Viral Video for Nonprofits – A Rethinking

Without fail, we get a call at See3 every week asking us to produce a “viral” video. “You know”, they say, “a video that will get a lot of views when we put it on YouTube.”

And every week, without fail, there is a sigh and a deep breath among the staff at See3 as we explain that maybe a viral video isn’t what you really need. Maybe, we say, what you really need is a video strategy.

The Siren Song of Viral

Nonprofit organizations work very hard to get their messages in front of new audiences. They work to get people to join their emails lists, to show up to events and to eventually become donors. Unlike other marketing efforts that take the actual hard work of building relationships, viral video seems like a short-cut to organizational riches.

The viral video story goes like this: A video will be uploaded to YouTube and it will (magically) catch fire. People will send it to each other and it will get so many views that it ends up in the “Most Viewed” rotation at YouTube, which will only bring in more views and next thing you know 1 MILLION PEOPLE have watched our video!

At this point in the story I ask, “And so what does that get you?” Well, they say, when 1 MILLION PEOPLE know about us, many will go to our website, sign up and be compelled to donate because our video was so good [funny] [sad] [moving] [powerful].

It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, it rarely works out that way.

Facts about Viral Video

You cannot predict which videos will be viral hits

We never promise viral hits because very few organizations are interested in being edgy enough, or off-message enough, to make their video a must-see. YouTube is littered with videos that the makers had hoped would be hits. The real viral video hits – the ones that get in everyone’s email — are, with some notable exceptions, videos with cute pets, people saying stupid things, sex appeal, and other qualities that rarely have anything to do with a nonprofit mission. (All of us should envy the animal welfare groups, because they have the unfair advantage of cute furry creatures.)

YouTube views do not translate into website traffic.

The average video length on YouTube is about 1.5 minutes while the average session time on YouTube is about 30 minutes. What this means is that the most likely thing to happen after someone watches a YouTube video is that they will watch another YouTube video, not enter in your URL to check out your website.

You need long-term supporters, not 1-minute sympathizers

A consumer product, such as Blendtec, gets a benefit from having lots of videos watched on YouTube because it helps their branding, which in a retail setting, translates into purchases. Nonprofits, on the other hand, are not sitting on store shelves. Organizations need to have online strategies that follow-up initial interest with real engagement over the long term. One successful YouTube video, even if it moves people while they are watching it, does not facilitate this engagement. It can be part of a strategy toward engagement, but it cannot be an end in and of itself.

You don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.

The people who are most successful on YouTube aren’t focused on making a single viral video. They are making a series of videos with a character or a set-up that is interesting and brings people back for more. In other words, they are building an audience through regular production of videos that tell stories. That’s what you should be thinking about. By investing in many videos over a long period of time, you are also much more likely to hit on one that attracts others to join your long-term audience.

People who like to watch kittens in paper bags may actually not be good donor prospects

The first question we ask about viral is, “Viral to whom?” The unspoken viral video assumption is that random people on YouTube are potential donor prospects. Some of them may be, of course. But it is likely that the people who spend a lot of time watching the viral video hits are teenagers, for example. You are better off identifying and speaking more directly to the audience who is most likely to already care about your core issues.

One of our biggest viral video hits was this video for the Maryland State Teachers Association. It only has about 2000 views. How can it be considered a viral hit? Because the goal of the video was to influence a debate about education funding and the state-level policy-makers and journalists that matter in that debate all heard about it, passed it on, and watched it. It worked.

Towards a Video Strategy

Viral is just another way of saying “word of mouth” and at its core it means that people pass the content on to one-another without the need for much intervention from the organization. In this sense, having viral marketing work for your organization is important. If you have really important, interesting things to share – and you share them in creative and interesting ways – then people will pass them on to their friends and increase your marketing effectiveness.

Where you should start with online video is to make a commitment to using this new medium to connect people to your work. You need to think about what the important and interesting things are and ask yourself, “How do we document this work?” You need to ask yourself why do you think what you do is important, and ask your staff as well. You need to then capture – on a regular basis – those important and interesting things. If you can find the funny stories, the creative metaphors, and turn your issue on its head once in a while, so much the better. But please, stop focusing on making a viral video and start focusing on making a viral cause.

