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Can fundraising marketers recreate the #icebucketchallenge?

Posted by Tom Megginson | 21-08-2014 19:11 | Academy | Category: Social Marketing

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Yesterday, it finally happened. Somebody challenged me to the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS.

If your internet connection has been broken all summer, it’s this year’s big meme. You can read about it here.

To be honest, I felt that the movement had passed its high-water mark when I saw Justin Bieber do it. But as all internet fads do near their end, it now saturates my Facebook and Twitter feeds. In other words, it’s impossible to ignore.

That’s great news for the ALS Association, who have seen a $30 million fundraising spike this summer. It’s also meant a great deal, personally, for people with ALS (and their families), like Anthony Carbajal to have this really brutal issue made top-of-mind.

But what does the phenomenal success of this fundraising meme mean for the future of fundraising? As a social marketer, I can’t help but take a cold, hard look at how things have — or have not —changed.

The Ice Bucket Challenge got lucky. It was the right meme, at the right time. It combines the pure silliness of things like #planking or “Gangnam Style” dancing with more committed fundraising ideas like Movember or Run For The Cure. It’s incredibly easy to take video of yourself getting soaked, compared to growing a moustache or gathering pledges for an event. And unlike pure awareness campaigns, like women sharing their bra colour on Facebook, this one asks for a financial commitment: $10 to do it, or $100 to not. It also has a handy self-replicating component built in, as each participant is supposed to challenge three other people to do the same. (It inherits this aspect from less-helpful memes, like the Cinnamon Challenge.)

This winning formula seems so contrived and obvious, it’s shocking that a marketer didn’t do it first. Instead, it was a former college ball player named Pete Frates who most sources credit with getting it going. But you just know that people who develop fundraising campaigns for brands and causes are hard at work trying to dream up “the next one.”

They will probably fail. If you remember #planking, do you remember #shamrocking? No? Maybe because McDonald’s tried to force a meme, when they really have a life of their own.

The Ice Bucket Challenge gained traction early on through celebrity participation. The reason they jumped on board, I have to assume, is because the meme is “pure” in intention and origins. If it had been pushed at them by the not-for-profit itself — or worse, the corporate social responsibility agent of some brand — it wouldn’t have made it.

Not that that will stop them. For a creative an industry that values original thought, there is an awful lot of borrowed interest.

So what can we do for our clients?

Slacktivists are still a reliable source of awareness campaigns, even though they’re wary of opening their wallets (Seth Godin reports that even in the ice bucket challenge, 9/10 of participants don’t donate.) However, they do provide the bandwagon effect that makes people want to get on. Being part of something is as much part of human nature as wanting to stand out. Personalizing a popular meme lets people both join a winning team and show their friends how much more in-the-know they are. That’s not going anywhere fast.

It’s a short-term win, however. The few memes that break through lose their cool factor rapidly once they reach a point at which too many people have done it. You can get on board, but you’re no longer special for doing so. This week is probably the last before the Ice Bucket Challenge starts its decent towards being forgotten.

That’s the challenge. As my brother, David, pointed out to me on Facebook, our current era of “impulse giving” looks good on the surface, but overall charitable giving has been declining for years. In the past, charity was a humble and quiet, but steady thing. People planned giving through churches and social clubs, which provided more sustainable support for charitable organizations, who could budget and staff accordingly. Now, we give and get quick hits of generosity. It’s fundraising crack.

This is not to say that a $30 million influx in ALS funding (in the US alone) is a bad thing. Through community partners, ALSA provides support for people living with ALS, and their families, as well as funding research. Even though many Ice Bucket Challenge participants believe that they are raising funds “to end ALS” the reality of incurable diseases is that we don’t really know if a cure is possible. We hope that one is, but hope plus millions more in research funding guarantee nothing.

With the work I’ve done with some cancer charities, I’ve learned that there’s much more to the “fight” than research. A single-minded focus on finding a cure can neglect the needs of the already-afflicted, and the families who care for them. These are immediate needs, and especially in the United States access to medical funding can greatly improve quality-of-life. As well, organizations that provide support, counselling and networking for people with terminal diseases and their families are essential. The desire to eradicate a terrible disease may motivate activism, but in some cases it is a very distant, perhaps even unattainable, goal.

Of course, from a marketing point-of-view, the simpler the message the better. “Help me beat ALS”’ is more catchy than “Help me incrementally increase empathy and support for people living with a really scary neurodegenerative disease.” And pouring a bucket of ice over your head to make a one-off donation is more fun than quietly committing to planned giving. I get it. But there is a huge difference between awareness and commitment. In an ideal world, the momentum of the Ice Bucket Challenge will allow ALSA and its equivalents in other countries to secure long-term commitments from some of its new champions.

(In my own country, ALS Canada has actually pulled down their whole web site and put in its place a page soliciting one-time donations for the Ice Bucket Challenge. There’s no information, or even an option for long-term giving. This really bothered me, especially for a campaign that is supposed to raise awareness as well as money.) UPDATE: Not any more.

What will more likely happen, in a very short time, is that the Ice Bucket Challenge will fade. In its wake will be endless attempts to repeat its winning formula, but they will be met with apathy because the Ice Bucket Challenge will have caused donor fatigue. As the Christmas fundraising rush approaches, charities (including ALS ones) will turn to their traditional means of reaching regular donors, competing for consumer dollars. Movember will raise its hairy head again, a little less successfully than a few years ago when it was at its prime. People will be inundated with appeals, and they will choose the ones that are most relevant too them. With a little luck, the ALS cause will be one of them.

2015 will bring a new meme, for a new cause. It will be a health issue, most likely a terminal one (I include depression among these), and people will do something a little more extreme and attention-getting to do their part. It won’t be concocted in the boardroom of an ad agency, but it will be dreamt up by someone with nothing to lose. Celebrities and companies will use the meme to enhance their own personal brands, which will help spread the message. At the same time, a backlash will develop. People will question the motives of the participants, or the appropriateness of the action. Contrarian statements saying “I’m not doing it, let me tell you why” will evolve into “you shouldn’t do it either” shaming. This will only fan the flames by bringing more people into the conversation. The charity will enjoy record web traffic and donations. The party will end.

If people are so predictable, why can’t marketers invent these movements? Because memes follow their own evolutionary path. The only reason it looks so easy to invent a new meme is because we’ve forgotten about all the ones that failed. It’s survivor bias. We can look back and see how all the pieces of something like the Ice Bucket Challenge came together, but we can’t reverse-engineer it. There’s just too much randomness involved.

Instead, we can look at the long, incremental and unstoppable growth of cancer charities. Not just the controversial behemoth Susan G. Komen for the Cure, but the countless others that create and participate in seasonal events and drives. Because cancer touches so many lives, as a cause it attracts the attention and support of countless individuals who are willing to make long-term commitments and real sacrifices. While the some companies involved in the breast cancer cause have endured justified criticism, overall support is so widespread and diverse that it is in no danger of waning. And that’s what brings in the predictable and sustainable funding that charities depend on. It also builds lasting awareness and understanding — not just name recall.

We, as social marketers, can help other causes build this kind of momentum by helping them focus their message, reach the right people, and lower the barriers to fundraising. There are organizations all around you that really need attention, and can either save or improve the lives of people who are suffering. Give them the help they need, and that they can afford. Teach them how to use social media to grow and galvanize their community of support. Give them tools, like participatory challenges, that they can try out.

But for goodness’ sake, don’t pitch them on having “The Next Ice Bucket Challenge.”

ALSA won the memetic lottery this year. It’s time to congratulate them, and move on.


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Feature Image: "Crystal structure of hexagonal ice" via Wikimedia Commons
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