Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Finally! A Good Red Cross Marketing Idea!

The Red Cross does incredibly important work. But, they usually do horrible marketing.

Granted, the nature of their business is crisis-mode. They (thankfully) respond to the disasters and the tragedies that occur unexpectedly. They house and clothe people, provide meals and medicine, and of course, collect and distribute the most valuable of all liquids - blood.

And, they're a nonprofit. Like any nonprofit, they need volunteers and donations. And, like any nonprofit, they need to let folks know about these opportunities to give.

Usually, this awareness is limited to an emergency announcement in every local paper and news outlet that the Red Cross is dangerously close to running out of blood. I guess they think that they can get everyone who watches the news and reads a print newspaper to rush out, roll up their sleeve, and wait in line to get stuck by a needle.

The two main problems with this are:
  • When you frequently declare that you're in dire need, people will eventually ignore this need. It's like the panhandler who tells you the same story twice. The second time, it doesn't really seem like that big of a need.
  • If you frequently are in a state of emergency, you need to rethink what it takes to keep your supply steady.
In Nashville, the Red Cross recently unveiled an idea to recruit 10,000 volunteers from the middle Tennessee area to help out in a variety of ways, from donating blood to disaster relief. There are a few billboards around town talking about this, and how you can be part of the 10,000. I'm not sure how it's going, but the idea is a waste of time and money.

Let's face it, most people want to help out, but no one wants to be part of 10,000. If I did, I'd go to a baseball game or a concert. And most people will always choose a baseball game or a concert over giving blood, no matter the how much altruism is lost in sitting and eating $9 hot dogs.

So, in Nashville, they try to entice donors with being .01% of something, or with a gas card. That's right - on the local red cross outdoor sign, each week or month or something, one lucky donor is entered to win a $250 gas card. Not bad, but if I've never given blood, even though $250 in gas is great, a lot more has to happen to have me walk in the door.

But, in Michigan, the Red Cross seems to get it. I read today about their summer concert series, Club Red. It's a season of concerts aimed to get the young folks out to hear some good music, donate some money, and learn about a great organization.

Here's why I like this marketing idea:
  • It's aimed at 20- and 30-somethings. If you get one of these to become a loyal donor (blood or money), you've got them for a long time.
  • It features local bands picked by people who know the local scene. You don't always need a has-been or current-chart-topper to have a successful charity event.
  • There's no cover. People will pay for something what it's worth. So, the Red Cross still gets some money, and they get their message in front of more people than if there were a required cover charge.
  • Concerts have a long tail. If it's a good show, attendees will have pictures on their MySpace and Facebook pages and will be telling their friends about it. And when someone gets it in their mind that they want to volunteer or do something good for the community, the Red Cross will benefit.
A lot of marketing is in telling the right story. And today, the right story isn't about emergencies or a number. It's about thinking about opportunities that allow people to do something they might be doing anyway. It's hard to get people to stick needles in their arms - it's easy to get them to listen to live music.

One step at a time.

Comments (6)


11:34 AM

Here are some other things to consider, though.

Nonprofits are not in the concert-promotion business, and every time there's a banquet, concert or festival, you can bet that half the staff worked on that project for months, possibly to the detriment of the organization's overall mission.

These events also cost lots of money to put on -- rental of a facility and meals, such as an event held at a hotel.

Or even in the event you noted, a concert (perhaps the bands and venue were donated), there is a huge liability insurance contract that must be paid beforehand. And I mean huge. Liability for a large gathering, especially one where alcohol is served, is very, very expensive.

So here are the questions a good PR person in the nonprofit world should ask before throwing a party:

1. Will it further the mission of my organization? In the case of the Red Cross, will people leave knowing CPR and first aid? Will they have donated blood? Will they get training so that they know how to respond to a disaster? Will they prepare a disaster kit so they'll be Red Cross Ready?

2. Will the event raise money to support our programs? And will that money be enough to outweigh the staff time put into the event?

3. Will our loyal financial donors be happy that we're spending money on a party instead of on vital programs and services? Most people donate to the Red Cross because they know the funds will be used wisely to help people after disasters.

4. How much staff time will be spent on arranging the event? What are their normal jobs that they'll be putting on the back burner?

5. Will people leave the event not even remembering which organization they were allegedly "supporting"?
The Nashville program, on the other hand, actually gets people involved in the organization in a meaningful way.

People willing to support the Red Cross by drinking a beer at a concert ... I'm not impressed with their philanthropy.

People willing to give blood and volunteer and take a CPR class ... now we're getting to the core of the Red Cross, which is teaching people to prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.

You mentioned that people won't want to be one of 10,000. Unfortunately, we do need entire communities trained so that we're all ready for the next disaster, whether it's natural or manmade.

None of this to mention that there are actually companies and bars whose enterprise is putting on concerts. If people want to go to a concert, they won't have any problem doing so. Nonprofits who are trying to fight cancer or diabetes or promote human rights don't need to compete with for-profit enterprises that are always doing concerts. There's no overarching need for concerts that would warrant a nonprofit organization to do a concert series.

