THE BLOG
11/29/2016 04:25 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2017

#HolidayMarketing Meets #GivingTuesday: The Best Ad Campaign Ever

Everyone in the marketing world has at one time or another harbored the secret (though breathtakingly improbable) hope that their campaign will somehow magically "go viral." I tell my students that clients very often specifically request that their creative team conjure a viral campaign. And I confess to my students that I once tried to tactfully talk my way around a direct confrontation of the near impossibility of that request. No more.

Today I have nothing but tough love for the "go viral" demand. I tell anyone willing to listen that, in fact, cat videos, not marketing campaigns, most often go viral. Anyone with YouTube can verify my claim before I complete my sentence. However, lest their spirits fall too far, I jump immediately to the good news. Here's what I tell them:

· You can cut your marketing costs and still run a campaign that will bring many more of the new, highly engaged people you want into your brand community than a viral cat video ever would;
· Your cheaper, yet more engaging campaign may actually drive more business than an ad campaign;
· You will generate wildly shareable content in both stories and pictures;
· The new arrivals to your community will be more loyal than random viral clickers and as a result the campaign will prove far more sustainable over the long haul;
· The holiday season is the perfect time to test this approach--so get busy;
· And just in case you thought I was cynical: You'll also be making the world a better place.

What I propose is this: Divert some of the funds you would have spent on ads (those things people want to exit, avoid, click off, and block) and use that money to fund a charity partnership.
First, find a charity whose audience aligns well with your own. You may want to consider charities with a great social footprint and active communications channels. But honestly, the sheer power of the stories and contribution many charities make to society alone can form the basis for a wonderful partnership.

Approach the charity with an offer of support. For example, I once approached a wonderful animal shelter and told them that my campaign would make a donation for every click (marketers can fill in the blank here: Every time someone downloads a coupon, registers on the site, redeems an in-store promotion, whatever.)

The animal shelter partnered with our business enthusiastically and our alliance had immediate and stunning benefits for us both:
· The charity immediately activated its loyal community. They were starved for funds and they put the word out to the faithful. Immediately their social channels, blogs, website, and the local press lit up. Local influencers--newscasters, business owners, sports figures--got into the act too, causing big spikes in our social engagement and far more traffic than our ads had been generating.
· And the message was authentic! Instead of just another boring online promotion, holiday coupon, or expensive ad, our messengers were speaking from the heart to a community of supporters whose loyalty ran deep. Their voice was clear and convincing.
· And there are no words to describe the content bonanza we reaped from that partnership. Which would you rather click on--a stock photo of an elf or a fluffy puppy in an elf hat who now (I guess some would call this the main point while others would say it's just a happy byproduct) will survive thanks to your click?

Charities are one place in an often inauthentic world where real stories not the exception, but the rule. Heartbreaking and unforgettable...and true! Unless you make the Budweiser commercials (which can send me into sobs immediately; let's give credit where credit is due), it's very likely that whatever marketing materials you create can't hold a candle to the stories in words and pictures you'll get with a charity partnership.

· And now for the beautiful, unexpected pièce de résistance: A sustainable community was born! People who came into our brand through the doggie door (the shelter partnership), were making a surprising assumption we'd never even foreseen: They felt we were a great brand simply by association---they wanted to be part of our community because we all shared some core values about things that really mattered. The newcomers were likely to share our messages with their communities, provide positive reviews, and engage at every opportunity. Wait! Isn't that the definition of a viral campaign?

The holiday marketing blitz is the perfect time and place to test this approach. While you may argue that big marketing plans for this make-or-break retail season have been in place for months, I would counter with the suggestion that it's absolutely the prefect time to partner with a worthy charity that fits with your audience, scale the partnership during the year, and make it a center piece of your plan next year. Of course you will measure the relative effectiveness of the traditional ad campaign vs. the charity partnership. And it doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. But I suspect you'll double down on the charity fast.

Go ahead, give this a try. That faint purring sound you hear rising in the countryside is the happy concurrence, or perhaps the collective sigh of relief, from the cat community, spared more annoying video shoots. They are thrilled you will look elsewhere for your viral campaign. And chances are quite good that you'll be thrilled with the results, too.