5 Ways to Promote Viral Fundraising

Originally published in Target Marketing’s Tipline E-Newsletter
by Britt Brouse
Oct 1, 2008

It’s contagious. It’s bringing in new donors and extra funds. But it’s unpredictable and hard to control. It’s viral fundraising – when a story, e-mail, video, call to action or event catches fire online and is passed from person to person, creating a wave of response and giving. “It could be an e-mail. It could be a social network. It could be a video on YouTube. So when you use the term ‘it went viral,’ it merely means that people told their friends about it via word-of-mouth,” explains Madeline Stanionis, CEO of Watershed, a San Francisco-based online fundraising and advocacy company.

While viral fundraising is an organic phenomenon, fundraisers can still prepare and be ready to take action when a news story or one of its Web 2.0 posts ignites a viral response. Below are tips from experts in online fundraising to position your organization to capitalize on viral marketing.

1. Build Support on Social Networks and Blogs
“You want a presence on the social networks. It might not have done a single thing for you in the past, but you want to have it in place so that when something does happen – when you get that Internet moment, what we call that ‘watershed moment’ – that you have it in place,” says Stanionis. She also suggests building relationships with bloggers who are friendly to your issue so you can immediately reach out to them in the instance of a viral campaign. Heather Mansfield, owner of Los Angeles-based marketing firm DIOSA | Communications, points out the other benefits of social networks including brand building and gaining new online subscribers who marketers can call upon to spread the word in the event of a viral occurrence.

2. Create Content With Viral Potential
“Your chance of getting a video that goes viral on YouTube is probably one in a million,” Mansfield asserts. “The biggest thing is having something that hits a nerve with people – that nerve can be funny or controversial. It’s more just [about] finding a subject matter that will end up really pulling people back in on their own,” suggests Paul Phillips, online fundraising manager for PETA. Phillips reports that a PETA video posted on MySpace exposing Chinese fur farms (where dogs and cats are killed for their skin) recently went viral. The video easily spread throughout MySpace and numerous outside blogs because it included embedding code. To drive viewers back to its site from the video, PETA also included a link to an advocacy landing page with more information on the issue and asked in several languages to encourage international viewers to donate.

3. Capture Outside Events and Run With ‘Em
Be prepared to respond to viral influences from outside your organization. For example, at the time of publication, Planned Parenthood is focusing PR and marketing efforts around the thousands of unsolicited donations it’s received in response to vice presidential and pro-life candidate Sarah Palin. “Thousands and thousands of people, completely without any solicitation, are donating to Planned Parenthood in honor of Sarah Palin right now. Planned Parenthood has never solicited that. It is truly, truly viral,” Stanionis comments. To maximize an outside influence, be prepared to respond to a phenomenon and spin it in favor of supporting your message and encouraging future response.

4. Campaign Around Newsworthy Items
PETA released its Chinese fur farms video to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. “I think a lot more people were reading about China and its animal rights records, just as they were reading up about its human rights records,” Phillips says. Another good example of finding viral campaign material in the news is how the Humane Society campaigned around Michael Vick’s arrest for animal abuse. “All [the Humane Society] had to do was send an e-mail to [its] list … it got picked up by hundreds of thousands of people, but it never would’ve happened [without] the news … and [if] everyone wasn’t all of the sudden outraged by this,” Stanionis shares. “It really is about listening to and tapping into the emotion of what people are feeling when they read the newspaper that day and being able to respond to that in one fell swoop,” she adds.

5. Have the Right Tools in Place to Respond
Web 2.0 donors are a different breed than traditional offline and even Web 1.0 donors who click a “donate now” button. “If something goes viral, you need to be able to respond to where people are coming from and in the language and the source they came in through,” Phillips says. In addition to readying social media tools, Stanionis suggests prepping your e-mail and donation processing systems to handle an influx of activity. Mansfield points out that retaining a Web 2.0 donor may be impossible via traditional means: “The last thing they want is a print thank-you letter in the mail. They want everything to be done online, all kinds of communications inside of MySpace and Facebook,” she says. In the hopes of building successful retention programs for Web 2.0 donors, PETA separately codes donors responding to viral events and tracks their response across other retention channels. “Hopefully in the course of a year, we can track how the people who have donated as a result of this video have responded to traditional fundraising material,” Phillips concludes.

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