Opinion: Digital technology helps keep up the buzz

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

"Are you OK?" I asked the huge man in unsuitable shorts in the cheese aisle of my local Sainsbury's at Nine Elms. He was leaning on his trolley, hyperventilating, probably already in the throes of a coronary. I looked around for the aspirin. "I'm fine," he wheezed, "but look at this." He held up the screen of his mobile at the wrong angle so I could make out part of a very funny advert for condoms. His gasps were already turning into guffaws as I turned back to the cheese.

Five years after Emanuel Rosen published The Anatomy of Buzz, it's already out of date as SMS and txt overtake viral marketing on the net as a means of rapid transmission of ideas, events and trends. A decade ago, mobiles were still the size of housebricks and required dedication from their often disappointed followers. Now they're the key to the net and a whole world of information, much spurious, much fascinating.

Charities are using these technologies, although few have switched away entirely from conventional direct marketing by mail and advertising. Many also rely on more or less formal networks of branches or committees to provide stability. Technologies rarely become extinct (apart from my eight-track tape): the mobile hasn't supplanted the PC, radio is flourishing, print is booming and the oldest of all, gossip, is staging a revival - thanks to mobile technology.

About this time last year, I went to visit a neighbour. Her door was opened by a freelance butler instead of her husband, who solemnly welcomed me to Macmillan's World's Biggest Coffee Morning, just one of almost 40,000 such events held on a single morning. Although our advertising reaches some people, the event has taken on a life of its own and is outgrowing its minders, transmitted mainly by buzz to become our biggest single fundraiser.

It is difficult to sort out the biggest factors in the development of some of the newer profile-raising and fundraising events, but being part of the buzz is important. It was hard to imagine, until it happened, that thousands of women would walk round in the dark, in their bras. Yet the Moonwalk relies on women telling other women this is a good way to raise the profile of breast cancer. And who would have imagined the stuffy British would wear naff red noses in support of Comic Relief, which helps people they'll never meet and who will never hear of them? It's the buzz.

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