Social Media & Cause Related Campaigns

A little while back, charities were in the news as they tentatively investigated the merits of using social media to spread the word about a variety of cause-related campaigns.

The influence of the likes of Bebo, MySpace and Facebook emerged during a panel discussion hosted by digital agency Enable Interactive attended by some of the leading names in the sector. Digital activity within the charity sector was said to be creating a ‘booming’ digital environment.

One of the first major campaigns to use social media was Comic Relief‘s 2007 ‘Big Bebo Takeover’ which encouraged users to design a red homepage for the social networking site. As well as featuring a blog and celebrity video messages, the campaign included partner websites, such as Walkers’ WalkEars, which during the course of the campaign, became the number one online charity and community destination, according to Hitwise.

Comic Relief also partnered with the MySpace community, encouraging people to embed a Red Nose Day game on their profile pages and boasting a range of celebrity “friends”.

More recently, a number of small-scale but effective campaigns have amused and entertained as they spread a serious message.  A small-scale but hard-hitting campaign is that by Cancer Research UK, who have produced a ‘Track Your Drinking’ widget that, when added to Google Desktop , keeps a track of your weekly alcohol units.

Last year, the YouTube community was mobilised for Children in Need, one leading exponent being the popular YouTube personality charlieissocoollike who, to date has had nearly 150,000 people view his Children in Need video, and through appealing to his YouTube audience managed to raise a substantial amount of money for the charity.

Breast Cancer Care is another charity to significantly invest in social media innovations over the past two and half years. The charity has taught its editors podcasting and video skills, with a view to creating content which can then be distributed through the likes of iTunes and YouTube.

Their head of new media Bertie Bosrédon said recently: “Charities need to accept the fact that people will redistribute their content, so let’s empower them to do it and make it easier.”

In the same article, strategy director of Enable, Matt Connolly, comments on the fact that social media is being taken more seriously: “There has been a definite shift in budgets towards digital.

“For the first time we are noticing digital being embraced early on in campaigns, instead of just a nice bolt on,” he said.

Targeting Youth
Social media is finally being recognised as a cost-effective way for organisations to directly engage with specific target audiences, encourage and foster the sharing of information and experiences, and the ideal way to disseminate messages to an active and interested audience.

It’s been particularly successful at targeting young people. Changes in media consumption mean that ‘traditional’ media consumption is on the wane, and social media is on the up. Young people are spending more of their spare time online – joining and participating in more social networks, watching more videos and listening to more music.

Government PR professionals have been urged to place a greater focus on social media in order to communicate the dangers of knives to teenagers. Luther Pendragon partner Granatt commented on the issue: ‘It won’t make any difference having an article in the Daily Mail. They need to be speaking to them on MTV and Facebook and using the media that they use.’

The Metropolitan Police rolled out a campaign this autumn designed to highlight the consequences of knife crime.

DNA came up with a campaign to help sexually abused children to talk about what was troubling them by using the theme of abused children hiding behind a mask in order to pretend everything’s fine. The campaign centred on helping them remove the mask and talk about what was troubling them.

A campaign site, was built and partnerships forged with Bebo, Habbo and Mykindaplace. Adverts were also placed on sites accessed by young people.

As word spread, communities sprang up around the campaign, where children gave support, chatted, listened, shared stories and drew pictures. The Bebo, Habbo and My Kindaplace partnerships delivered over 7.5 million impressions while the campaign website had more than half a million children and young people talking in 6 weeks.

The campaign won the Best Public Sector and Charities category for DNA in the 2006 Media Awards.

‘Together’ ( is a consumer engagement campaign which helps UK households reduce CO2 emissions by one tonne over three years. The campaign was launched in 2007 and has been endorsed by former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair and former US Vice President, Al Gore.

Together began by carrying out research into ‘Consumers, Brands and Climate Change’ 2007. The results showed that for a lot of people (26%) the green message was only going to get across if it was made a bit warmer, more fashionable and a lot more fun.

A spoof ‘Energy Wasting Day’ was created to show how ridiculous it is to waste energy – the campaign comprised of a spoof website, video, and campaign website – all designed to resonate with a web savvy audience.

In the run up to April fool’s Day, a viral film was seeded on the internet featuring the extremely wasteful ‘Dan Power’.

The URL appearing at the end of the ad links through to where it is explained that: “Dan Power, the energy wasting guy, is our April Fool – and he really is a fool.”

The film has been viewed more than 400,000 times and was featured on sites including Myspace, MSN, Yahoo, Treehugger,, Smart Planet, Hippyshopper as well as numerous blogs.
It also provoked considerable debate from web users as to whether the energy wasting day initiative is a hoax or not:

“I want his t-shirt, by the way don’t show this to Americans…they will think it’s real…………..”
“Keep up the good work Dan. You’re a hero for us all.”
“Irony is a beautiful thing. This is a good bit of work showing how stupid energy wasting is.”

