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Digital Charity Marketing

Charities need to focus less on the cause and more on the consumer, say agencies


By Jessica Davis, Consultant Journalist

March 28, 2018 | 13 min read

The desire to help others and get involved in a worthwhile cause is natural human instinct. However, the charity sector is fighting a stigma which has slowly crept into 21st century conversation, fuelled by the growth of digital – a declining trust in charities.

The Drum Network gathers a group of industry experts to discuss the challenges facing the charity sector and whether it can regain the trust of the modern consumer. Taking part are Danielle Grogan, copywriter at Gravity Thinking; Jasmine Dreher, head of digital at Gravytrain; Emma Tozer, founder of Media Bounty; Richard Buchanan, founder of The Clearing; Emma Lloyd, PR and marketing manager at TLC; Lesley Hickmott, marketing and strategy director at Space and Time Media; Dave Evans, head of digital at Chapter; and Brian Williamson, strategist at Critical Mass.

There is no doubt among the panel that charity promotes an energy of optimism and togetherness within society. Yet, there is awareness that even the word ‘charity’ itself carries both negative and positive connotations. Danielle Grogan from Gravity Thinking explains where this could have stemmed from, stating that the charities with huge marketing spend are causing confusion: “I think the act of charities is positive, but the charities themselves are seen as negative – especially if we are talking about the big, bloated ones.” When the industry creates successful work, it is received with appreciation, she explains, but it is difficult to track where donations are being used and people want to know how they have personally helped a cause. TLC’s Emma Lloyd elaborates on this point, observing that people enjoy the feel-good factor: “If I could put £2 in a donation bucket or I could go to a shop and buy some food for the homeless guy sitting outside the station, I would much rather do that then see my £2 disappear in a bucket because I’m not really sure where it’s going.”

The Clearing’s Richard Buchanan believes there are two sides to the word ‘charity’. “On the one hand it’s a very positive thing for people to engage personally with charities – feeling good about contributing to society and helping a cause that they feel passionate about. On the other hand, we see and hear people talking about charities in quite a negative light. They will accuse them of being bloated and doing jobs that the government should be doing, that they are a mouthpiece for the government and there is a lack of trust within them. I think charities have to find their way through that and the only way they can do this is by being transparent about what they are doing.” To which Brian Williamson from Critical Mass responds: “It seems like there’s been this hit of trust towards charity as a whole, but for specific charities it seems like trust is there. People trust their own charity because it comes down to action for a specific cause.”

The attendees agree that the marketing angle selected by most charities does not give clear indication of a solution, which causes a lack of trust from the public. Although each charity is passionate about helping a cause, they are running a business and need support to thrive. They must acknowledge that the consumer is at the heart of their business, stresses Emma Tozer, founder of Media Bounty. “The difference that donors make is incredibly important to them and feeding that information back is a technique that Comic Relief has utilised brilliantly. I think sometimes that charities, particularly the smaller ones, are set up by people who are passionate about helping those in need but who don’t necessarily think in a marketing way. They can get so immersed in the cause that they forget the consumer. However, social media is starting to address putting the consumer first, and that is a great way to start getting that message across.”

People are becoming savvy to the fact they can research a charity and identify its authenticity – something Grogan identifies as evident in current marketing: “There are charities that are starting to go back to ‘the greater good’ of charity, such as tapping into influencers, because their interest is their audience. They are going back to those individual stories – people are starting to listen to that.” She mentions that when Mind approached Zoella to do more active work with her, she was already writing about panic attacks and the experience of anxiety, which her followers were interested in, so it was a genuine relationship: “Their interests are the interests of the influencer, and that’s why charities follow them. It only works because it’s genuine. Macmillan is also in the second wave of its stories now. It is very powerful. It’s all about the here and now. It’s a slice of life and that’s what people want.”

Dave Evans from Chapter highlights that a charity’s image is as important as its cause: “Our research revealed that there are about 30 different reasons why people donate to charity. Choice of cause has become a taste-based thing rather than a needs-based thing.”

Jasmine Dreher from Gravytrain brings attention to the fact that charities don’t take advantage of their data: “Campaigns can be a lot more transparent and charities can analyse how much they can expect from a certain campaign. Sometimes they are not even aware that campaigns require a huge amount of data – I see the biggest opportunity in the data analysis and basically utilising this on a business level.” Grogan agrees that charities should do more to differentiate themselves on digital: “Charities are all sharing air space so when you see something on TV, for example a donkey appeal, and then look it up, there could be 10 different donkey charities that are all similar. It’s difficult for people to figure out who these charities are and their stories. If charities are not running digital campaigns, they need to at least have an online channel that is simple to find and donate through.”

Lesley Hickmott from Space and Time Media agrees, but believes online presence is a double-edged sword for charities. “There’s an opportunity, or threat, that charities are exposed to, and that is fake news. The only way they can combat that is to make sure they are crystal clear on what their real story is and keep putting that out in these difficult conversations, because that’s their lens.” Fake news has a risk of damaging a brand’s reputation, but if this is tackled with sincere discussion of what the charity is spending donors’ money on and how it is helping, this can be a brilliant opportunity to spread positivity and encourage people to talk about the charity’s work. Tozer adds that the introduction of GDPR may actually help scrupulous charities to clean up the reputation of charity sector once again.


