Everything I need to know about my failed digital campaign, I learned from TV. - McKinney

Everything I need to know about my failed digital campaign, I learned from TV.

April 11, 2016

By Jenny Nicholson

About ten years ago, I did my first campaign for Urban Ministries of Durham. A heartfelt TV spot with a haunting music track, it made everyone who watched it tear up. And made pretty much nobody change their attitude about homelessness.

I quickly decided that my first TV commercial for UMD would be my last and focused on digital and social instead.

A couple things fueled this decision:

First, I was tired of not knowing if my work was successful. There’s no easy way to track if someone who saw a TV commercial was ultimately driven to action. And a lean non-profit budget meant that kind of mystery wasn’t an option. With an interactive campaign, we could track exactly what was working and what wasn’t.

I was also done begging for donated ad space. A TV spot, no matter how beautiful, is useless if nobody sees it. But go online and media budgets don’t matter as much. With a strong, shareable idea, even the smallest non-profit can reach people all over the world.

But most importantly, I wanted new ways to talk about old problems. Our commercial wasn’t bad; it just didn’t tell people anything they didn’t already know. Basically, the message was, “Feel sorry for homeless people.” (Thanks for the newsflash, guys!) New media, new platforms, new technology all mean new ways to tell a story.

I took everything I’d learned and put it into developing SPENT, an interactive game that challenges you to survive 30 days on the cusp of poverty.

It was an instant success. Partly because it was a powerful message, beautifully designed by an amazing team. Partly because we made social sharing central to the experience. But most of all, it succeeded because we didn’t say, “Feel sorry for poor people.” Instead we said, “Oh, you’d never end up at a shelter? Prove it.” We tapped into people’s belief in themselves as fundamentally smart, successful individuals. Then we tore those beliefs right down to the ground.

People were surprised. They suddenly looked at the realities of poverty in a different light. And they challenged their friends, family and social networks to see if they’d do better. Over five million times.

Launching SPENT made us hungry to do more experimenting. So for the next campaign, we gave ourselves a whole new challenge: Create an ad about homelessness that’s not a total downer. That challenge turned into Names for Change, a site where you can buy naming rights to every single item at Urban Ministries of Durham, from a urinal to a tampon to a can of corn.

People loved it, because instead of making them feel guilty, we made them feel like they could help. And we made helping accessible to everyone: Items that only cost $1 were treated with the same fanfare as those costing $10,000.

Just like with SPENT, sharing was critical. Each donor got a customizable and shareable digital poster. Our ad became a gift people could give to someone else, one that could be heartfelt, irreverent, or provocative. And, in the process, we created an asset for UMD that lights up every single gift-giving season.

This is where the story turns.

After two successful digital campaigns, I was pretty sure we’d nailed the formula: A powerful, emotional interactive experience that’s easy to share.

So I applied that formula to create YourDoorbellRings.com. The premise is simple: You answer the door to discover a homeless man standing on your front porch. How will you respond?

We pushed the site live and waited for it to blow up. And waited.

In fact, I’m still waiting.

Visitors said it was an extremely powerful experience. They said it really got them thinking. They said it motivated them to help.

The one thing it didn’t do was motivate them to share. It only took a few days to know that the project was DOA.

I couldn’t figure out why the formula hadn’t worked. Until I remembered that first TV commercial.

We’d created a powerful interactive experience. We’d made it shareable. But the whole thing was, at its core, an interactive version of the same guilt trip we’d laid down in that TV spot.

People don’t need to feel guilty about not helping the homeless. They’ve already got guilt in spades. And they’re not super-inclined to foist a guilt trip onto other people, no matter how powerful it may be.

I’d become so caught up in the mechanics of building a successful interactive experience that I’d forgotten to attend to the soul of the idea.

I’d forgotten that digital campaigns fail for the same reason traditional ones do.

I’d forgotten that the package of a story doesn’t matter if the story isn’t one people want to hear.

The only difference is, unlike that first TV commercial, I didn’t have to guess whether we’d failed. I had lots of data to know it for sure.

We see so many case studies celebrating campaigns that wildly succeeded. Consider this a case study on one that didn’t. And a reminder that, even in a business that changes every single day, the things that matter never do.