Online Ambassadors Influence Major Gift Donor Decisions

We’ve written extensively on both online ambassadors and major gift work. We know, from our clients’ experiences, that the two go hand in hand. A growing mountain of data and studies tells us the same. Now we have more data that helps explain why peer-to-peer is even more important and effective in major gift work than we first assumed.

For those who work in the for-profit world – particularly in retail – you’re probably familiar with the terms “higher-consideration purchases” and “lower-consideration purchases.” Even if you’re not familiar, the definitions are quite simple.

“Higher-consideration” are those purchases where you give more consideration, because they are big purchases. Think of a new car, a home, a college or university choice …something that costs a lot and is fairly permanent and often live-affecting.

“Lower-consideration” …think of a pack of gum or where you’re eating tonight.

It’s not hard to draw the nonprofit parallels and align higher-consideration purchases with major gift work and lower-consideration purchase with the annual fund.

So what does this all have to do with online ambassadors? According to the 2014 Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s study, Word of Mouth has a MUCH higher influence over a person’s higher-consideration decisions than it does for lower-consideration decisions. Which makes sense – do you often call your friends to ask which toothbrush you should buy? Unless you are the most uber of uber social media users, you probably make that call by your lonesome. On the flip side, when you’re in the market for a new set of wheels, you’ll likely have many conversations with friends, family, and co-workers before selecting your new vehicle.

The 2014 Word of Mouth Marketing Association's study shows us that the bigger the purchase decision, the more word of mouth (and online ambassadors) sways the decision.

The 2014 Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s study shows us that the bigger the purchase decision, the more word of mouth (and online ambassadors) sways the decision.

Something similar likely applies to fundraising. A $25 gift might be the result of a clever end-of-year email or well-run matching challenge. But the biggest gift a person makes in their lifetime will be the result of many factors. Not the least of which, information a person has gleaned from many years of conversations with their most trusted peers.

And here’s the kicker, that same WOMMA 2014 study found that 1/3 of all word of mouth purchasing influence now takes place online.

Yet another substantial study that, along with the growing heap of real world examples, shows us that a major gift program without a strong online dimension is probably grossly underperforming.

Justin Ware is the Vice President for Digital Fundraising Strategy at ScaleFunder.

Stop Telling Nonprofits They Can’t Raise Money Using Social Media

A message to social media managers, consultants, gurus, experts, etc – STOP TELLING NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS YOU CAN’T RAISE MONEY ON SOCIAL MEDIA. It’s cliche and it’s not true. But you don’t have to take my word for it…

In October 2012, Columbia University launched their inaugural Giving Day. By all accounts, Giving Day 2012 was a monstrous success raising more than $6.8 million from 4,940 donors. How did so many thousands of donors decide to jump on board? Primarily, because those donors learned of the campaign via social media and made their gifts directly after seeing a post on social media. 55 percent of all referral traffic to Columbia’s online giving page during the campaign came via social media. In other words, social media led directly to a lot of giving activity during Columbia’s Giving Day.


Yes, you can raise money using Facebook. It takes a smart strategy and it’s not free, but it can be enormously effective.

Still not convinced? Think about the online ambassador programs that we at BWF have helped multiple clients build. During ambassador-led fundraising campaigns, on average, those institutions saw 40 percent of all giving come from new donors. 40 percent. That flurry of new donor activity happened because dozens, in some cases hundreds, of passionate supporters were sharing the message of the campaign with their friends via social media networks. Again, this peer-to-peer social media activity was a direct driver of fundraising activity.

I get it – when someone says “you can’t raise money on social media” they’re referring to the approach of an organization or institution sending out bland fundraising asks via their official Facebook or Twitter accounts. It’s true that approach rarely works. The carpet-bombing-your-audience-with-posts-begging-for-money method is an unimaginative approach that applies old marketing principals (push messaging) to new channels (social media networks). But we know better than that now. We know how to strategically engage influential social media users and work with them to build wildly successful six- and seven-figure online fundraising campaigns.

So yes, you can use social media to raise money online. In fact, when the following three things are done and done well, I don’t know of a single organization that has fallen short of its online fundraising goals:

  • Build good online infrastructure (campaign landing page, apps, widgets, mobile responsiveness, etc)
  • Develop a robust online ambassador program
  • Implement a smart content marketing strategy to drive buzz

Doing the above is not free. It’s takes significant staff time and probably an investment in outside counsel and a tech vendor (Columbia had both). But when the investment is made, you absolutely can use social media to raise (a lot of) money.

Bentz Whaley Flessner’s Justin Ware helps clients build online ambassador programs that lead to successful online fundraising campaigns. If you’d like to have online fundraising success, connect with Justin by clicking here.


3 Things to Guarantee Your New Platform Leads to Online Fundraising Success

Finally, you get the green light to purchase that fundraising or crowdfunding platform that gives you all the tools you need to start raising real money online.

