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How to build a remarkable web strategy for your cause

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In a 2011 survey of top 200 charities, as identified by Forbes, 97% report having a Facebook presence, 96% a Twitter account and 92% are using YouTube. But, as any community manager knows, Facebook and Pinterest are not a panacea for growing your cause. Even if you excel in these social media channels, you’re only ever going to beat your “competition” by a little bit. The truth is, originality and creative thinking still count when it comes to the web, which is why it’s so important to distinguish between your daily work in social media and the special projects, campaigns or ideas that set you apart.

When we build an online strategy, we think about online activities in two different ways: heartbeat activities and remarkables. Heartbeat activities are daily social media updates meant to deepen relationships with fans and supporters. Meanwhile, remarkable activities should grow your fan base. You might only ever be able to develop one remarkable a year because of time or resource restrictions but we think the work and attention is worth it. With the right testing and a creative touch, a remarkable can breathe new life into your marketing work.

Drawn to the Wild

This is a story of the remarkable campaign outdoors retailer Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) created in partnership with Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer. While at one of Harmer’s concerts in 2012, we learned about her commitment to protecting Ontario's Niagara Escarpment. During the set, she spoke about her family's commitment to protecting this rural wilderness in Ontario.

The story caught our attention and a partnership between MEC and Harmer was born. A few months later, we launched Drawn to the Wild. The project invited Canadians to contribute to a new version of Harmer’s music video and to support the protection of part of Canada’s Niagara Escarpment at the same time.

How we did it

While there are no hard and fast rules to building your own remarkable, these are a handful of best practices that will help get you going. For starters, think about what people love online — humourous videos, striking photos and engaging stories — and how you can make it your own. We like to call this “riffing on the web.”

For example, the web loves memes: elements of culture (an idea, a video, a phrase, an image, an ad) that get passed from one individual to another. Riding a meme's momentum is a classic Internet move. Borrowing and remixing something the web already loves can be an effective strategy for grabbing attention. Additionally, the original meme acts as a kind of social proof for your campaign. If it was popular once, then you can have confidence that your variation on the idea can be popular, too.

Another consideration is whether or not you can make your remarkable interactive. The more your remarkable lends itself to playfulness, the more opportunity you have to deepen engagement and keep your audience’s attention.

In MEC’s case, we had an opportunity to connect supporters to a cause through the power of music and video. We’ve long admired The Johnny Cash Project, a crowd-sourced music video of Johnny Cash. We chose to riff off this remarkable web project and develop Drawn to the Wild featuring Harmer. For our remarkable, we selected two minutes from Harmer’s documentary, Escarpment Blues, in which she performs “I’m a Mountain” on stage and then walks through the woods with her bandmates. This is the music video featured on the microsite.

When visitors came to the site, they could choose a randomly selected frame from the video. After choosing the frame, they used a drawing tool to add their own creative contribution. They could trace the frame, add to it, or radically re-envision it. The site then aggregated the frames into a new version of the video. Every time someone drew a frame, MEC donated to Harmer’s Protecting Rural Land (PERL), an organization dedicated to protecting the Niagara Escarpment in Southern Ontario.

With Drawn to the Wild, we created something fresh and fun for the MEC audience, who are regularly contacted via newsletters and social media about environmental campaigns. This was a new way for them to participate.

What You Need to Know

If you're thinking about building your own interactive remarkable that relies on visitors to succeed, make sure you've got these things covered:

  • You’re starting with a sizable and engaged audience. Building a remarkable that depends on crowd-sourced content could fall flat if you don’t already have the community to share it with — the more people in your community that will spread and share the campaign, the better the chance of reaching an audience that will add content to or interact with your remarkable.
  • You've got a kick-ass idea. No one wants to spend precious time generating content for something that's not cool or fun.
  • You've got the technical skills to pull it off. Without in-house technical expertise or a very good development partner, the user experience can fail. In most cases you’ve only got one shot with a visitor. Make it count by ensuring all the technical glitches are ironed out before launch.
  • You've got a clear objective in mind. Make the call to action clear. Want people to donate? Ask them. Want them to contribute a personal story? Make it easy for them to submit it.
  • You've got the staff resources to manage interactions (like reviewing over 1800 illustrated frames for a video.) That may mean putting a staffer on full-time community management duty while you run an interactive remarkable.

Riffing off the web and getting “interactive” are just two best practices we recommend from a short list we’ve put together. Here are some more:

Change the medium of the message

Sometimes, getting the initial momentum you require to spread your message, story or cause means reaching out to more traditional forms of media, like journalists and reporters. Pitching a writer in a creative way is hardly a new concept to marketers. However, pitching something that lives online requires some additional creative thinking on your part. Believe it or not, sometimes a “new” way to send your message is actually an old way. One of our favourite mediums is good old-fashioned snail mail. Who doesn't love to receive a letter in the mail? The next time you have to make pitch, consider doing something different when you reach out to tell your story.

Say it visually

It can pay to step back from language and rely on images to tell your remarkable story. Infographics have grown popular over the past few years as the medium in which marketers, companies and organizations use to tell a story with data and images. Using pictures instead of words can really come in handy when you need to develop a remarkable for something that's rather ordinary. Infographics or data journalism have led to an entire school of journalism devoted to telling complex, often serious stories with just one graphic. Here’s an example of an infographic we built for MEC and TheBigWild.org.

Change the scope

A few years back, the University of Kentucky put giant Facebook Places markers around campus to remind students to check in and spread the University of Kentucky brand to their friends. It was a clever example of playing with size and scale — something unexpected but memorable. When we play with size, scale and the expectations of our audience, we have the potential to shift perspective.

Find the funny

Sometimes a lighter touch is exactly what your campaign needs. Think about your cause and whether you can engage your audience by making them laugh. A comedic remarkable shouldn't detract from your message but, rather, support it and make it stronger. Be sure to run your funny idea by your friends and colleagues and see what they think as it’s easy for a joke to go sideways. You want to make sure your message is on the mark.

Be the first

Every time a new technology starts to gain momentum, there’s an opportunity to get in early and use it to successfully tell your story. When you’re the first to adopt a new platform or technology, you can build significant credibility by teaching your community about it. The fact that you were first and are sharing your experience becomes the story in itself. We benefited from this tactic when we ran a QR code campaign for TheBigWild.org in 2009. We put up posters in seven major cities across the country and gained national news attention for it because we were the first Canadian conservation organization to use QR codes for a campaign.

Theodora Lamb works with Capulet Communications helping to develop creative content, digital marketing strategy and web marketing campaigns. Theodora, along with Julie Szabo and Darren Barefoot, are the authors of The Noble Arsonist, a free e-book for NGOs and Companies that Care. This article is based on an excerpt from the e-book.

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