I finally watched Kony 2012. From a pure marketing perspective, the video itself is absolutely flawless. They manage to take a very complex situation, and not only make the audience understand it, but also care. But herein lies the problem. Critics of Invisible Children say that Kony 2012’s simple message of “catch the bad guy” is a distraction from the real issues that exist in Central African Republic. The message doesn’t reflect the complexity of the work needed.
Effective marketing brings attention and donations. Good development work should improve the lives of poor people. Does the latter limit the ability of good marketing folk to tell that simple story which the public seeks? Here are the 5 reasons why effective marketing cannot co-exist with effective development work.
1. We have short attention spans
Research shows that when we read web pages, we actually don’t. In fact, we typically read 28% of the text that is on a web page. Similarly, only 12% of readers read all the way to the bottom of a page. (I’ll be accessing NSA records to check if you make it all the way down in a few minutes).
Knowing this, people who work in communications for non-profits boil down the complexities of the program so that it hardly represents the actual work done. Then they stick it in the slow cooker for another 12 hours until it is reduced even further.
In the push and pull of what needs to be done versus what people consume, clever communications folk know that they have to cater to the amount of effort that people are willing to give.
2. There is no incentive to translate complexity.
Even if an organisation truly values the work they do, and talks endlessly about how good this work is to other people in the sector, or even institutional donors such as government agencies, this matters little to the public.
Think about selling a product like Coca-Cola. In this transaction, the person buying the product is also the same person as the one receiving the benefit. In global development, the people paying and the person receiving the benefit are completely different. In the case of public donations, the payer is the general public and the people receiving services or programs are those in poor countries.
This creates a power imbalance because the person paying becomes the boss, not the person receiving benefits. Communication and marketing that oversimplify the message is another way of pandering to the needs of potential donors.
3. Even if it offends some, on balance,
dumb simple is better
When an organisation produces some marketing material that is offensive, such as Save the Children Australia did recently, they are likely to face some kind of backlash. In this case, the use of starving African children, often referred to as poverty porn, will offend some. Those in the know will be up in arms over what clearly negative tactics, and will write in to complain, post about it on social media and so forth.
But at the end of the day, poverty porn and other negative marketing tactics work, at least in the short term. They raise funds from the public because they tell a simple message about the “other.”
The conversation that occurs within organisations is then around the costs versus benefits of running a campaign that uses poverty porn. And on balance, despite criticisms which I personally think are valid, those tactics remain. The prevailing attitude is still that the end justify the means. The proof in the pudding is that weeks after this backlash, Save the Children Australia were at it again. Same poverty porn angle, different ad.
4. Money drives the work, not the need.
I touched on this earlier, but the vast majority of aid and development still revolves around what the donor wants to do, not what the people need. The debate around overheads, which reflects the administrative costs of an organisation’s work, is an old one within the development sector, but knowledge of how irrelevant this metric is for the general public is still low.
Why? Because organisations don’t want to talk about it. In fact, if you go to pretty much any large nonprofit’s website, somewhere, they’ll be boasting about how low their overheads are.
As long as we have donor-driven marketing, we cannot have needs-driven development.
5. Effective marketing draws on herd mentality
Interlinked with the need of nonprofits to focus on fundraising is the realisation that good marketing is very much infectious. Everybody in nonprofit communications wants to create that viral piece of campaigning.
charity: water are great exponents of this. More than 20,000 people have held birthday campaigns to raise funds for them, simply by sharing their desire to help out through social media and email. It’s been incredibly effective. charity: water have raised over $27 million in 2012. Not a bad effort for an organisation with less than 50 staff.
Forgetting for one moment criticisms about the actual impact that they make, charity: water are able to leverage off herd mentality and the bandwagon effect. These social pressures exist often because we want to be seen as being on the “winner’s side”. If the goal is getting a campaign to go viral, it’s not the effectiveness of what the organisation does that matters, it’s how much other people are sharing the same material.
We all know the power of communications to drive awareness and as importantly, donations. But the reality is, unless we change the way we consume communications as human beings, overly simplistic marketing tactics will always butt heads with good development work. Don’t agree? Please restore my faith in humanity and prove me wrong in the comments.
We’ll be posting a rebuttal to this post by Rachel Kurzyp, freelance writer and communications professional, in a few days.
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