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Why #beatcancer Doesn't Help Fight Cancer

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Every few weeks on Twitter I see some hashtag meme appear, something where we're told that if we just "retweet" or even use a specific hashtag (that is, a word prefaced by "#," commonly known as a hash symbol) that we're going to help raise money for some charity or other. Whether it's clean water, rape prevention or, this week's flavor, cancer treatment, there are, we're told, companies that will make a donation to a charity based on the frequency of the hashtag appearing in the public Twitter stream over a certain time period.

The #beatcancer hashtag is funded by Paypal: The company is going to donate $0.05/tweet that mentions it to Livestrong. This hashtag is appearing 2-3 times every second, which should end up producing roughly 200,000 occurrences for a donation of $10,000. Pretty inexpensive publicity for Paypal, whose name appears in the public Twitter stream on about 50% of the tweets.

I don't want to criticize Paypal for doing this, however. I want to talk about beneficial outcomes and engagement, because I believe that these sort of "pay for hashtag" promotions are pointless and actually counterproductive from the perspective of the charity itself.

Why? Because as co-founder of a non-profit organization (Ubuntu Now), I can say that while it's always nice to raise money, what we really seek to do is raise consciousness with our mission and to engage with potential supporters. We don't so much want your money as we want your passion, your desire, your enthusiasm, your eagerness to help us make the world a better place.

Adding a hashtag or retweeting a message is not engagement. It's not making people stop and ask about the mission of the organization behind the fundraising. Heck, the charity (Livestrong.org) isn't even mentioned in the tweets, just the company that's going to be writing the check. So those 200,000 people who spent a second or two of their lives clicking a button? Precious few -- too few! -- of them actually even know what's going on with this fundraising stunt.

It's reminiscent of the classic marketing promotion known as "sign up for our list, get a free T-shirt." Why is that daft? Because what you end up with is a mailing list of people who like free T-shirts. Unless that's your business, you've just wasted your time and a whole lot of money printing and distributing shirts to people who don't care about your company and will never be viable prospects.

How could Paypal have done a different social-media promotion that would have both been a good fundraiser for Livestrong and actually created engagement for the cause? One way that comes to mind is to have encouraged people to post stories about surviving or overcoming cancer, perhaps as blog entries, tweet the links to their stories, then have Paypal donate $10/entry to the organization. Imagine the experience of reading about how your friends and colleagues have a mother, a brother, an aunt, a child who has gone through cancer and survived. Or not. Then imagine how that would open up our hearts to really help, to really find out how we can get involved in earlier identification and more efficacious cures.

Rather different than clicking on the "retweet" button and having that 5-second warm fuzzy of causing a public corporation to donate a nickel to a worthwhile charity, isn't it?

Here's what I'd like to see happen: Next time a charity suggests a hashtag payout stunt, next time a company offers to underwrite similar, let's instead use the power of social media to brainstorm how to take that same passion and create a process whereby people learn about the charity, the cause, and have a chance to actually get involved.

I know we at Ubuntu Now would much prefer having 200 people learn about our charitable mission than 200,000 click a button and never even knowing we were in the picture, let alone what we're trying to accomplish and why they should care and get involved.