Cause Marketing Finds Its Niche Online

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Yahoo Health recently promoted its commitment to make a contribution to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research for each person-- up to 5,000 -- who clicked on a special link from mid-October to mid-November.


Spread via e-mail, it resulted in a doubling of Yahoo's original pledge of $5,000 to a $10,000 donation. Doubtless, many more than 10,000 people clicked through in the first days alone.


Around the same time, NFL.com launched a campaign in which visitors to its NFL for Her page could have the site contribute $5 to the Komen Foundation.


Particularly when initiated by known and trusted properties like Yahoo and NFL.com, social cause messages spread like wildfire. The Internet is the perfect place to perpetuate them, because it's fast, immediate and takes little effort -- point, click and you've done your good deed for the day.


The beauty of the Internet is that it allows people to make more of an impact in less time. And combining this type of social awareness with the viral aspect of online communications is unique to the Internet. Whereas an offline awareness campaign may involve complex phone trees, postcard campaigns and canvassing, only a few clicks are needed online to ensure that a message is seen, and likely passed on to many others.


Nonprofits have always had to think creatively, and partnerships with commercial companies are in many cases the foundation of a nonprofit's stability. I've recently noted television spots touting NW Medical Teams, a Pacific Northwest charitable organization, which are sponsored by Nordstrom. And I got a warm, fuzzy feeling about Nordstrom -- not my usual response to a mega-retailer. It nearly always boosts a company's image to contribute to a cause, but how much better if potential customers can get involved as well?


That's where online trumps other methods of involving large numbers of people in awareness campaigns. Individuals who want to feel like part of a larger effort feel even more effective when they spread the news to many with the click of a mouse.


I am intrigued that there's an online company, The Giving Back Fund, that matches celebrities with the right image-enhancing causes. My first reaction is, can't they figure out where their own passions lie? But it underscores that many want their chosen causes to be uncontroversial and unassailably positive.


There are challenges in supporting politically or socially charged issues in the public arena. What the Internet makes possible in these cases is dissemination of crucial information about the issues without the need to be associated with a celebrity or well-known company. The message's viral nature alone propels it forward.


The challenge then becomes to simplify and eloquently tell the story that will be passed along. Creatively, it makes sense to appeal to the emotions without being overly maudlin, cutesy or sales-pitchy.


When commercial companies do choose to support a cause, relating the charity to the company's business model sends an even more powerful message.


Lindal Cedar Homes plants trees -- in partnership with American Forests' Global Releaf Program -- in equivalent numbers to the trees used to build Lindal custom homes. This charitable activity relates to the company, and gives back in the strictest sense. Lindal plans to launch an initiative to "virtually" involve customers and Lindal.com visitors in the tree-planting, too ... and plant positive viral interest in its product at the same time.


That's the power of the online environment: All parties can benefit, and good deeds can spread to global proportions.


• Mark Grimes is president/CEO of online advertising agency eyescream interactive inc., Portland, OR. Reach him at Grimes@eyescream.com.
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