Focus on what you're good at. For the Red Cross, that's disaster relief, preparedness training, blood collection and volunteerism.

I vote for the Nashville program.
Another point you didn't mention is the outcome of both programs.

If Nashville can reach even 100 extra residents with CPR or sign up even 20 new volunteers, the program will have been hugely successful and the streets will be safer.

No matter how many people show up to the concerts, we'd have to do more research to see what those people gained from the experience. And we don't know yet how much money was actually raised. I bet the amount will be miniscule when compared to the work involved in the concert.


1:23 PM

Oops. I spoke too soon.

We do know what the concert series goal was -- $25,000. And they're also posting on the website how much was actually raised at each event.

So far, they're averaging $622 for the first four events, with a low of $378 and a high of $960.

If that average continues, they'll have raised less than $7,500 for 12 concerts.

Still think it's a great idea?

Thanks for your thoughts. They're very well presented and there's a lot to think about.

Do you work for the Red Cross? You seem very passionate about the Nashville model. If you do, I hope its working for the reasons you mention.

I agree that any event (concert, convention, bake sale or ball game) won't work just because of what it is. But I don't agree that there has to be a net income for it to be a success.

I like the concert idea because it's a different approach that just might work. I like who they're going after. I like that they're not just relying on billboards and press releases to get folks interested.

Are you familiar with the concept of the long tail? Concerts have long tails. Billboards don't.

If you're looking to recruit and retain young donors and volunteers today, I'd recommend anyone doing something with long tail potential. Creating loyalty at 25 will pay bigger dividends at 50.


2:46 PM

I am a Red Crosser, although not in either of the areas you mentioned.

But I am pretty well grounded in what the Red Cross mission is, and I'm determined that we not change that mission to the best concert promoter in the world. That's not what the public expects of us.

As for the Long Tail, I guess I disagree with that, too. Long Tail theory has to do with selling a few products over a long period of time, rather than a lot all at once. I think a concert is the Manx cat of the Long Tail world.

I bet if people were given a question card as they exited the concert that said, "I just supported: A. American Cancer Society B. Red Cross C. Alzheimer's Association," the results would be spread equally because no one would remember which organization sponsored the event.

If they cared about the Red Cross, they'd be at a CPR class or volunteering at a shelter. If they care about live music, they'll be at the concert. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that they'll have a lifelong fondness of the Red Cross because of going to a show when they're 20.

Your other point is that there doesn't have to be a net income for the event to be a success. Wrong again. When you're dealing with donated dollars, then any event should raise money, not cost money. The things that cost money should be programs -- teaching kids to swim or helping after a tornado. Donors wouldn't give money if they thought it would be going to a concert series. In fact, many donations are designated for certain programs. Some people, for example, give their donations to the Red Cross only for children's programs. Other people dontate only toward disaster relief.

Plus, clearly the event was promoted as a fund-raiser, slated to raise $25,000, and it isn't working as such.

You're right. I am passionate about the Red Cross, about community involvement and about getting people involved in appropriate ways.

If the only time that people have in their entire lives for the Red Cross is, say, three hours, I'd much rather them spend that time being trained in CPR. The concert tail won't be long enough at all. They'd remember something from that CPR class to help someone 10 years down the road when their child was choking or when their grandfather had a heart attack. THOSE would be a long tail and fond Red Cross memories.

As a side note, an executive director of another unrelated nonprofit agency was telling me once about how hard their yearly fundraiser extravaganza is to put together and how little it raises in return. And then what he said surprised me. He said that they have to be very careful to balance exactly how much they talk about the organization during the event.

He said that people who go to fundraisers are really there for the fun atmosphere and don't want to be bored with the details of how the organization is growing or benefiting the community. And that really upset him because he says most people leave dinners/concerts/runs without even remembering the name of the organization.

One more thing and then I'll get off my soapbox, but did you realize that when people pay for a ticket to a nonprofit event, only a small portion is allowed to be written off on taxes?

The ticket or receipt will say something like: "Cost of ticket $75, value of meal $30, tax-deductible donation $45."


10:57 AM

The Red Cross will get not one more of my dollars or one more drop of my blood, no matter how good their marketing is.

The last time I gave blood? 9/11/2001. On 11/19, I received a letter from them saying my blood tripped one of their screenings. The letter was dated 9/19, but postmarked 11/17. Thanks for the sense of urgency Red Cross!

I visited my doctor and luckily nothing was wrong with me. I never bothered my doctor with a letter asking the Red Cross to reinstate me. Why? Because when I complained about the delay, this is the response I got : "Sorry, we don't show any delays in our mail room that day"

If you don't give someone a remarkable experience when you get them in the door or on board, why even bother with marketing?

Oh, and I was one board. One more pint and I would have gotten my 5 gallon pin.

Have you seen some of their international advertising?

Check out: