Lose Fat Quickly -- Help Poor People Forever

Video Shows Why Charities Need to Move Beyond the Quick Fix

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Forget food and shelter. Is liposuction the real cure for world poverty?

That provocative question was at the heart of a grassroots awareness campaign that we at U.K.-based development charity Practical Action launched in January.

The campaign centered around a promotional video featuring a fictional London cosmetic surgery clinic that claimed to have developed a revolutionary "reverse liposuction" treatment -- donating the excess fat from Britons to starving people in the developing world.

The video made the rounds on the Internet, popping up on websites, blogs, forums and YouTube. It was viewed or shared tens of thousands of times by Brits -- and, incidentally, some 40,000 times by Americans -- with users then following the trail to the fictional clinic's website. Practical Action conducted a supporting study that indicated that as many as 38% of Britons would gladly siphon off their love handles to fatten up the hungry. Lose weight quickly, and help poor people forever; a win-win scenario, right?

Wrong. The video was a spoof -- not that this stopped people from falling for it. But its underlying message was very serious. By advertising a beauty treatment masquerading as a charitable contribution, we were actually challenging the public to think about sustainable international development. We were asking them to consider the benefits of the long-term, sustainable development we believe in at Practical Action, compared to short-term, quick-fix relief aid.

That same dichotomy is at the heart of many charitable marketing campaigns. The boom in social media and cause marketing means it has never been easier for an appeal to reach consumers; but, as a result, actually making an impact has never been more difficult.

Competition for share of voice is fierce. There are currently more than 180,000 charities in England and Wales, and more than 1 million in the U.S. So how can charities, particularly smaller ones, make themselves heard? And how can they ensure that their efforts have long-term benefits? There are four key questions organizations should first consider in order to answer this one:

1. How can you reach new audiences? How do you avoid preaching to the converted, those people already engaged with your cause?

Take our campaign's under-the-radar viral approach. We knew that the general public would be more likely to view and share a video about an apparently shocking medical procedure than read, say, an article about our earthenware fridges in Sudan. We also knew that people would likely share the video peer-to-peer, and post it in places that would ordinarily be closed to us. We effectively allowed the public to do some of the outreach for us, broadening our scope in a cost-effective way.

2. Once you know how to reach your audience, how can you break through to them? In such a crowded space, what will make your audience stop and listen? We don't condone empty shock tactics. However, our campaign's combination of shock, humor and mystery, underpinned by a serious message, was successful in capturing consumer attention.

3. How can you engage your audience? We didn't just want to shock or amuse people with our video, we wanted to make a lasting impression, get people thinking long-term and encourage them to find out more.

To begin with, our video was supported by a website that encouraged people to follow the clues and dig a little deeper before we revealed that Practical Action was behind the campaign. (The "small print" page on the site, where we revealed our involvement, was, in fact, its most visited section.)

Proof of this engagement can be seen in the "dwell time" on our main website. Visitors to the campaign landing pages stayed an average of 11 minutes, three times longer than usual.

Second, the subject of the video, reverse liposuction, was intended to provoke debate about the broader issues. Good international development is about more than keeping people alive; it's about helping them have choices so that they can take part in their own development. The video brought this debate to life in a thought-provoking way.

4. How can you maintain conversations? Social media is key. Part of our communications strategy has been to encourage Facebook "like" and Twitter followers. The initial effort on behalf of potential donors is very small, but once they "liked" our page, we could build a long-lasting relationship with them. We can keep them updated on our news and developments, promote fundraising opportunities and we can engage them in a way that is both cost-effective and convenient.

Margaret Gardner is marketing and communications director for U.K.-based Practical Action.