s in as a peer or as someone that’s a part of our — that we’re leading, there’s a value about every person’s valuable. Every idea is valuable, every insight is valuable, no matter what the person’s title or station in life is.
I’ve learned things from kids in Central America, in Haiti, in Asia and in Africa that have been more compelling than things I’ve learned from professors or Harvard-educated thought leaders. But I do remember you know in my early career being at Lucent Technologies and working with GE, with Jack Welch you know Mr. CEO’s CEO. And I never forget we worked on a project when he was actually transitioning out, and he said something really compelling to me, to the group was every idea counts, no matter if you are a Vice President or an administrative support person.
His position was if you don’t listen to a person’s insights and ideas and value their particular abilities within their sphere then you might be out of the organization no matter what your title is. So a lower-level person, an intermediate or junior-level person has insights about what they’re doing that can benefit the organization that are as valuable as a c-suite executive. And I’ve seen that in action with people and nations that are working day-in day-out, traveling, walking miles to get basic necessities like food and water. And then it’s also that the second thing I think I’ve learned is that the most basic things are the most important.
And one anecdote I give is, is Cité Soleil is one of the poorest slums in the world, and it’s in Haiti. And when I was there in 2011 — I remember the trip, one of the trips we took in 2011, we took a film crew down. And we were just trying to document some of the things and one of the missions there, there was one source at that time of clean water in the entire town of Cité Soleil. And at 4 AM in the morning the line is hundreds and hundreds of people long with their containers waiting to get clean water. And I’ve got a video clip with one of the leaders there and he just said, he turned around and he said, clean water will change Haiti and change the world. And it’s something we take for granted is just that we turn on a faucet. We go to a spigot and we get water out and we take bottles of water and they are half drank, and they’re just lying everywhere.
And here I am in this place and there are literally hundreds of people that are waiting to get a gallon or five gallons of clean water that’s got to last them until the next day. So it’s the small basic things that are very important, making sure we provide that for people, giving dignity to people. Or just really what’s helped me to build strong organizations where people feel very respected, where we’re all about core principles and core mission, and then we together go and achieve really great things.
Marni Edelhart: It’s pretty impressive and exciting for everything that you can do next, I mean.
Shelton Mercer: Thank you.
Marni Edelhart: I want to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done with children. You do a lot of work with children to improve the lives of children in America and across the world. What single technology do you think could be most impactful in improving children’s live if rolled out across the whole planet?
Shelton Mercer: I mean that’s an easy one: Mobile. Mobile is changing the world as we say it now. And the rise of smartphones has really been able to improve the lives of people all over the globe. I’ve seen it, any country you go to — the more we can get mobile access and then mobile devices because it’s very accessible. You know you just need to put it in your pocket. And so what I’ve seen is that even in some of the developing nations we’ve seen recently, part of we’ve worked with some education initiatives where children are learning to read. And I know that UNSECO had released a report last year about you know there are almost 750 million people that are illiterate in the world. And so mobile is helping children learn to read.
It’s exposing them to the outside world which is really important for their imagination. What we found is if children can’t read and even in their own native language it doesn’t matter what kind of devices they have. So a lot of groups are using mobile devices to help children learn to read, to learn to love to read and that opens up their worlds too. We did some stuff with CARE with TwitChange in 2011 and raised some good money for them for girls, to get girls into schools. And part of that was mobile technology that they could have. We see that Google right now has launched a Project Lune in Sri Lanka and they’ve got their balloons literally providing mobile access to the entire country. Now people can have mobile devices.
I was with some folks at Ericsson at one of the social good summits and they were talking about how they had put mobile towers in southern Sudan, one of the most forsaken parts of the world. And I know first hand how difficult it is there in southern Sudan. They put mobile towers in to help with crisis relief and also with community building where rivaling tribes were having so much trauma. And this ability to put these mobile devices in there give them access to the outside world, but also connect them so that communication could be more real time. And so what I’m seeing is that is the rise of mobile across the world is so important. And we’re working on some really great projects to get mobile devices into the hands of as many children as we can.
We’ve helped get tablets to children in India as well as in Central and South America. And that is changing the world. It is helping to open up the imaginative eyes of young people where they’re seeing and connecting with children, others like them all across the planet. They’re learning that there are similarities regardless of what continent you’re on. And what happens is that even if you’re in a first-world nation and you have all the creature comforts children in the US and in Western nations are connecting with children in other foreign lands in ways that they never have, whether they’re gaming together or whether they are doing projects together. They’re learning how to respect other cultures and how to be inquisitive and to ask questions and to then have a broader perspective about what the world is.
And so hands down I say as many as much as we can get mobile technology into the places that need it most, it will improve the lives of people there because it will give them ability to connect with the outside world, have aspirations to really make a contribution to the global society. And the people who are already functioning in that sector and society can have greater respect for those who are looking for on ramps and access into the mainstream conversations and frankly mainstream development of the world. So I know I’m being redundant but that’s the single most, if I had to choose one is if I could get a mobile device, a smart device to every child in the world, we would dedicate the next ten years to make sure they all had it in their hands.
Marni Edelhart: So I am looking forward to seeing that happen, and I am so glad we have someone like you fighting for it on the frontlines. So thank you so much Shelton. It’s been really nice to speak with you.
Shelton Mercer: Thank you Marni, really enjoyed it.