Cause marketing without limits

I can’t imagine a better time to be a not-for-profit or cause marketer. With the decline of monolithic, big-budget campaigns in a limited number of mainstream media channels — and increasing consumer mistrust of big brands — the “little guy” has an unprecedented opportunity to be heard.

This is a result not only of the lowering of barriers on “free” online and social media, but of the rise of the on-demand audience. While “capturing eyeballs” used to be a matter of interrupting people’s enjoyment of free news and entertainment with intrusive advertising, the game has changed. It has become one of attracting eyeballs by providing entertaining, moving or relevant content that is advertising. TV viewers may skip your ad while watching digitally-recorded TV programming, then watch it later by choice when a friend recommends it on Facebook.

Consumer brands have to work extremely hard to earn an audience in this new environment, where viewers see the sell message as a price to be paid for branded entertainment (like TV viewers of the ’50s, who watched Lucy and Ricky peddle smokes in the middle of the madcap wackiness).

For the N4P/cause marketer, the relationship with the audience is completely different. The social message is not necessarily an unwanted intrusion. It may be hard to hear, but it is not a “sell”. The message, instead, is there to educate and raise awareness.

And so the challenge becomes one of getting attention, providing new and useful information, and inspiring viewers to share. Looking around, and staying updated on the best and most celebrated campaigns out there, you can see some clear best practices on how to do this:

The really awesome video

This is the hardest to do, but perhaps has the most payback. The key is to invest in great ideas and production up front, to create something so popular it can spread virally, as well as a good seeding and distribution plan.

To see some of the best examples, check out my last Change Marketing post “Hey, non-profits! Profit from this.” in which I give a rundown of’s top “social advertising” campaigns of 2010. All five were online video.

Here’s a new campaign that will likely be in the running for 2011:

The newsworthy “real world” event

This is, quite simply, a publicity stunt. But with a more connected world, the potential publicity is global.

A good example of this was when Israel’s Working Group Against the Trafficking of Women took over a window display in an upscale Tel Aviv mall to put the sex trade of foreign women in a whole new perspective:

Backed with a fake e-commerce campaign web site, the campaign demanded the world’s attention, and gained mainstream news coverage.

The movement meme

A “meme” is an idea that spreads from person to person, in a way that is analogous to the way genes replicate through natural selection. If this sounds scientific, it is: The concept was invented by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene.

If this sounds complicated, it’s not. The basic concept is that certain ideas out-compete others for our mental space, and reproduce through communication with others. Advertising has always relied on memes, through jingles and catch phrases.

In Canadian social marketing, whole campaigns have become beloved memes, such as Hinterland Who’s Who and Participaction. Even the venerable Remembrance Day poppy is a social marketing meme, and the symbol itelf has gone digital as a Twibbon.

More recent examples of a movement meme are the ribbons for AIDS and breast cancer. car magnets for supporting our troops, and a rainbow of bracelets inspired by the Livestrong movement.

One of the more interesting offshoots of the bracelet meme has been the “I Love Boobies” bracelets sold by the Keep-A-Breast Foundation.

This idea was just edgy enough to get the bracelets banned at some high schools throughout the United States and Canada, which of course made it more popular with youth — as well as gaining significant media attention. (And Justin Bieber wearing one publicly did not hurt one bit!)

While these tactics are dismissed by some as slacktivism, they can be (as in the case of the poppy) quite effective in turning an abstract cause into a badge of identity.

The sticky web experience

Did you catch the “Instant oil spill” app that could take over your web page>?

Did you see when Metro blew up their own own?

How about the man who spent a month living in his underwear — in front of live webcams?

Or the safe sex video game? The “choose your own adventure” interactive anti-knife violence video? The crowdsourcing of tolerance called “It Gets Better“?

For the N4P or cause marketer, the possibilities for self-expression online are literally infinite. As one of the Internet’s first great futurists,, said: “You can do anything… anything at all. The only limit is yourself.”

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