Why Your Marketing Campaigns Are Failing

Why so many marketing campaigns fall flat, and how to make sure yours rise to the top.

Thou Shalt Not Bore

One of the biggest challenges social purpose brands face—and all brands for that matter—is getting the word out. The modern world is a noisy place. Social media, video platforms, the 24-hour news cycle, email, instant messaging, and more, are all clambering for your attention. With all of that competition, how can you effectively engage people with your mission? How can you stand out and attract people to support your company and your cause?

There’s a long history of social purpose brands engaging in low-key fundraising and marketing efforts and wondering why they struggle to get donations. Of the 1.5M nonprofits in the US, how many can you name off the top of your head? Multi-Academy Award winning filmmaker Billy Wilder once said, “I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore.”

Being boring is a liability for any organization vying for dollars or trying to accomplish a world-changing mission. Make no mistake, whether you’re a social enterprise, a nonprofit, or a foundation, you are competing for people’s discretionary income. Where will they spend their money? They’ll spend it with an organization that grabs and holds their interest.

With all of life’s distractions, how do you get your audience’s attention?

Be Bold and Original

The ALS Association’s 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge campaign raised $115M in one summer.

The Challenge is a simple idea—get a bucket of ice water poured over your head, record it on video, and challenge your friends by tagging them on social media to either perform the challenge themselves, thereby raising awareness, or donate to the ALS Association. The campaign went viral, partially as a result of TV personalities and celebrities jumping on the bandwagon. But it also was taken up by all kinds of people on a local level.

The campaign was decidedly bold.

In 2013, the END IT Movement launched its provocative Shine a Light on Slavery Day campaign. Formed by a coalition of seven nonprofit organizations, including The A21 Campaign, Free the Slaves, Made In A Free World, Love146, International Justice Mission (IJM), Not For Sale, and Polaris Project, the movement combined their collective efforts to prevent and end human trafficking as well as rescue and restore the dignity of its victims.

Working with an advertising and design studio in Atlanta, GA, they drove a clear-sided truck around Atlanta during the Final Four basketball tournament. Inside the truck there were women dressed and made up to represent victims of modern slavery. As of April 2018, the resulting video has been viewed on YouTube over 1.8 million times.

The campaign was certainly original.

Follow Through Can Make or Break It

Making the Most of It

One important aspect of the Ice Bucket Challenge is its longevity and repetition. When you launch a campaign, it’s critical that you have the resources and organizational structure to sustain it and build on your success. If you create a big splash, you have to be ready to capitalize on it. The Ice Bucket Challenge has taken place every summer since it began. In 2016, the University of Massachusetts Medical School announced that, partially due to donations from the Ice Bucket Challenge, they had identified a third gene that is a cause for the disease. This tremendous accomplishment demonstrates that the ALS Association has done a great job in following through, extending the campaign, and making dramatic progress toward achieving their mission.

Falling Short

Our research found very little direct evidence of the END IT Movement campaign’s impact. Keep in mind that it’s an awareness campaign and that awareness can be difficult to measure and judge. It’s not clear if the coalition partners had a marketing plan beyond the initial splash. They made a strong and unique statement, and garnered earned media (publicity gained through promotions rather than paid media advertising) in publications such as the Huffington Post, yet there doesn’t seem to be a significant effort to sustain whatever impact the campaign generated.

With such a powerful presentation, the follow-through seems lackluster. It could be that the campaign generated significant results. If so, the partners don’t seem to have touted its success.

A Movement With Momentum

The survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have orchestrated several actions as part of their Never Again MSD campaign to tighten regulations in order to prevent gun violence.

Their most bold move to date has been town hall meetings. During a congressional break, they worked with Town Hall Project to organize town hall meetings across the US on April 7, 2018. They invited the incumbent Congress members for the districts to attend and discuss how they plan to reduce gun violence. In districts where elected officials were unable or unwilling to attend, the organizers were encouraged to invite opposition candidates. Some events doubled as voter registration drives. Organizing them with Town Hall Project made the events easy to coordinate and kept costs low. In an election year, this action made a strong statement, and garnered attention from every major news network—an incredible return on investment for the fledgling movement.

