Cover Story: New Media … Same Strategy
Profiles, tweets, widgets, avatars, oh my! Social networking has created a wild new world. Given that newness, it’s easy for organizations to get caught up in the notion that they need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to engaging with constituents.
But social networking is really just community organizing, taken online. Which explains why the American Cancer Society, an organization that’s been using grassroots methods to raise awareness about cancer for nearly 100 years, has been able to embrace social networks so thoroughly — most recently to help with a major brand revitalization.
Originally called the American Society for the Control of Cancer, ACS was founded in 1913 by 15 well-known doctors and business leaders in New York City to raise public awareness of cancer, which then claimed 75,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone and was rarely mentioned in public, as it was steeped in a climate of fear and denial. The founders began writing articles for magazines and professional journals, published a monthly bulletin of cancer information, and recruited doctors throughout the country to help educate the public about cancer.
In 1936, thanks to a suggestion by Marjorie G. Illig, an ACS field representative and chair of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Committee on Public Health, the organization created a legion of khaki-clad volunteers called the Women’s Field Army, who canvassed the streets to raise money for ACS and help educate the public. This “all hands on deck” spirit has continued within the organization, with a volunteer force now totaling more than 3 million that helps plan fundraising events (Relay For Life, bike-a-thons, golf tournaments), legislative advocacy and awareness-raisers throughout the country. But now the venue for organizing and educating the public has moved from the streets to the Web.
Now, 96 years after its founding, ACS again faces the challenge of raising awareness about its cause, as research it recently conducted showed that the public has little understanding about all it specifically does. To combat this, it recently launched a major brand revitalization effort focused on helping people better connect with the organization and understand all it has to offer in the battle against cancer.
“The American Cancer Society brand has always certainly been strong consistently over the last 10 years,” says Terry Music, chief mission delivery officer with the American Cancer Society. “As we do our surveys, we know that we have huge brand recognition, somewhere around the 98 percent mark. So we’re saturated pretty much as far as people recognizing the American Cancer Society name. But what we realized is that even though they recognize that and they can name us, they really don’t know what we do.”
One of the key components of the revitalization effort is “The Official Sponsor Of Birthdays” campaign, which strives to spotlight the role ACS has played in decreasing the cancer death rate by 15 percent since the 1990s, meaning nearly 100,000 more people celebrate birthdays annually.
“The Official Sponsor Of Birthdays” campaign is an integrated effort that includes TV and print ads that drive people to morebirthdays.com, where they can sign up and declare the American Cancer Society the official sponsor of their birthdays. Web visitors who do that can create personal birthday fundraising Web pages that ask people for donations to fight cancer in lieu of birthday gifts; spread the word via a Facebook application that also encourages friends to donate to ACS in lieu of gifts; visit the birthdays blog
(officialbirthdayblog.com); and send e-cards to friends and family.
“As we began to watch the phenomena of the social networks, what we realized is that it’s really just still about community,” Music says. “It’s just a different kind of community. It’s building your select network of friends, acquaintances and family. Community building is really what we’ve done our
entire existence at the ACS. We communicate with communities that support the American Cancer Society. We really feel like social media is just the next evolution of community building.”
Music says the birthdays campaign is “designed to put a brand promise out there to help people understand that we’re here and our job is to save lives.”
ACS does that in four ways, she explains:
- “We help people stay well by giving them info on guidelines and lifestyle changes that they can do to prevent cancer;
- “We help them get well — if they happen to be diagnosed with cancer, we will be there with information to help them make informed decisions about their treatment and how to get through the experience;
- “We continue to look for cures through our research program and helping the larger cancer community get enough money to find cures for cancer;
- “And we fight back, advocating for new laws and legislation that will help people stay well and get well.
“So that’s really what the new campaign is based on — that promise of saving lives in those four ways,” Music adds.
Since the campaign launched on April 20, more than 37,000 people have declared the American Cancer Society the official sponsor of their birthdays at morebirthdays.com. And in the first week following the campaign launch, more than 6,100 people on Facebook did the same.
“Our goal is to have 50,000 by the end of [May],” Music says. “I think that it’s been a great success so far. We’ve gotten extremely good feedback from the people who have signed up and have seen the campaign. We’ve not seen a huge uptick in dollars from the campaign yet, but it’s not like we’ve made a big ask on this. We really wanted to get people engaged with us.”
But first …
The birthdays campaign isn’t ACS’ first foray into Web 2.0. In addition to its own Web 2.0 initiatives like the Cancer Survivors Network (cancer.org/csn), which was started in July 2000 and has about 80,000 registrants, some of its first efforts included a blog by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Len Lichtenfeld (cancer.org/drlen) launched in 2005 and its official YouTube channel (youtube.com/amercancersociety) launched in 2007. And in 2004, ACS jumped into Second Life, which takes social networking not only online, but to its own virtual world.
