United Way clicks with viral campaign

A viral e-mail campaign that spawned 250,000 hits on a local Toronto United Way Web site in a single three-day period has given an unexpected boost to the non-profit agency's Internet marketing strategy. ...

A viral e-mail campaign that spawned 250,000 hits on a local Toronto United Way Web site in a single three-day period has given an unexpected boost to the non-profit agency’s Internet marketing strategy.

Conceived and launched in September 2000, clickforunitedway.com was initially designed to promote awareness of the United Way’s various charitable programs and corporate sponsors. For each visitor who clicked a button on the Web site each day, sponsors would donate 10 cents to people in need, up to a maximum of $60,000.

But when the initiative, led by Bruce Mitchell, director of marketing for the Toronto office of United Way, generated a sluggish response rate of about 80,000 clicks, or 800 clicks per day, the marketing team decided to move in a slightly different direction – one that would ultimately enable the campaign to take on a life of its own, and in doing so, boost the non-profit agency’s online strategy both locally and nationally.

In February, Mitchell narrowed the focus of the clickforunitedway.com Web site campaign by targeting a specific issue – the abuse of women and children – and by leveraging an annual time of caring, Valentine’s Day.

Staff in the Toronto office circulated a personal e-Valentine to friends and family urging them to click on the Web site – at no cost to themselves – to help generate donations for abused women and children across Canada and the U.S. Recipients were then encouraged to pass on the message to their own circle of friends and colleagues.

During the same time frame – February 14-16 – the sponsor donation rate was also raised to $1.25 per click with one click allowed per person per day. Sponsors for the United Way site include Noranda, IBM Canada, Sun Life Financial, Canada Life, Hydro One, KTS and Empori.com.

In that 72-hour period, the site received a whopping quarter million hits, far exceeding the organization’s expectations, says Philip King, vice-president of e-business at the United Way’s Toronto office. And the campaign – originally inspired, in part, by The Hunger Site, a non-profit, U.S.-based Web initiative whereby corporate donors received free banner ads – continued to gather momentum exponentially, garnering 100,000 clicks in the last eight hours as it tapped into the U.S.

‘We also received a great outpouring of stories from abused women and other people from all over the world,’ says King. ‘We tapped into an incredible source of energy.’

E-mail addresses and data were not gathered throughout this particular campaign, he adds. Rather, the e-Valentine campaign, and the ongoing clickforunitedway.com initiative are both being positioned as only part of a larger national strategy to raise broad awareness of the United Way brand and further drive consumer traffic back to local levels.

‘It’s still very much a ‘launch and learn’ phenomenon for us,’ says King.

‘The fact that a daily click was free was an incentive. People found it too good to be true. We see viral marketing as a great way to positively promote awareness of our brand online and generate new forms of donations.’

While the campaign has since reverted back to its initial 10 cents per click, roughly 1,000 people continue make a daily habit of clicking on the site to generate donations for the full spectrum of United Way programs.

‘We have learned in our research that respect for our brand is so important on the Internet,’ adds David Armour, president of United Way, which has emerged as a Canadian leader in Internet fund-raising, having first established a presence in 1995.

‘Our hybrid strategy is to combine a trusted national brand with local community wisdom and presence,’ says Armour. ‘That partly accounts for the strong response on this particular campaign. We even got responses from people who were concerned that someone was using the United Way name illegally in an e-mail. They wanted to check the validity of the message and protect us – that’s how much people care about our brand.’

Armour says online fund-raising has still not achieved anything near offline levels, so the agency’s short-term strategy is to test marketing concepts on the Web, build its automated business functions, and prepare for a time when donors will be more disposed to use the Net. The United Way eventually plans to leverage its future Web campaigns into database and permission-based marketing programs.