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Shock Isn’t All—Your Campaign Needs a Strong Foundation

In order to have a successful marketing campaign, there are four key elements that you must think through and have in place before you launch.

1. Clearly highlight your mission.

TOMS Shoes Instagram campaign, One Day Without Shoes, initially stated that they would give away up to a million pairs of shoes to children who need them so they could go to school and to prevent disease. There’s no ambiguity in that mission, and the goal of the campaign is clear. How many times have you seen an interesting marketing piece, such as a funny TV commercial, then told a friend about it, but when they asked what the ad was for, you couldn’t remember? That’s a marketing failure. You need to be sure that your bold marketing initiative conveys your mission.

2. Educate the uninformed.

When our client The Renewal Workshop launched, they were introducing an entirely new industry. Educating people was critical to introducing the company to the public. Their ongoing marketing efforts continue this theme. Their partner, Toad&Co, wrote a detailed blog post describing their partnership. The feedback is universally positive. The outdoor brand prAna took it one step further featuring The Renewal Workshop in this video and this one. Both of these videos educate people about how new, unsellable garments are sent to landfills while introducing The Renewal Workshop and describing their solution to a wider audience.

3. Show people why your work matters.

Crossroads Community Services in NYC launched the Hungry and Homeless Street Art campaign in 2014. Chalk drawings around potholes, subway floor tiles, and garbage on the street were reproduced on bus shelters, wall projections, kiosks, taxi videos, pavement decals, and social media using over $1.4M in donated vendor ad space. The campaign was designed to get people to think differently about the plight of homeless people. In addition to raising awareness and clearly demonstrating why people should care about supporting their work, it increased donations by 63%.

Each marketing piece had a clever message that let people know why CCS’s work matters. Examples include: “Eating on the street isn’t pretty” and “What some New Yorkers eat is hard to swallow.” They also included the URL for CCS. Once you arrive at the site you’re immediately invited to take action and informed about what they do. They say, “In the heart of midtown Manhattan, there’s a community where everyone’s dignity and humanity is respected as we provide meals, groceries, food rescue, and shelter programs. Join us—we think you’ll like it here.” It’s important that your marketing campaign carries across your website, social media, and any other outreach that you’re doing. The CCS website shows what they're doing to achieve their mission. This gives site visitors confidence that their donation will make a difference.

4. Incite action and drive engagement.

The World Wildlife Fund’s Denmark division’s #LastSelfie campaign leveraged the ephemeral nature of Snapchat to highlight the circumstances of endangered species. When people saw an image of an endangered animal, the text on the screen read: “In _ seconds, I’ll be gone forever. But, you can still save my kind.” There were also Instructions at the bottom of the screen: HELP PROTECT THREATENED SPECIES AND HABITATS. TEXT ‘SAVE’ TO 70060 TO MAKE A $3 DONATION. According to the Just For This website, the campaign quickly spread organically around the world across social media platforms and WWF reached their monthly donation target in just three days.

One of the worst things you could do is spend time and money on an awesomely bold campaign and leave your viewers with no clear call to action (CTA). The WWF campaign highlighted their mission, educated the uninformed, showed their viewers why the work matters, and then gave them a clear CTA. These 4 ingredients helped to make the campaign successful.

Think Holistically

You can’t rely on a campaign going viral. No one truly knows what makes one campaign become a cultural icon and another to fall flat. Who could have predicted that a blue and black dress would nearly break the internet? (Or is it white and gold?!)

What is known is that any successful campaign has to be part of a larger marketing effort. These bold actions must support your foundational marketing strategy. That way, if your big campaign gains traction, you’ll already be producing consistent messaging across multiple marketing platforms and you will be prepared to capitalize on the virality of a successful campaign. 

