“We really want to create the next Ice Bucket Challenge / No Makeup Selfie / <insert high-profile viral campaign here>.”
In my experience, this is one of the most common aspirations voiced by well-meaning staff and trustees. But here's the truth: almost every attempt to emulate this kind of campaign is destined to fail. It's not just that creating a viral campaign in such a busy market is difficult. It's that most people miss the very thing that makes these campaigns successful in the first place.
The best campaigns aren’t dreamed up in a boardroom or on flipchart paper. They begin organically - someone shares a personal update which resonates with a few other people who share it. If it's simple, seems genuine and, crucially, doesn’t have any obvious branding or marketing message, then it might gain traction from there.
It’s the organic messages, the simple supporter stories that aren’t put through a brand filter, that really have the potential to capture people's imaginations. So when charities are eager to raise awareness about their organisation and “get their message out there”, all too often they manage to achieve the complete opposite.
Of course, I understand the urge to tell your message and story in your own voice. It's definitely a trap I’ve fallen into myself. Particularly for small charities, the chance to shine in the public eye is all too rare. So if you ever get an opportunity, you feel the need to “polish” your message as much as possible. If you’re anxious about measuring the return on your efforts, you're naturally keen to link to your website, ask for a direct donation etc. The problem is, it very rarely works.
When your clever marketing people - or staff with expert knowledge of your work - get their hands on your message, they can inadvertently make it sound much drier, and strip away that all-important authenticity.
Most people aren't actually very passionate about specific charities, they're excited by causes and by stories of the people they want to help.
So when you try to reframe your message using the words that matter to you, and put your charity front and centre, you usually miss out on those all-important shares as a result.
A couple of weeks ago I went to SOFII's I Wish I Thought of That, an annual event where 17 experts showcase the best and most inspiring fundraising campaign they wish they'd come up with. This year, one theme kept popping up again and again – charities can really gain from being braver about taking a backseat, instead letting the people they help 'own' their own voice.
One amazing example of this is Emmy and Jake’s tandem fundraising challenge for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. When Emmy Collett received the heartbreaking news that she had thyroid cancer, she embarked on a 2000km tandem cycling challenge with her childhood sweetheart Jake.
Their poignant, inspiring and authentic personal story quickly gained publicity, but The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity made a conscious decision to remain in the background and let the young couple speak freely to the media and ‘own’ their story. People wanted to give these two amazing people, but it was the charity that really gained - to date, Emmy and Jake have raised over £100,000.
And this wasn't a one-off, as shown by the unique fundraising efforts of Paul Trueman, inspired by a hard-hitting domestic abuse storyline in BBC Radio’s long-standing The Archers:
This unique fundraising campaign – using a fictional storyline to highlight the plight of real women – captured the imagination and empathy of the public. Refuge, the beneficiary charity, could have jumped on this and taken the opportunity to tell their organisational story, sell their work and 'polish up' the message. Instead, like Royal Marsden, they trusted the creator of the story to be its best ambassador. £170,000 later, it seems like a pretty good decision.
Christmas 2016 provided some great inspiration too.
The festive adverts were a great reminder of the power of storytelling, lingering longer in our minds than the leftover turkey. We’re all familiar with the heart-warming Christmas advert stories by John Lewis and Sainsbury’s – but have you stopped to think about how little the companies feature in their own adverts? By deliberately staying out the limelight, they make their adverts feel less 'salesy' and more authentic, so people are far more likely to share them.
My favourite Christmas 2016 advert actually came from Poland, in the form of this lovely tale about a man learning English so he can visit his new family:
It’s been viewed nearly 13 million times and widely shared by countless people have fallen in love with the simple, human story. The people behind it, an online auction company called Allegro, barely feature in it at all – yet they’ve gained loads of column inches and seen a big spike in searches and website hits as a result.
So why not enlist others to help tell our stories?
In today's world of spontaneous online interactions, I think that too many charities underestimate how well others can tell their story for them.
I was listening to a social media expert answer questions from charities recently and one of her answers really stuck with me. She was asked how to balance the need to be nimble and react quickly on social media with the need to have ‘brand control’ and sign-off procedures for less experienced staff.
Her view was simple: when you take on new staff, they automatically become your ambassadors. You trust them to represent your organisation to their friends and family, to talk about you at parties, in the pub, or over a cup of coffee, and often this leads to really useful introductions – so why not do it online?
As you consider your New Year’s Resolutions for 2017, do you think your organisation is brave enough to take a step back and let your supporters tell their own story too?
This undoubtedly requires courage, faith in the people who represent you, and a willingness to relinquish control. But get it right, and maybe someday people will be talking about your viral campaign and wondering how they could replicate it.
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