Quit Asking Your Audience to Save the World

January 9th, 2019

Researchers have identified three common reactions to stress: fight, flight or freeze. (Freeze was only recently added.) And without meaning to, much of cause marketing is triggering these responses daily.

It’s unintentional, usually. An injustice is happening or there’s a major issue that needs attention, and we and our clients want people to act. Problem is, we’re paralyzing them with shocking statistics, disturbing images and issues that seem beyond anyone’s control.

To be fair, a consumer might act if their stress response tends to be fight. But that leaves two thirds of an audience fleeing or freezing. So, how do we talk about causes in a way that connects rather than stresses? Our best recommendation is to put into practice what we learned while working with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.

  1. Break down a big problem into small, actionable steps. Think: what impact can one individual realistically have? 
  2. Lead messaging with what an individual can do, not with the problem.
  3. Pick an initiative that is relevant and meaningful to your brand.

Why or how did we arrive at these takeaways? Let’s explore each in detail.

  1. When we first began working with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, we learned 18.7 million acres of forest are lost every year – that’s 27 soccer fields every minute, according to the World Wildlife Organization. A daunting problem to say the least. We realized, however, that if we chiseled the big problem down to small, actionable steps, it became more accessible. No single human can replant all 18.7 million acres, but one single human can contribute to conservation by becoming a member of the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, as a portion of every membership goes toward conversation. So, what was a big problem (18.7 acres of forest lost every year) was broken down into an approachable solution (buying a membership). 
  2. When messaging leads with a problem rather than solution – especially when it’s as daunting as 18.7 million acres of forest being lost every year – the audience is often left feeling helpless, angry or numb. This is why it is so important to do what we call “flipping the script.” Basically, tell people what they can do before you share how big the problem actually is. Put the control back in the audience’s hands. Explain why it’s a worthwhile endeavor and minimize the stress response. 
  3. At best, randomly picking an initiative to support feels disconnected. At worst, it feels slimy and disingenuous. So be sure you’re choosing a cause that has a relevant connection to your brand and audience. For example, if you’re in the automotive business, how could you use your product and expertise to benefit others? Perhaps you start a program that offers rides to work for struggling individuals. Or you could donate a portion of your income to sustainable energy research. Simple, and definitely not slimy.

After implementing all that’s above, follow through on your efforts. See if you’re actually making a difference. If you are, tell people about it. If you’re not, take time to reevaluate and try again. Because we believe when it comes to cause marketing, the goal should simply be to make it better. Sure, your team can pursue perfection, but moving the needle slowly and steadily is just as much of an accomplishment. Remember, cause marketing is ultimately about empowering your audience. And, together, doing good.

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