Expert view: The rise and rise of social media

Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to attend a concert performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in aid of Leonard Cheshire Disability.

Bryan Dutton, the charity's director general, gave an inspiring talk about its ongoing Creature Discomforts campaign and how a conscious decision had been made not to use shock tactics and to focus on people rather than disability.

By using characters created by Aardman Animations, the production company behind Wallace & Gromit, it has come up with a powerful talking point by using humour. This has more resonance than shock campaigns.

Fortunately, 2007 seemed to signal a move away from using such tactics. Perhaps last year's announcement by the Advertising Standards Authority that complaints about charity adverts had doubled since 2006 gave the sector food for thought. But it also coincided with charities starting to understand the power of the web - in particular, how Web 2.0 can be used to give a personal face to activities, rather than the traditional anonymous and guilt-ridden approaches.

For example, the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal showed how a multichannel campaign can be effective in gathering awareness through online communities. The campaign included Facebook widgets so people could add poppies to their profiles, and mobile phone poppies were sold at £1.50 each. A virtual cenotaph was even erected in Second Life.

So what does this all mean for 2008? The fact the NSPCC and others made money from social networking applications has opened the way for others to do the same. Facebook will come into its own this year when it launches the UK version of Causes, already a massive hit in the US, which makes it incredibly easy for charities to promote their missions and collect donations online.

The number of charities using blogs, YouTube, Flickr and other social media tools, along with mobile technologies in campaigns, will rise this year. The challenge will be choosing the right combination. This will test trustees' faith, and branding police everywhere will have nightmares at the thought of releasing some control to user-generated content - but they will eventually see that now is the right time.

Charities need to move away from shock-driven begging-bowl campaigns, which can often feed off guilt, and shift the focus to value-based, community-building campaigns. These require more transparency and the ability to listen, but will allow donors to feel like valued partners in the relationship, rather than anonymous cash cows.

- Dean Russell is digital marketing consultant at Precedent Communications.

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