Brian Lamb: Why does online campaigning often fail to lead to offline commitment?

Too many charities are busy broadcasting messages when they should be listening, says the consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

This was the year when campaigning and fundraising were supposed to come of age on the internet and through social media. So did it work out like that?

No one can deny the continued phenomenal growth of online usage. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2010 30.1m adults in the UK – about 60 per cent – accessed the internet every day and 43 per cent posted messages to social networking sites, chat sites or blogs.

Age divisions are breaking down too: 31 per cent of internet users aged 45 to 54 go online to post messages. No wonder therefore that organisations are looking online for ways of garnering support.

The voluntary sector has invested more and become more inventive in harnessing this potential. Beatbullying, with its digital march across websites including Google, MSN, MTV, and AOL, stands out. The campaign showed personal avatars of supporters carrying messages and corporate supporters pitching up online with their digital tents. It was designed to raise awareness of bullying, generate income and foster support for more legislative protection.

Autism charities across the globe also caught the imagination by asking supporters to opt out of using social media sites for a day to highlight how communication is denied to millions of people with autism. The campaign also used a downloadable screen saver and Twitter link to raise money.

Health awareness charities got in on the act with numerous apps for mobile phones linking to health information, including one from the RNID that allowed people to take a hearing check on their mobile phones, which was useful for testing how badly a night spent clubbing had affected one’s hearing.

So charities are beginning to think more widely and in a more integrated way, proving that even relatively small organisations can achieve a big digital footprint. But mistakes are still being made that limit both the impact and effectiveness of campaigns.

Online is a conversational medium, great for linking like-minded people. But it can be a blunt instrument for changing minds and attitudes. Too many charities still try to broadcast messages when they should be listening.

Constant communication is too easy: bombarding people with digital junk mail, rather than using online to develop relationships offline, is a mistake. All too often, online virtuosity fails to translate into offline commitment. This is dangerous territory for organisations that imagine they have shifted attitudes and opinion.

When it comes to sustainable, long-term support, the usefulness of digital campaigning still has some big questions to answer. We need some clear thinking and analysis about what really works and why.

Maybe this is the challenge for the coming year. Nevertheless, there are signs that digital campaigners are beginning to grasp the possibilities and are producing some innovative online campaigns.

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