New media: Peter Maple on how to be yourself when you're online

The London South Bank University academic talks to Annette Rawstrone about why it's important to be personal when using new media

Claire Squires and Greenpeace: examples of the power of new media in fundraising
Claire Squires and Greenpeace: examples of the power of new media in fundraising

The untimely death of Claire Squires during last month's London Marathon and the ensuing flood of donations to Samaritans illustrated the power of new media, which enabled more than 78,000 people to make donations at the click of a few buttons.

Traditional media made the point that she had a standard JustGiving page, but Peter Maple, course director of the MSc Charity Marketing and Fundraising Programme at London South Bank University, argues that new media consolidated the public's response. "Even the dead speak to us from the grave," he says. "Claire is the one making the 'ask' and it is JustGiving and Samaritans that are the conduit.

"New media enables you to say: 'Hey, this is what I am doing'. People react better when it is the person making the ask."

Maple says the lesson for communications teams is to remember to be personal and "come out as yourself" online rather than as brand owners. He warns charities to be careful of what they say, but he also believes that their online presence should not be delegated to just one person.

"Lots of organisations still treat digital as separate from the marketing mix," says Maple. "This makes sense because interactions are different, but treating it as separate carries the risk of diluting the charity's message. Charities forget at their peril that they are competing not only with charities, but also with everyone else who wants attention.

"Oxfam has done a good job of making sure everything it does online is reflected in what it does offline. If you look at big commercial brands you can see this reintegration. Search engine optimisation could be given to someone who understands the medium - they'll know what is important and get web crawlers and search engines to find the message. But they should not be doing this in isolation. Everyone in the charity needs to understand the message."

Charities must be aware of what others post about them online because they cannot control what is said - dissatisfied people can tell thousands through new media. "Online is now all about interactivity, not just searches," Maple says.

New media is a powerful and direct way for charities to get their message across in a personal way, but it is risky to consider it as an inexpensive form of communication. "As a platform the costs might be cheap," says Maple. "However, although the time spent online being proactive and reactive is cost-effective, it is not necessarily cheap. If communications teams get it right, their message can go viral, but that also has implications for managing the response.

"Greenpeace's Name-a-Whale competition went viral and instead of the expected 10,000 responses it got about 3,000,000 - but there was a contingency plan to deal with this."

Communication teams must keep up with the pace of change of new media, Maple says. "We can see how much has changed in the past 10 years and the pace is incredible. This is going to continue. Facebook and LinkedIn won't be the preferred places in the future and this will be the real challenge for charities."

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