As social media “cause marketing” heats up, bloggers are learning to navigate the intersection between business and charity. According to a 2010 Cone LLC study, 85% of consumers have a more positive image of a product or company when it supports a cause they care about and 80% are likely to switch brands, similar in price and quality, to one that supports a cause. Companies looking to create attention-grabbing cause marketing campaigns turn to bloggers for added authenticity and passion.
At a time when bloggers are trying to define what it is they “do”, adding charity into the mix creates another layer of complexity.
What factors might bloggers consider in deciding whether or not to use their influence for a charitable campaign?
Who is Benefiting?
Most of the bloggers with whom we spoke immediately focused on the question of who is benefiting from the campaign.
In a small survey of blogger members of Collective Bias, bloggers’ expectation of payment increased significantly if the campaign involved corporate branding or linking to corporate sites or microsites, versus linking directly to the benefiting charity. One blogger responding anonymously added, “Anything that promotes a corporation in any way should be paid for. They can’t just say it’s for charity and get free advertising.”
The Goodness of Our Hearts
A smaller number of bloggers surveyed believed that any campaign in support of a charity should be done on a volunteer basis. One blogger explained, “I think working with charities should be done from the goodness of our hearts. I consider it a form of volunteering and people don’t get paid for that (even if they use their professional skills to do so).” And while 100% of the respondents had volunteered without pay to help with a corporate charitable campaign, only 56% had ever received payment to promote such an effort.
Courtney Velasquez, who owns Detroit Mommies and currently serves as the Community Director of Collective Bias, received a stipend for her involvement with two ConAgra-sponsored campaigns, Child Hunger Ends Here and No Kid Hungry. Velasquez acknowledged that brand trips can be a lot of work for the blogger: “[The Child Hunger Ends Here trip] was super cool because we got to meet movie stars in L.A. but it was a lot of work, too. We were doing physical labor while we were there.”
Steff Childs, Director of Corporate Communications at ConAgra Foods, agreed: “As we were planning the program, we determined that a small compensation was appropriate as we truly value our blogger partners for their influence and the role they played in the campaign. This was an extended partnership that ran for months and by enlisting their help, we provided the bloggers with a stipend to compensate them for their time involved in the program, which included coordinating a local fundraising rally.”
Although Velasquez believes the stipend is justified to cover her childcare costs, time away from work, and the considerable effort she put into the campaign, she says she would have supported the campaigns without monetary compensation: “It is the charity; it’s not the company. If it is for children and hunger, I’m there.”
And it is clear that ConAgra has found a passionate advocate. Instead of organizing just one rally, Velasquez lead five and continues to be an activist in her local community. Velasquez is a savvy blogger and social media professional and acknowledges that “there is something in it for [the corporations] and I know that.” Still, she explained, “Because [ConAgra] does the charity work they do, they hold a place in my heart now.”
Follow Your Heart
What about working directly for charities? If a charity has the budget to pay a public relations firm, should they expect pro-bono work from professional bloggers?
For bloggers who are concerned about being viewed as professionals, Christy Matte, of QuirkyFusion.com and MorethanMommy.com, offered this advice: “Try to ignore who is getting paid for what, because a non-profit has a limited budget. Instead, look for a non-profit that wants to build a relationship with you and who you feel is making a positive difference in the world.”
Shilonda Downing, the founder of Virtual Work Team who blogs at Virtual Assistant Blogs, urged bloggers to “follow their hearts.” While she believes “there is nothing wrong with expecting to be paid for promoting a charity event or organization,” she added, “if [bloggers] feel a real connection to an event and have the time, by all means do a portion or all of the work for free.”
Volunteer Work, Media Coverage, or Paid Work?
The nature and level of the blogger’s involvement is also a factor in determining whether or not payment is expected. This is still a controversial topic in the blogging world and a number of categories of work came up in conversations with bloggers.
For non-profits, corporations, and public relations firms that view bloggers as media, the idea of paying bloggers for coverage is a foreign concept. Christy Matte explained, “Non-profits frequently ask bloggers to cover their news/events, which bloggers often look at as pro-bono work. In fact, the non-profits are treating bloggers like media, whose job it is to put the news out there. ”
Matte suggested that bloggers consider what they normally write about on their site: “For example, if a blogger normally talks about charitable campaigns or ways to shop for good on their blog, it seems a bit silly to refuse to do it for free simply because someone else asked.”
Stephanie Azzarone, President of Child’s Play Communications, also encouraged bloggers to support causes in which they believe: “If bloggers feel a cause is a worthy one they should post about it. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t. Simple equation. If they have historically supported a specific cause, it is fair for a company or an agency or the organization itself to approach them for assistance in further promoting that cause. Really, why not put in a little more effort to make an even bigger splash for something you genuinely believe in?”
