When a good cause goes viral, it can reaffirm our faith in humanity.
Think of the recent unprecedented surge in donations to the ACLU, or the famous ALS ice bucket challenge. Both campaigns inspired many people to respond to challenges that might otherwise feel insurmountable.
But new research published in the journal Nature Human Behavior shows that this phenomenon is the exception, not the rule.
Sander van der Linden, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge, recently set out to understand why some charity campaigns define a moment in our digital and cultural lives, while many others don’t.
In a new article, van der Linden argues that fundraising and awareness efforts go viral when they affect the way people think and feel in very specific ways. Those campaigns tend to steer real-life and digital social networks toward a course of action, and establish a moral belief that compels people to act. They also inspire positive reactions, and convert that momentum into tangible contributions.
“Once something gets picked up, it builds momentum until it reaches topping point … and then it drops off.”
That combination of factors can unleash tremendous support for a cause. Van der Linden’s new research isn’t based on an original experiment or study, but an analysis of prominent charity efforts like the ice bucket challenge.
He looked at common characteristics of these viral campaigns and found that when many people see their peers perform an act of kindness, they feel compelled to follow suit. Instead of relying on abstract statistics, effective campaigns ask people to identify with someone who will benefit from our collective goodwill. That empathy can be contagious, especially when paired with emotional imagery. Witnessing others’ generosity uplifts and inspires people, which creates a “warm glow” effect.
But going viral also has unexpected drawbacks.
“Once something gets picked up, it builds momentum until it reaches a tipping point … It gets widespread attention and then it drops off,” says van der Linden. “People move on.”
That behavior, often described as “clicktivism,” can leave people feeling cynical about using the internet to support a charity campaign, compared to more substantial actions like volunteering, making regular financial donations and learning about a cause. It also leads to rapid growth that organizations may not be able to maintain.
That’s effectively what happened to the ALS Association when it rallied behind the ice bucket challenge, a homegrown campaign led by three men in 2014. Eventually, more than 17 million people dumped ice on themselves and uploaded the footage to Facebook. The videos were watched 10 billion times and the callout for donations netted $220 million, $115 million of which went to the ALS Association.
But when the nonprofit tried to replicate its success the following year, the campaign fizzled out.
“I think we learned you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice,” says Brian Frederick, executive vice president of communications and development for the ALS Association. “We realized [the 2014 campaign] needed to be looked at more like a historical moment, when everybody came together and did something that really had a huge impact on ALS.”
Indeed, the money raised in 2014 helped fund an important genetics discovery. Now, Frederick says, the organization is focused on engaging two types of supporters: those who know a lot about ALS and whose family or friends may have the disease, and those who only recently learned about the condition. Sometimes the nonprofit creates entirely different messages and outreach efforts for each group.
“I think we learned you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice.”
Van der Linden says that some viral campaigns are short-lived because they hinge on what he calls “extrinsic incentives,” like a competition. While that can turn into viral fun, it may also erode people’s “intrinsic motivation” to do something because it’s morally right.
Timing also matters a lot. Frederick says that when the ice bucket challenge launched in 2014, the media coverage offered a welcome reprieve from daily stories about the Ebola outbreak in Africa and the spread of ISIS in the Middle East. The following year, it was much harder to break through the din of presidential election coverage.
Van der Linden says the tempered growth of a cause like Movember is a good benchmark for balancing viral attention with long-term support.
Founded in 2003, the Movember Foundation capitalized on the evolving trendiness of “mustache culture” in order to raise awareness about men’s physical and mental health. Every November, the foundation encourages men to grow a mustache and raise money for various projects around researching and preventing prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental illness and suicide. By 2015, the nonprofit had engaged more than 5 million people, raised $710 million and funded 1,200 men’s health projects.
“They grow at a good rate, but it’s not hyper-growth,” says van der Linden. “It’s not out of control.”
The structure of the annual event also taps into that intrinsic motivation to do good.
“[Participants] share something with the larger movement. You do this every year because its a small part of who you are,” he says.
Mark Hedstrom, senior vice president of global operations for Movember, says the foundation looks for opportunities to go viral with an approach that balances a lighthearted action with weighty subject matter.
“You need to build a core following of people who become more and more invested in it.”
“We may put a fun spin on mustache culture, but the conversation that sparks these men and the women who support them become walking, talking billboards for men’s health,” says Hedstrom.
The key to a viral campaign that sustains its momentum, van der Linden says, is giving people incentive to keep supporting the cause on their own, independent of an annual event. That means creating what he describes as a “window” big enough to internalize a new norm or behavior. Then, organizations need to give their new supporters feedback demonstrating how their contributions made a difference.
“It’s good to get people involved,” says van der Linden. “But once youve done that … you need to build a core following of people who become more and more invested in it.”