Music says that around 2002 the organization began to shift its language and thinking from an internal perspective to an external one focused more on constituent relationship management.
“Constituent relationship management really started to become a philosophy that we promoted, that we talked about,” Music says. “We really did a lot of change management around letting customers be king in the American Cancer Society, which allowed us to put the framework in that really you should be constituent-centric in all of the decisions that you make, whether it’s delivering a mission program or having a fundraiser. You should be listening to the people who are going to participate in that and building those offerings around what they want, not necessarily what the internal leadership of the organization might think is the best thing to do.”
Becky Steinmark Erwin, national director of media relations for ACS, says the organization created the Futuring and Innovations Center to serve as an alert group free from ACS’ business infrastructure to monitor, experiment with and learn from what others were doing to take advantage of the new media marketplace, which enabled the organization to think about emerging technologies as a means to improve its existing constituent-engagement strategies.
“It permeated the entire organization,” Erwin says. “As [a result], we are now prepared to deal with innovation differently and more broadly as an enterprise.”
The organization is so prepared to deal with innovation as an enterprise that the FIC was phased out last year. Scott Bennett, national vice president of marketing for ACS, says the FIC helped guide the organization through the social networking/Web 2.0 learning curve that a lot of organizations are still struggling through.
“When the FIC was created, many of the things we now take for granted, like Facebook, Second Life, mobile texting, search and blogs, were considered nonpractical,” Bennett says. “Today, our organization, like many others, has accepted and learned to use these new media. There is no longer a difference between tools of today and tomorrow. Hence, the FIC no longer exists.”
At ACS, the issue was less about leadership buy-in and more about helping people understand the utility and value of the various tools, then helping them get comfortable with the idea that Web 2.0 is interactive and that content often is generated or augmented by users (constituents) versus providers (ACS).
“The thing about social networks, the thing that you love and you hate, is the fact that it’s really viral and it really is about user-generated content,” Music says. “So you can’t control what other people are going to say or the kind of information that they’re going to drop in. But we do try to manage what we put out there from a corporate perspective.
“Beginning in 2002, we’ve brought the leadership of the American Cancer Society along very well in realizing that the customer is going to drive the decision making when it comes to marketing … and they’ve never been shy about the new avenues, particularly as we explain to them this is where
the new world order is, and this is where people really are gathering,” Music adds. “So it’s been a relatively easy sell.”
In 2004, when the concept of a virtual world inhabited by avatars still seemed like sci-fi, ACS hosted a gala in Second Life, raising about $2,000 (in real dollars, Music says — not Linden dollars, Second Life’s official “currency”). Invigorated by that success, the organization decided to try its major community event, Relay For Life — which celebrates cancer survivors, remembers loved ones lost and offers participants a chance to pledge to fight against the disease — in the virtual world in 2005. That first virtual relay was a small event, but after taking a few years to perfect its Second Life chops, ACS held the virtual relay again in 2008. More than 80 teams took part, and the event brought in more than $214,000.
Though Music says the organization has raised probably less than $500,000 in Second Life so far, the main objective of its work there has less to do with dollars and more to do with awareness.
“It’s really totally about awareness,” she says. “None of these have been mainstream revenue opportunities or strategies for us. It’s about having the American Cancer Society be a ubiquitous brand and being where people are.”
It’s also about being a resource for those in need. Today, American Cancer Society Island in Second Life offers respite and resources, featuring a two-tiered, four-story building overlooking a lake that has a media library where avatars can browse information resources on cancer facts and myths, and questions patients should ask their doctors; two amphitheaters and a smaller meeting space where nonprofits with related missions who can’t afford their own islands in Second Life can meet; and a memorial garden where family members and friends can add pictures of loved ones who have lost the battle with cancer. The island also includes Hope Haven, a place where cancer survivors and caregivers can meet to share stories, offer support and virtually walk hand in hand with newly diagnosed patients.
The organization is holding its virtual Relay For Life again this month in this, its 25th season of the event. Holding the event in Second Life allows those who might not be able to attend the actual event in their towns to take part, as well as those from other countries.
“We’ve got lots of avatars from around the world,” Music says. “That’s the other great thing about Second Life for us. We have over 13 different countries represented in the Second Life events. So it’s really been one of our best efforts on international relationships.”
Thank you, Mr. President
Music credits President Obama’s online success during his primary and presidential campaigns with lighting the fire under the organization to really take online community building to the next level.
“We watched with fascination as the Obama campaign just did such a fantastic job using social networks and capturing the movement that social networks bring. We watched that through his entire campaign and realized there was a lot of similarity between what he was doing and what the American Cancer Society has always done in terms of capturing a community, communicating with them, giving them important messages, and then allowing them to make decisions to pass that message on or support the American Cancer Society,” Music says. “So we watched him, and we read everything we could find about what he had done and said, ‘Hey, it’s time for us to be in this game as well.’”