Meanwhile, Unity worked on a campaign to get lads to realise that talking about their problems eases the burden, and to make parents and friends aware of the risks and warning signs. This was distilled into a key campaign message: being silent isn’t strong.

Unity realised that a young audience is far more likely to trust content that comes from peers, and knowing the net would play a pivotal role, MySpace, Facebook and Bebo communities were created – including an ‘I’ve been touched by suicide’ Facebook group – and directly involving around 5,000 individuals.
A viral film was also placed on YouTube and seeded within online media and social networking sites. Relevant blogs where also targeted.

The campaign resulted in an increase of 90% of traffic to the CALM website, the YouTube campaign video received 14,000 views, and online/mobile content for Orange and ITV reached 4 million users.

The government wanted to address the dramatic increases in the rates of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), visits to Genito-urinary Medicine (GUM) clinics and new diagnoses of Chlamydia and HIV. A re-appraisal of attitudes and a change in behaviour was needed, as well as drawing attention to ‘killer facts’ and ‘dramatising’ the increased risk of unsafe sexual behaviour.

The theme of gambling was used to dramatise the increased risk: ‘The odds of catching an STI are shorter than you think and you’re gambling by not wearing a condom’.

The campaign included online ‘scratchcard banners’ which drove traffic to the campaign website ( for further information e.g. symptoms, plus a tactical viral game around Valentines Day.

Website visits averaged 35,000 per month. Helpline calls increased by 32 per cent in active campaign periods, with the majority coming from 18-35 year olds.
It is clear from the above examples that social media can be particularly effective for promoting cause-related issues.

Its advantages are many and varied. For a start, social media is one of the best examples of the most powerful marketing method: word-of-mouth. Campaigns can be precisely targeted to a specific demographic, and then left to grow organically – driven ‘from within’ by enthusiastic community members. It’s also probably one of the most cost effective forms of marketing, with some charities employing freelance social media experts whose rates don’t make a dent on marketing budgets.

The fact that organisations can now communicate directly with their audiences is also an important factor. Organisations have complete editorial control over their material, and their messages are not diluted by journalists.

Content, as always, is king, but today’s technology allows us to bring stories to life like never before. It’s all too easy to by-pass newspaper reports of death statistics in Darfur, but a YouTube video depicting a family’s plight to survive is likely to have a much greater impact on its viewers.

The fact that social media operates in real-time is also a benefit. News can be disseminated to a global community, events organised and experts consulted – all within minutes. People can share news in an instant, and interest groups formed within the hour.

There are also potential pitfalls for those promoting a cause through social media. On the Internet there is no editorial compass to substantiate fact from fiction, and the participatory nature of social media – encouraging contributions from all and sundry, means that vociferous promoters of particular causes can post inaccurate information to their hearts content.

A Guardian article reported another issue – the fact that some charities are having to cope with a ‘fundamental shift in power’ as unofficial advocates launch appeals and bring in donors through social media, and that many are struggling to deal with the loss of control brought by supporters using Facebook, blogging, Flickr and other new media to promote their favourite charity brands.

“Large charities are finding people taking ownership of their brand without them even knowing about it,” said Tom Mansel-Pleydel, head of client servics at JustGiving.

The same article cited a voluntary adoption agency, Coram, which said it was worried a video had been posted on YouTube accusing it of stealing children – an example of the editorial compass going awry.

We’ve seen many times that social media, like any other, has its faults and used incorrectly, has the potential to have a massive negative impact on the organisation that produced the campaign. Engagement with social media also calls for complete honesty and transparency and organisations that have engaged in deceptive marketing techniques such as fake blogs or testimonials from manufactured advocates are quickly exposed.

But the advantages far outweigh the risks. Social media offers a fantastic opportunity for charities and organisations to build relationships as well as presenting the ability to listen and understand consumer perceptions about your organisation, and how these perceptions change based on your marketing.

Social media allows organisations to engage with their audiences like never before. Promoting a cause, building a community, and encouraging conversation are the main tenets of social media, and are perfectly suited to those with a cause they wish to promote with passion.

Social networks designed around particular causes such as those that came about during Childline’s ‘Don’t Hide It’ campaign allow for the dissemination of valuable advice and information which children would be unlikely to access through other media. It also provides the perfect environment for them to discuss issues or problems that they would be uncomfortable tackling face to face.

So, the fact that organisations and charities are adopting social media in growing numbers should not come as a surprise. In fact, many social media advocates might argue that not only is this long overdue, but that all such organisations should reconsider its benefits and earmark their marketing budgets accordingly.


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