Buchanan believes charities need to shift tactics from showering people with guilt to generating a marketing model that benefits both parties. He uses the example of One Feeds Two, a charity which works with food companies to provide children in poverty with a free school meal when someone makes a purchase. “They’re not playing the traditional charity game,” he says. “Charities need to think about different ways the public can feel good about giving, which are mutually beneficial. We cannot just build on the old way of charity which is all penance and guilt.” He mentions the Barnado’s advert a few years back that had an image of baby taking drugs, and how repelling it was. “It was horrific. You can really turn people off with shock-tactics, and because each new campaign has to be even more powerful the appeals become radically more shocking until you’re in a place that you don’t want to be in. We are now shifting towards mutually beneficial positivity, which is about impact. There is a place for emotion, but you can really turn people off.”

Gravity Thinking’s Grogan argues that these tactics can be used if they are creating the right impact. “It’s all about being disruptive now,” she says. “FGM did some great work with influencers which would just cut in the middle of a video and they would say ‘this is a brutal cut, but so is FGM’. Shock tactics may be off-putting, but disruptiveness does work – just jarring people out for a minute to make them think.”

Emma Lloyd, marketing manager at TLC, believes it’s all about context. “Those tactics can work if people have invested more time into research and are reading enough content to get to that point, but the timing has to be perfect. A Saturday night out at the cinema is not the right time for a depressing, guilt ridden advert to appear because it’s a time for relaxing. It’s almost invasive. However, the survival stories aired by Cancer Research would work well in that situation because it is upbeat – the environment you market in is as important as the advert.”

Williamson thinks guilt appeals “take away from the positive work charities do”. He says: “One charity can’t possibly take responsibility for the psychological state of everyone, but certainly when you go through decades of hopelessness, people just wonder why they should get involved. If it’s always been bad then what difference is our money going to make? When you go through decades and decades of severe poverty and starvation, people just give up.” Lloyd echoes this, stating: “I’ve seen those adverts since I was a child. Surely there has been some improvement through funding. It would be nice to see, after all these years, that charities are putting some success stories up that they’ve created with our donations.”

Using technology to make an impact

Williamson describes how storytelling for charities is the most effective technique for engaging donors, and explores how technology can be utilised to tell the tale. “There’s an experience element that charities can add in, which is the ability to narrow that distance between the potential donor and the impact. Critical Mass has put 360 video in schools in Malawi, so you physically see what is happening with these kids – you see their classroom and look around and they talk to the camera. Instead of just getting a documentary format, you get to choose what’s being done. That seems to have a much deeper emotional connection because it links back to that feeling of positivity that you get as a donor. The power of technology is a great closer of distances – it’s an example of both selling the benefit and delivering the value.”

Tozer expands upon this, shifting the focus to social media, saying: “If you are going to use technology, you also need to fully understand the platform you are using. For example, WWF’s Snapchat, which was all about disappearing species, used it to build upon the idea of ‘in seven seconds this orangutan will be gone, but you can save one’. Because the creative idea resonates so well with Snapchat, it works. But sometimes brands miss that and they don’t tailor the campaign to the platform.”

Are charities justified in spending?

Like any sector, the charity industry needs to generate funding to achieve its goal – but are charities that are seen as ‘bloated’ justified in spending this money on anything other than their cause? “If they don’t spend money on advertising, even if they spend money on tech and all these other forms, then they won’t get the audience awareness needed to understand all about their cause,” Buchanan claims. “The way to do that is to spend money on highly targeted, tactical advertising. As long as the aim is to use it to get your story out there and make yourself known, I think that it is absolutely legitimate. But you have to be 100% honest about what you are doing. People will understand that conversation if it is done in the right way.”

The panel agrees that, in a digital age where conversation is at the heart of consumer relationships, charities can be more open and invite people along on their journey. Gravity Thinking’s Grogan says: “Studies have been done that show how micro-influencers actually have a bigger impact than the big celebrities that would traditionally endorse charities. They should go for the micro-influencers who have that dedicated, small audience that will actually take action and do something about it.”

Tozer adds: “I think charities can be braver. Now that you can target better than you ever have been able to before and there is greater depth of media, you don’t need to have a broad message any more. You can be specific.”

For the startup charities that are preparing marketing strategies, Gravytrain’s Jasmine Dreher advises not getting lost in all the advertising opportunities and just “focus on what’s doable for you at the time”. Lesley Hickmott from Space and Time Media believes that clearly explaining your aim is imperative. “How you are going to make a difference needs to be boiled down to an elevator pitch that is clear from the start. If in the first few seconds you get lost because you think someone else is doing that already, then the damage is done because the consumer will also get lost – it needs to be that clear.” To which Lloyd adds: “Get your purpose into two sentences. If you can’t explain it very clearly and quickly, as if you were with your mate in the pub, then you’re going to struggle.”

This article was originally published in the charity issue of The Drum Network magazine series. You can purchase your copy here.

Digital Charity Marketing

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