How to fight caring fatigue in cause marketing

A recent PSA for the National Partnership for Women & Families used humor to talk about a serious issue

It’s been just a month since the start of the new administration, and already we’ve seen a surge of civil action in this country not seen in years. According to Vox, the Women’s March drew 4.2 million people nationwide, making it the largest protest action in American history. Constant crises have mobilized people to contribute their time, money and energy to all manner of cause-based organizations. The ACLU alone raised $24 million over the weekend following the executive order on immigration. It’s been remarkable to see.

Yet in the face of these near constant calls to action, smaller causes risk being lost in the shuffle. At some point our reserves of caring and taking action will start wear thin. Jon Stewart hit on this sentiment during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He read a few satirical executive orders including, “I, Donald J. Trump, do declare by executive order that I, Donald J. Trump, am exhausting.”

Cause marketers are all too familiar with “caring fatigue.” It’s a very close cousin to the central question upon which the advertising industry is built: How do we get people to care---about this product, this brand, this candidate, this cause?

For the past two years, Rokkan has worked with The Humane Society of the United States to advocate against the horrors of puppy mills. Learning from our experiences, we’ve compiled a few pointers designed to help activists sustain their causes beyond the next outrage cycle. In no particular order:

1. Lighten the emotional load.

If people are already running short on their capacity for caring, piling on even more heavy messaging can do more harm than good. This is where creativity and counterintuitive thinking can really help cause-related campaigns cut through. Use of the fantastical and the ridiculous can provide bridges that make real-world issues more relatable. The recent PSA from the National Partnership for Women & Families makes for a great example.

2. Take small steps.

Cause marketing campaigns are at their best when they offer their audiences small, manageable steps that lead to larger meaningful change. Whether it’s signing an online pledge or sharing an Ice Bucket Challenge video, small steps do add up. Just look at how political campaigns have taken to soliciting micro-donations via email from supporters as the new standard in fundraising. In the space of three months during the campaign, Trump set a record for GOP candidates by raising $100 million from donors giving $200 or less.

3. Stay positive (it works better).

Studies have proven that videos and other content go viral when they cause a strong emotional response. In 2014, the New York Times published an article exploring this phenomenon, highlighting the fact that uplifting content is more likely to be shared than disheartening content. Use this to your advantage when planning your overall campaign; giving people hope that things can be better is contagious.

4. Keep it fresh.

What worked a year ago -- or even last week -- isn’t guaranteed to work today or tomorrow. People thought Vine was going to be around forever until the platform was discontinued in 2016. Start by taking a hard look at tactics you’ve implemented “just because.” It may be time for a refresh. To anticipate this, make sure your plans allow for a bit of experimentation.

5. Identify the causes of a problem and use them to your advantage.

This is where strategic thinking really comes into play. In working with The Humane Society of the United States, we determined that the best approach would be to reach out and educate people online before they landed on puppy mill websites. This strategy applies to all manners of cause marketing. Find a way to divert your audience upstream and give them the facts that they need to make an informed decision.

At the end of the day, cause marketing is about purpose. Identifying a problem and giving people the information and opportunities that they need to create meaningful change. Whether that means adopting instead of shopping for a puppy or taking a stand politically, upsetting the status quo requires a new approach for brands and causes alike.

Sean Miller is Rokkan's chief strategy officer. He tweets @millerse1

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