Michael Hoffman is the CEO of See3 Communications and an expert in online video for nonprofits.


Why do fundraisers leave their brains by the door when they go online?

I can still remember the first fundraising appeal that moved me. I can remember where I was when I opened it and I can remember what it said. It was an appeal from the Head of Emergencies in Oxfam at Christmas 1987. He described the emotional and moral challenges of going to visit emergency situations, where children died in his arms, and then returning home to face the materialist world of Christmas. When will we say ‘enough is enough’ was his call to action.

I can also remember signing up to Shelter at 5pm on a long hot July day for a face to face fundraiser who said he had signed up one person so far that day and it was his birthday. I can remember my mother (a sheep farmer) telling me how she had gone into her building society the day after an early Red Nose day and declared that she wanted to buy a goat for £50 for some pastoralists in Africa.

I say all this because giving is a personal experience. It is about being moved and empathising with the situation of others. It is about a connection with others – whether with the beneficiary or the asker. It is about cutting through the miles, the lives, and the differences between people and seeing how a donation makes a difference.

Over the years the fundraising community has seen the importance of these personal connections again and again and it has woven them into its way of asking for money. There is a huge body of collective knowledge about how to ask individuals for money and what works and what doesn’t.

So why when it comes to fundraising online via a website is all that knowledge forgotten?

There is no wooing, no story-telling, no personal appeal, no use of words, sounds and pictures working together to tell a story and make a compelling request for money. Just the flaccid, impersonal, ‘donate now’ button. The collective fundraising wisdom of a generation forgotten in the headlong lust for a donor’s money.

Indeed a quick survey of five of the UK’s best known charities shows that they all offer excellent donation form-based fundraising from their home page. But none of them have anything remotely resembling something as powerful as a DM appeal at its best. Nothing that parallels the power of a personal letter, or the leaflet that makes the case with passion and conviction (or if they do I couldn’t find in my visit to their websites). It is as if they had only heard about a donation form and reply envelope at the Stephen Pidgeon school of what makes great direct marketing.

Now any new technology or technique needs time to be adapted to be used appropriately. When they built the first bridge out of iron in Shropshire at the beginning of the industrial revolution, they used the mortise and tenon joints as if they were still using wood. When aluminium became a popular metal in the early 20th century the royal family had a cutlery set made from it because they didn’t realise just how inappropriate it was for that purpose.

The problem is that the fundraising world hasn’t yet created a way of asking for donations that works online. Indeed I would argue that it would do well to remember and use all that paper-based direct marketing has learnt.

But fundraising from a website is not inherently one-dimensional. It should be possible to combine sights, sounds and copy to work powerfully. It should be possible to create a compelling story online that rivals and exceeds anything paper giving has to offer. Yet viewing one charity’s appeal online it just used footage of the Congo with no script, no soundtrack and no words to accompany the video. The week’s good cause on Radio 4 could do better than that. Every fundraising section should have a ‘hear our story’ or ‘take our tour’ or ‘see our latest appeal’ section.

Part of the problem is that fundraisers assume that people come to a website once they have decided to give. That is probably true; not least because one of the UK’s best fundraisers James Kliffen of MSF-UK told me. But, also because there is nothing on the average fundraising website that does much persuading. Fundraising from a website is about fishing for donors. It’s very difficult for a charity to go to the donors online (and dear reader please do tell me how successful your fundraising emails are outside of emergencies) so when the donors, or potential donors come to you they have to be persuaded to take a nibble at your hook.

So every charity that wants to increase its online income should spend as much time as the average fisherman does on lures, baits, flies, rods, hooks, light and shade, weather and water. How can every passing individual be lured into being a donor? What compelling story or appeal would make a passing web surfer nibble at the bait and then be hooked.

So my first argument is that the world of fundraising has not yet worked out how to ask for money online. But more than this we need a new paradigm, a new way of understanding how we should think about earning money online.

In our recent report with Missionfish (Passion, persistence, partnership: the secrets of earning more online) we set out some of the key trends as we saw it in the changing nature of online income opportunities.