  • Personal fundraising pages for your biggest advocates? Check.
  • Seamless integration with your database? Check.
  • Beautiful, content-rich campaign landing pages? Check.

Maybe you’ve had these online platforms in place for a few months or years now. And if you’re like many nonprofits, you’re not having the fundraising success you envisioned when signing the dotted line to purchase that shiny new software.

A good online giving or crowdfunding is only 1/3 of what you  need for online fundraising success.

A good online giving or crowdfunding platform is only 1/3 of what you need for online fundraising success. Without online ambassadors and a smart strategy, it’s not likely you’ll meet your goals.

What happened? Why is it that your fundraising campaigns continue to fall short of their goals? Chances are, it’s not the platform’s fault (and you probably know that).

Without a single exception, every online fundraising campaign this author can think of was successful when the organization did the following three things (and did them well):

  1. Invested in attractive, user-friendly online giving infrastructure (that’s the shiny new platform your org just purchased).
  2. A robust online ambassador program.
  3. A content strategy led by smart staff.

When the above three things are done well, the organization running the campaign has always met or exceeded its goals. Every. Single. Time. When the organization cuts corners on strategy or doesn’t have an online ambassador program, the success rate drops significantly.

So, when investing in a good online giving or crowdfunding platform (and you should, campaigns are rarely successful without good infrastructure) make sure you’re saving budget to build a strategy that includes online ambassadors and content production so those ambassadors have something to share.

Justin Ware helps nonprofit clients build online and social media fundraising strategies that lead to six- and seven-figure online fundraising campaigns. On Thursday, March 20, he’ll be hosting a FREE webinar on the topic. To register, click here.

Columbia’s Second Annual Giving Day – Another Huge Online Ambassador Success


Columbia University Giving Day 2013

They did it again. This time, it was even bigger.

On October 23, Columbia University hosted its second annual Giving Day. An almost entirely online, ambassador-driven fundraising campaign that ranks among the most successful in history. In just 24 hours, Columbia raised more than $7.8 million dollars from 9,759 donors. Those who gave represent 53 countries and all 50 states.

Giving Day 2013 was a huge success with nearly 10,000 donors giving $7.8 million over 24 hours.

Giving Day 2013 was a huge success with nearly 10,000 donors giving $7.8 million over 24 hours.

The logical question is, “how?” We’ll get to the specifics on that in a later post, but here’s what we already know about Giving Day 2013 and what made it successful (which are the same things that can make your online fundraising campaigns successful, albeit at scale):

  • A robust online ambassador program: Online ambassadors worked well for Columbia in 2012, so they knew they needed another strong peer-to-peer effort in 2013. With this in mind, Columbia worked hard at identifying, engaging, and coaching a team of online ambassadors who would help them have even more success in 2013. Part of this ambassador effort was the know-how and great work done by Columbia’s staff. Another part was the smart use of software like SocialToaster – all of it came together to double the number of donors from 2012 to 2013.
  • Great infrastructure: Websites, online giving pages, Facebook apps, embeddable widgets – all across the Columbia online ecosystem, donors could find easy-to-use tools that allowed them to participate in Giving Day.
  • Brilliant staff: Columbia knew after 2012 that smart, strategic planning was key to a successful campaign. Internal staff and external vendors combined to make 2012 a hit. A similar mix of talent was assembled to cement 2013’s Giving Day as a tradition.

And that is probably the most impressive thing that we can glean (so far) from Giving Day 2012 – well-run online giving days are not fads. When smart strategy, experienced personnel, innovative tech, and enthusiastic ambassadors come together, online giving days become tradition.

Justin Ware is the director of interactive communication at Bentz Whaley Flessner. To learn more about BWF’s work in planning online fundraising campaigns, visit

HOW TO Run a Mini Online Ambassador Campaign

Online ambassadors help drive interest during crowdfunding campaigns.

Online ambassadors help drive interest during crowdfunding campaigns.

Robust online ambassador programs are built around multi-level strategies that include detailed steps for identifying and engaging new ambassadors, stewarding current and potential ambassadors, training and coaching ambassadors to help with fundraising activity, and more. From a strong content marketing strategy to ambassador recognition, a lot goes into successful peer-to-peer marketing programs.

But there are a few, relatively quick and easy things you can do with a small budget and very little staff time. Think of the idea laid out in the video below as a mini online ambassador campaign or, better yet, an online ambassador fundraising test.

Would you rather read than watch? Below are the steps for running a mini online ambassador test campaign:

  • Go to your org’s Facebook page, review the past month’s activity, and identify the people who frequently like, comment on, or (better yet) share your posts.
  • Take the names of those active on your Facebook page to your donor database and see if they’ve made a gift.
    • If they’re in your database, grab their email addresses and create a list for those users.
  • Next, head to your website and create a special page, with GOOD CONTENT (could be a photo gallery or a video) that links to your online giving website.
    • Make sure you have Google Analytics set up for that specific web page.
  • Then, using email, send that specially designed web page to the ambassadors you identified through Facebook.
    • In the email, ask those ambassadors to share that website via their social networks.
  • Using Google Analytics, track the page views, time spent on the page, and the referral source. This data will help you determine the effectiveness of your ambassador effort.