Executing an ongoing marketing plan isn’t optional. In order for your major push to be effective, you have to do both—a novel campaign aligned with an established and ongoing presence.

Be Consistent

We’ve noticed that a lot of organizations have an annual event as their big push. Some have multiple events built into their annual marketing plan. One of our clients, the Community Foundation For San Benito County, has a series of events including San Benito Gives, the 12 Days of Giving, and National Philanthropy Day. 

Look for opportunities to do a standalone campaign once or twice a year—and then do it really, really well. 

A self-described “party game for horrible people,” Cards Against Humanity has had a series of Black Friday promotions since 2013. Most of the campaigns have been wacky events consistent with the irreverent tone of the game.

In 2014 they replaced the card game with boxes of sterilized bull feces which were sold for $6 each. Over 30,00 boxes were sold according to the New York Daily News. In 2015 they asked people to give them $5 and offered nothing in return. They told site visitors that "the greatest Black Friday gift of all is buying nothing. We're offering that for the rock-bottom price of $5. How can you afford NOT to seize this incredible opportunity?” 

The resulting $71,145 was divided equally between company employees who were encouraged to report how they spent the money. Many donated to charities. The Black Friday events, their philanthropy, and political involvement are all in keeping with the marketing efforts of the company. Fans of the game company look forward to the annual event.

Get Media Attention

One way to judge the success of a campaign is to determine its earned media. When the press starts coming to you for stories—rather than you trying to get your story to them—your marketing efforts are heading in the right direction.

The Ad Council’s 2015 Love Has No Labels diversity campaign sought to point out people’s implicit biases, get people to open their eyes to their own bias and prejudice, and work to stop it in themselves, their friends, their families, and their colleagues. They used large x-ray projection screens set up near the beach in Santa Monica, CA on Valentine’s Day. The screen showed the real-time skeletal versions of loving couples and families, and then the people stepped out from behind the screen to reveal a surprising mix of race, age, gender, religion, sexuality, and disability.

Bold, simple, and emotionally engaging, this positive campaign revolved around a three-minute video and a 90-second PSA showing the screen, the loving people, and the reactions of a crowd of passersby. The video was the 2nd most viewed on YouTube in 2015, generated $6.4M in media coverage, and 2.7M visits to the lovehasnolabels website. The PSA went on to win an Emmy award for Best Commercial—the first ever for a PSA.

You Can Be Bold

Perhaps you don’t have the budget to convert a semi-truck so that it has clear sides, or rent a giant x-ray screen and produce a video. But you can still increase your impact and reach through bold action. Do you send out a newsletter? Rethink your content as a street-level guerilla marketing campaign that puts it directly into people’s hands. Want to raise awareness of food waste? Ask local grocery stores to offer a discount to anyone who also purchases visually imperfect produce.

Maybe your aim is to activate your community's riverfront. Ask local restaurants to sponsor an evening of dinners along the water. Looking to increase local recycling? There’s nothing like having your town’s high school brass band marching noisily down the streets to bring awareness to recycling metals.

Bravery For The Win

The time for subtle, under-the-radar social good has passed. When you sponsor your next (or first) bold event, put your name out there front and center. Let everyone know who’s making a statement and why. When you’re competing for dollars, you have to be bold and attract attention. You have to think and act more like a profit-driven business. See Our Perspective for more thoughts on this.

We’ve all heard the advertising adage: If it bleeds, it leads. The media’s propensity for featuring negative content over positive stories is another obstacle in getting the word out about the good you’re doing in the world. 

But when you look at a campaign like Love Has No Labels that’s the 2nd most viewed YouTube video in a year and generates millions of dollars in earned media, it’s clear that stories of social good can break through the noise—even in a time where people can tune out with the flick of a finger. 

You just have to be bold enough to stand above the crowd and make your voice heard.

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