Five big trends in online income generation

Trend 1
Charities are using the power of their stories online. The advent of blogs and blogging means one of the most powerful tools in the charity toolkit, the people that make up the organisation, are now the shining stars. These stories can be about beneficiaries, about front-line staff or indeed anyone who conveys their tale with passion, conviction and purpose. Putting these stories online creates great content and compelling messages for prospective and actual donors (they just tend not to be used as actual appeals yet).

Trend 2
Charities are engaging first and fundraising second. The internet is now used as a tool for engaging people first – through blogs, through emails, through forums and message boards, through quizzes and interactive games and the whole panoply of web 2.0 functions. Once people are engaged then they can be persuaded over time to become donors in ways that match their interests in the charity and their preferred way to give.

Trend 3
Social networking is forcing charities to make friends. Social networking is forcing charities to move out of their websites and into the places where people socialise. This is both scary and exhilarating stuff. Scary because charities are no longer in control on social network sites, their brand will be diluted and their competitors may also be their next door neighbour. But it’s exhilarating because individuals are the engine of social networks – so when they start to advocate and network for a charity or a cause, they are more genuine and more personal in the eyes of others who see their sites.

Trend 4
Integration and internal communications are keys to success. Nobody knows quite where to put new media. Is it a communications tool, an IT tool, a fundraising tool or a separate department? The reality is that new media is a multi-purpose tool and wherever it sits it is vital that all the different users work together to maximise the coherence and power of the charity’s message. The result of this should be that earning online is part of an integrated whole – linked with, and complemented by other web activities. If anorganisation puts it uses of the internet in silos it will dissipate the strength of its web presence.

Trend 5
Multiple income-generating partners are key. The old paradigm of getting people to give money via credit card donation and a ‘donate now’ button is gradually giving way to a multi-partnership model. In this approach a charity may offer multiple ways to give and generate revenue. The best of these represent the hijacking of a web user’s existing habits for a charity’s purposes. There are already ways of raising money online through search engines, auction sites (eBay for Charity being the largest and most successful of these of course), affinity partnerships and a host of other mechanisms. These partnership arrangements are a win/win for charities. They help reach new audiences, give supporters ways to raise money without giving, and are usually low or no cost to set up: and can be easily embedded into existing websites.

Put together these do not constitute a successful model for income-generation online. But they do indicate the direction of travel for online income-generation. However there is a missing element in this direction of travel.

How do charities take their offline ability to convert passers-by, literal and metaphorical, and use it to create online donors? In the real world we can do this on the street, over the phone, by post, through inserts and the letterbox. But in the virtual world we haven’t begun to do this job successfully.

Author: Joe Saxton


Wikipedia donators and the Anchoring heuristic

There was a blog post on HN yesterday from the Wikimedia Foundation. It was about the impact banners had on donators for the annual fundraiser.

Wikimedia Foundation has been showing a set of banners to the visitors of Wikipedia in order to point out that the annual fundraiser is running and motivate them to donate.

Two banners were the main focus of the post. They included a quote as well as the name of a donator, the date of the donation and the amount donated in USD.

The first one (#18) was about a USD 1.95 donation.

The second one (#22) talked about a USD 200 donation.

The post, using data about the average gift donated when motivated by a particular banner, concluded that banner #18 resulted in a average gift of USD 18.57 and banner #22 in an average gift of USD 31.80 (an increase of 71%!!)

Rand Montoya, Head of Community Giving, asked the readers to share their thoughts on the phenomenon.

The Anchoring and adjustment heuristic is my answer.

According to Wikipedia, “Anchoring and adjustment is a psychological heuristic that influences the way people intuitively assess probabilities. According to this heuristic, people start with an implicitly suggested reference point (the “anchor”) and make adjustments to it to reach their estimate. A person begins with a first approximation (anchor) and then makes adjustments to that number based on additional information.”

Tversky and Kahneman were the first to study this heuristic in the paper “Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” in 1974.

In one of their first studies, the two showed that when asked to guess the percentage of African nations which are members of the United Nations, people who were first asked “Was it more or less than 45%?” guessed lower values than those who had been asked if it was more or less than 65%. The pattern has held in other experiments for a wide variety of different subjects of estimation.