Reading about Obama’s successes online taught ACS the need to get in the game early; not to expect perfection the first time out (but to be iterative and improve as you go along); and to put information out there that is easy to understand, easy to find and forwardable.
Music puts extra emphasis on the last item: “The important thing here in this phenomenon is to make sure that people can forward whatever you send to them on to their networks and engage people in that broader band of supporters and information seekers.”
At the time of this writing, ACS had a following of more than 8,300 on Twitter; a fan base of 162,627 on its primary Facebook page; a fan base of 19,440 on its Relay For Life Facebook page; 206,831 members on its Fight Cancer: Support the American Cancer Society Facebook Causes page; 3,300 members in three LinkedIn groups; and 125 teams (up from 80 in 2008) for this year’s virtual Relay For Life in Second Life.
Twitter is the organization’s newest social-networking frontier, where it shares small pieces of communication with constituents to connect them with ACS and reach out to individuals searching Twitter for cancer information. David Neff, director of Web, film and interactive strategies for ACS’ High Plains Division in Texas, searches Twitter to find people who might be asking questions about cancer and helps them find the information they need. Music adds that the Twitter presence also offers the organization the opportunity to answer questions and dispel misinformation, noting that when the swine flu scare emerged a few months ago, some members of the Twitter group posted questions about whether or not there would be cancellations to Relay For Life events.
“When we started monitoring it we realized, as is true often, the user-generated content was misleading, and it wasn’t really the decisions that we were making,” Music says. “So we immediately jumped in and started talking to people and adding our own information into the Twitter community so that people would not get the wrong information about the events that we were doing out on the ground.”
Though it’s dabbled a lot lately in popular social-networking sites, ACS has continued to create its own, internal social-networking sites, as well. Sharinghope.tv, for example, is a recently launched site where people passionate about the fight against cancer can upload, view, share and experience everything from short video clips to full-length films related to the disease, “much like the concept of ‘You Report’ that news stations use where people can actually log in video of things that they see
happening,” Music says.
The site was started by Neff and his team as a pilot program around Relay For Life to allow people to post pictures and/or video to communicate with each other in a more friendly, low-key environment than YouTube. After the site was launched, the organization quickly realized it had an opportunity to do something on a nationwide scale.
ACS also recently unveiled Circle Of Sharing (cancer.org/circleofsharing), a social Web application designed to help cancer patients, their families and their friends better coordinate support and cancer information as they move through treatment and beyond. The application enables users to share reliable medical information and resources from the American Cancer Society with a trusted circle of caregivers, family and friends for a more holistic approach to managing their disease. Patients can organize and access critical details about their diagnosis, medications, other treatments and side effects in a secure online location, making it easier to keep track of this information and share it with health care providers as they move through the different phases of treatment. In addition, as people record the details of their health, Circle Of Sharing personalizes articles it displays to match their situations and help them manage their care and prepare for what lies ahead. Patients can then share these articles with members of their circles. The tool also allows patients and loved ones to send messages to one another to share support and pertinent information.
Behind the scenes
ACS has a number of people across various departments who work on its social-media efforts — staff members and volunteers who like to be in social networks who have taken on additional responsibilities to their jobs to keep up the organization’s presence on them. But Music says that as the birthdays campaign continues to grow, the organization likely will have to beef up support and staffing for it.
“We most likely will develop a complete social-networking team to help us stay on top of everything, because it does take a lot of effort,” she says. “You have to constantly be monitoring in addition to dropping the information into the network, so I’m sure you will see us doing a bit of adjusting as far as our staffing structure is concerned.”
She adds that one of the biggest challenges is the perception that Web 2.0 is more cost-effective than traditional media and can replace more traditional approaches. The fact is you need both traditional and new approaches to fundraising, and new technology approaches require following many of the strategies used to successfully deploy traditional methods.
ACS has discovered it’s best to think of social networks as a means to an end versus an end in and of themselves. Social networks, like traditional media, can be leveraged to reach certain audiences to accomplish broader strategic goals. For example, ACS uses Facebook applications to encourage support of Relay For Life, which has been particularly effective in the college market.
But, ultimately, the key is leveraging the myriad social media tools in conjunction with traditional media to deliver an integrated experience whereby the organization is able to educate and convey important mission messaging, while allowing new and existing audiences the ability to participate, engage and get involved in ways that are comfortable to them.
“You can’t find a more contained community than the social networks to say, ‘Hey, we’re here and we will be here for you when you need us, and we’d like to encourage you to come along with us at the beginning before you need us and make the right choices in your lifestyle,’” Music says. “So the social networks are the strongest strategy that we have had in some time in terms of finding new audiences and new supporters for the American Cancer Society.” FS
Abny Santicola is managing editor of FS. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org