3 lessons nonprofit marketers can learn from Super Bowl ads

Though nonprofits are underrepresented in the glitz and glamor of the Super Bowl, we are all marketers – whether we’re selling a cause or a product. The minds behind the multi-million dollar advertisements are the best and the brightest in the business, and their techniques are easier to translate to NGO speak than you may think.

Lesson #1: Puppies are popular

Why it worked: What in this world is more adorable than a puppy? A puppy who’s best friends with the majestic and iconic Clydesdale horse.

Nonprofit takeaway: Your story doesn’t have to be complicated – or even all that unique – to grab your audience’s attention. Sometimes it pays off to let go of the negativity and tell a heartwarming story with a happy ending.

Put it into practice: Identify one or more of your organization’s strongest success stories. Then, simplify, simplify, simplify. We, as the audience, just need to see three things.

1) Why should we care about the stars of your story? (Puppies and horses are innocent and cute)

2) What struggles did they overcome? (The puppy was adopted – by someone other than his beloved Clydesdale!)

3) How are they living happily ever after? (Puppy and Clydesdale now spending their days hanging on the farm)

Real world example: To keep with the puppy theme, the Humane Society of the United States exemplifies the simple story/deep impact concept with this heart-warming video about Ricky Bobby, an abused dog whose tormentors left him paralyzed. Once rescued, he gets the doggie version of a wheelchair and now lives a happy life with a loving family.

It’s a story we’ve all heard before, but it still made me tear up. It wasn’t about being original or being the first, it was about hitting that emotional core of HSUS supporters who all want the same thing: an end to animal abuse and a loving family for all pets.

Lesson #2 Know your weak spots

Why it worked: When you’re a technology brand with a reputation for operating in the Stone Age, well, you’ve pretty much contradicted your core mission. Instead of playing dumb, RadioShack embraced this less than dignifying image and turned it into a positive – an opportunity to start anew. And who doesn’t love “new” more than the techies?

Nonprofit takeaway: Don’t cower when you get criticism. Don’t become defensive either – it won’t get you anywhere. Be transparent about your brand’s strengths and weaknesses, and don’t ever stop trying to improve. No matter how great you are, you can always be better.

Put it into practice: Social media is a great place to take the pulse of your constituents. Of course, you should be proud of all of the good things they’re saying about you. But take some time to listen to their criticisms and concerns. Is there a way you can address them in an integrated campaign?

For example, if your constituents are concerned that you’re spending X% of donations on overhead costs, be transparent about what some of those costs are, and why they’re crucial to the work you do. Perhaps interview a staff member who got a new computer – and uses that computer to assess need and maximize impact on the ground.

Real world example: When an American Red Cross employee accidentally tweeted about her booze-filled night out from the charity account in 2011, instead of hiding from their mistake, the Red Cross basked in the publicity and turned the error into a campaign. Dogfish beer, who was mentioned in the tweet, teamed up with the charity for a nation-wide beer-for-blood drive.

Lesson #3 Let people in on your “secrets”

Why it worked: Everyone knows top brands spend millions to get their advertisements in front of you on game day. They want you to engage with their brand and buy their product. You know that’s exactly what they’re doing – but they throw these elaborate videos at you anyway. During the entire “exchange” between the audience and the brand commercial, it’s never acknowledged that you’re both privy to this key information. Until now.

Nonprofit takeaway: When you reach out to your constituents it’s because you want something from them. They know that too. Don’t make them feel stupid by pretending otherwise. Instead, focus on the mutual value of the relationship.

Put it into practice: Before you ask your audience to take an action – whether it be something as easy as “liking” your Facebook page or something more demanding like donating to your cause – you need to have an understanding of how both parties will benefit from this exchange. Then, make sure you communicate the mutual gain.

For example, if you want people to connect with you on social media or sign up for your email list, tell them why you want them to join, as well as why it’s in their best interest to do so. Say that you want them to “like” you on Facebook, follow you on Twitter and join your email list because you want the opportunity to showcase the true impact of your nonprofit, and share the amazing stories of those who have benefited from your work. If you’re feeling really bold, you can even add that you hope to help them make an informed decision if they decide to contribute financially to your organization.

On the flip side, what will they gain from joining you on these channels? Will they have access to exclusive content that can’t be found anywhere else? Will they be the first to know about breaking news within your organization? Will they have the opportunity to engage your staff and a unique group of like-minded supporters in thoughtful conversation? At CARE, we created this page on our website linking to all of our social media channels to convey these opportunities.

And, when you’re ready to ask your supporters to convert to donors, don’t make the all-too common mistake of treating the ask like a favor. Your supporters aren’t going to donate to your organization because they want to do something nice for you. Their reasons will – and should – be inherently selfish. They want to feel good about themselves. They want to feel like they’re part of the solution to a problem that tugs at their heart strings. They want to be the hero – so make sure you ask them to be one, instead of asking them for a favor.

Real world example: When YouTube began offering channels the opportunity to display a “teaser” video to convince viewers to subscribe, CARE decided to get real with our audience. Instead of promising they will fight global poverty simply by subscribing to our channel, we made it explicit that social media is merely the gateway drug to impacting real world change.

We ended the video with the text “Watching videos won’t change the world. Getting your attention will,” implying that YouTube is the beginning, not the culmination of a productive supporter-charity relationship.

Photo on homepage courtesy of Vudhikrai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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