Moreover, in his book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” (which I am currently reading), Dan Ariely conducts a similar experiment.
An audience is first asked to write the last 2 digits of their social security number, and, second, to submit mock bids on items such as wine and chocolate. The half of the audience with higher two-digit numbers would submit bids that were between 60 percent and 120 percent higher than those of the other half, far higher than a chance outcome.

Mr Montoya, to sum up, this is why you see the difference in average gifts donated by Wikipedia users.
Thank you for sharing the data with us and giving us the opportunity to observe another experiment of the anchoring heuristic in action.


Stop Using Stock Photography Clichés

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It is time to draw a line in the sand. 2010 needs to see the demise of bland, insipid photography that are the equivalent of using IBM blue.

Like IBM blue, certain stock imagery has been so overused that they have become meaningless. It conveys no information of value and carry no positive emotional message. Take for example the website below:

The WellDyne website features a photograph of two businessmen shaking hands

The image provides no clue as to the nature of the website and appears to be little more than a placeholder to fill up space.

The only reason to resort to such hackneyed clichés is lazinesses. A designer has literally millions of gorgeous images available to them online and should also be capable of producing unique imagery of their own.

This lazy approach was summed up perfectly in the design below. The designer was so lazy he did not even manage to purchase the image (see the watermark from istockphoto).

Website using an unpurchased image.

The alternative

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not writing this with a sense of superiority. I have been just as guilty of falling back on clichés as anybody else. After all, when time and budget is limited, you don’t have the resources to commission your own photo shoot!

However, just because you are forced to use stock photography does not mean it has to look terrible. There are several techniques that can help avoid clichés even when time and budget are limited.

Use Illustration

Increasingly websites are using illustration instead of photography. Even stock illustration often conveys more character and personality than your average piece of stock photography.

The style of illustration used says something about the website and organisation behind it. Illustrations make a statement and do not necessarily need to appear childish, as many clients fear.

Hull Digital Live

Safarista Design

Image based on Soviet Russian style

Image of comic fish

Better integrate

Even when you choose to use stock photography there is no reason why it needs to be confined to a box! Instead seek ways to better integrate it with your design by breaking out of the grid. This can take even relatively poor photography and give it new life.

Brooklyn Fare Website

Avenue 91.1 website

Oklahoma Wesleyan University


Of course there are occasions when you are forced to work with poor photography. This typically happens when imagery is provided by the client or when the budget doesn’t allow anything other than the cheapest of stock imagery.

This is the point where you need to let your creativity run wild. Do not resign yourself to poor quality imagery, but rather enhance it using techniques as simple as a photoshop filter to as complex as a collage.

Suie Paparude website

Boutique website


The Nest

Pick images with punch

When you do have a choice of imagery make sure you select an image with punch.

When faced with an image library consisting of thousands of photos, it is easy to pick the first image that has the right subject matter. However remember, composition, colour and style make a huge difference.

Picture of a woman's face

Image of ornate costume

Image of the Festival of Colour in India

Use typography instead

Of course there is no reason why you need to use imagery at all. It is perfectly possible to create an incredibly powerful website with just the use of typography.

In fact I would argue that good typography is imagery in its own right.

Seed Conference Website

National Design Museum poster

Avoid being literal

My final piece of advice is probably the most important of all, and is one that website owners struggle to grasp – You do not need to be literal.

The reason so many websites fall back on clichés is because most organisations do not have strong imagery associated with them. When you think of a management consultant, PR agency or chartered accountant, you instinctively think of businessmen in suits shaking hands. That is the literal interpretation of these and many other businesses. In fact so few businesses produce something that can be seen or touched, they are only left with photographic clichés.

However, good imagery is about conveying a sense of personality and character, not a literal representation of what you do. After all prospective visitors understand that if you are a management consultant there will be men in suits. They don’t need a picture to tell them that. What they need to know is the character and personality of your organisation.

Images that convey information and emotion are considerably more powerful. These are the images that engage with your user and draws them in.

Unicef picture of girl holding water pistol to her head

Picture of a cactus in the shape of persons foot

Call to Action

Every good blog post needs a call to action. Mine is to ask you to be more adventurous in your choice of imagery. Do not settle for second rate stock photography but instead experiment with illustration, collage, typography and styling.

However, most of all I would encourage you to avoid being too literal in your choice of imagery. Some of the most powerful imagery can also be the most abstract.