Some campaigns involve much more extensive branded promotion however.
Kimberly Coleman, founder of and lead blogger for Mom in the City and an advisory board member of Bloganthropy, said, “In my opinion, if companies are requesting anything beyond editorial coverage for branded campaigns, then they should be paying bloggers. I have done unpaid charitable programs in the past and (given a charity that I’m passionate about) I might do one in the future. However, I think that companies should monetarily compensate bloggers for their time and energy.”
Stephanie Azzarone also drew a distinction between editorial coverage of causes and events and other types of promotional work: “I don’t believe that bloggers should be paid for simply posting about a cause, just as I don’t believe they should be paid for posting about a product, unless there is an established, ongoing ambassador relationship with a brand. Host a twitter party or a live event and invite all your social media friends? Then the blogger should get paid. Serve as an ongoing ambassador for the company’s cause? Think about who is benefiting most – the corporation or the cause itself. Then make a choice: Do it for free out of your personal passion for the cause — or request payment. Either, in fact, is reasonable.”
John Andrews, Founder and Managing Partner of Collective Bias, which hires bloggers for many types of campaigns, does not believe that the charitable element alters blogger compensation: “Anything that you are going to ask someone to do as a marketer that you would normally pay people to do, you should pay a blogger to do. I don’t think it changes that dynamic. Cause marketing activities for a brand [are] another piece of learning about the brand, just as any other part of the brand’s story.”
When Lines Blur
The title “blogger” encompasses a wide range of people, including amateurs who journal for their own growth and established professionals who have added blogging to their list of services, and everything in between. When a regular contractor is asked to donate some of his or her services for a client’s charitable campaign, the line between volunteer work and paid work may become fuzzy.
Teajai Stradley is the Internet Idea Girl. When Bob Cook Homes, a long-time and valued client, signed on as the primary builder for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in Wichita KS (will be aired April 17 on ABC), Stradley was more than happy to donate some of her time. “They were working for free, they didn’t even have to ask me to do the work pro-bono. I was on board immediately.”
Soon, though, she was working overtime to support the project and it was not always easy to draw the line between her paid work and her charity work. Stradley explained, “I am sure there is a way you could be very firm, the PR agency on the project sure was. But it came off as cold and callous. Everyone was pitching in where needed but when you get someone who is towing to a line it really rubs people the wrong way. It’s a charity – be charitable.”
Compensation may sometimes take other forms besides cash.
Christy Matte said that non-profits on a budget can sometimes offer bloggers access to resources: “Bonus points if they will link back to your site, offer you some other perks, or maybe let you use a spare desk now and again.”
Pro-bono work for a non-profit can also be a way to build a portfolio. Stephanie Azzarone explained, “Bloggers should keep in mind that even if they are not compensated for promoting a cause, they (as well as the charity) still benefit. Pro-bono participation, if significant, gives bloggers greater visibility and positions them in a positive way, increasing their standing both among peers and among companies and agencies.”
John Andrews pointed to the “Bag It Forward” campaign for Elmer’s (for which I served as an ambassador). This initiative not only compensated bloggers but also gave them the opportunity to purchase and donate supplies to a family in need in their own communities. “In that process,” Andrews explained, “the leaders were catalysts for that community. The work they invested was earning them something for a cause they are passionate about.”
Charity Begins at Home
Companies look at the bottom line when considering which charities to support and several professional bloggers and marketing and public relations specialists suggested that bloggers learn to do the same.
Ultimately, it comes down to learning to say “no, thank you” if you do not have the time or the campaign is not right for you. Matte noted, “Bloggers are often expected to do a wide variety of things for free. That doesn’t mean that a blogger should feel obligated to do so.”
John Andrews suggested that bloggers take a page from the most successful corporate charity campaigns and consider if the project is a fit. “If it is not aligned with your philosophy or your brand…[you're] doing all this good work, which is great, but how does it reflect what is going on with the brand?”
Closely aligning your blog with a particular charity or cause not only makes sense for building a brand, it can help bloggers establish boundaries to protect their time.
Shaping the Future
Corporations know the value of cause marketing and we are likely to see more of it in the future. Moms and millennials, the same groups most likely to turn to blogs for product advice, are also the ones who place the highest value on product associations with charitable causes. According to the 2010 Cone study, 92% of moms want to buy a product supporting a cause (versus 81% average) and 93% are more likely to switch brands (versus 80% average).
There is a natural synergy between social media and cause marketing. Bloggers who work with brands and are passionate about causes may want to consider how charity efforts fit into their own goals.
Do you volunteer for corporate charity campaigns? Do you expect to be paid when promoting a company’s charitable campaign? How would you like to see these campaigns including bloggers? Which campaigns have you seen that are effective?