When done right, even a small effort like this could lead to several new donors and a nice boost to fundraising (not to mention the data you’d get to help you understand the potential of a larger ambassador program). Come to think of it, a mini ambassador test would be a GREAT idea for the upcoming year-end campaigns.

Of course, if you’d like to talk more about leveraging ambassadors for your organization’s end-of-calendar-year fundraising campaigns, you can find my contact information by clicking here. In the mean time, good luck with your online crowdfunding efforts!

Average New Donor Acquisition During Online Campaigns – 40 Percent

Are you concerned about the future of your nonprofit’s base of fundraising support? Do you like the idea of adding new donors who are wealthy and well-educated? Then you might consider adding a robust online ambassador program and social media strategy, because simply put, nothing adds more new, wealthy donors more quickly than a well-run online ambassador campaign.

BWF did a quick survey of seven very different higher education institutions who recently conducted mostly online or online-only fundraising campaigns. The sample size was small, but diverse – schools included major public research institutions, small liberal arts schools, an Ivy League member, an internationally-renowned private, a small state school, among others. Of those surveyed, the average percentage of new donors during an online campaign was 40 percent. And the outliers were subtle – the lowest school had 27 percent, the highest 58 percent. And we’re not talking about 40 percent of a few dozen donors – most of the schools counted their donors in the thousands during these campaigns. This is especially impressive considering most of the campaigns were 36 hours or shorter.

Online ambassador campaigns lead to a huge influx of new donors.

Online ambassador campaigns lead to a huge influx of new donors.

Who are these newly acquired online donors? On average, they’re far wealthier than their peers who chose to give through traditional means like direct mail. According to a recent Convio study referenced below, those who give both online and off have the highest household incomes, followed by those who give only online. The distant third and least wealthy group are those who only give via mail.

Dual Channel Donors Income

If you want the wealthiest donors, look online.

To create online campaigns that help your organization or institution leverage the above trends, consider increasing your effort and resources in the following three areas:

  1. Develop a robust online ambassador program that identifies, engages, stewards, and leverages your most influential online supporters. Your message will go much further when it travels through this group of savvy Internet supporters.
  2. Invest in infrastructure. Unless you’re the Obama campaign, you can probably improve something about your organization’s online giving experience, Facebook applications, widgets, data recovery and storage, et al. Actually, I’ll bet even the democrats are thinking about how to improve things for 2016.
  3. Invest in personnel. Ultimately, ambassador programs and social media strategies are about managing relationships. To manage relationships, you need people.

To learn more about BWF’s online and social media fundraising consulting services, click here.

UMassGives Online Ambassador Campaign Acquires 1,500+ Donors – Most of them New

The online ambassadors strike again. This time at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (a BWF_social client) where the annual giving team led the inaugural UMassGives online fundraising campaign. Sarah Sligo, Executive Director of Annual Giving at UMass Amherst, had two goals in mind when the campaign planning started – acquire new donors (specifically young alumni and students) and expand the “culture of philanthropy” around UMass Amherst. The 36-hour UMassGives inarguably accomplished both by bringing more than 800 new donors in to the fold and creating a substantial amount of buzz online by way of UMass Amherst’s growing online ambassador program. UMassGivesTweet1

Twitter was a buzz with activity, helping virally spread the culture of philanthropy at UMass Amherst.

Twitter was a buzz with activity, helping virally spread the culture of philanthropy at UMass Amherst.

In the months leading up to UMassGives, Sligo and her colleagues identified more than 200 potential online ambassadors to help promote the campaign. Nearly 150 of those potential ambassadors agreed to use their social networks to share information and build the buzz around UMassGives, creating a viral spread of awareness.

During the campaign, ambassadors received emails asking them to share updates about UMassGives on their social networks. That activity spread across the Internet, helping make news of UMassGives go viral, which ultimately led to the university raising more than $80,000 from 1,588 donors.

For more on the campaign, check out what Sarah has to say in the video below: Need help planning a campaign that acquires new donors? Check out BWF’s social media consulting services by clicking here.

Online Ambassadors Are Not a Fundraising Crutch

4 Tips to Help You Build a Program that Benefits Your Organization AND Your Online Ambassadors

When you consider how quickly a message travels online and you see the ever-growing list of successful online campaigns that utilize ambassadors – the most recent being Georgetown’s “City Challenge” – it’s easy to assume that online ambassadors are the magic bullet that will lead to Internet fundraising success.

Image courtesy:

Online ambassadors make messages go viral …if you build a program around them.
Image courtesy:

In part, that conclusion is the fault of people like myself for constantly drilling home the online ambassador or peer-to-peer fundraising concept. Make no mistake, ambassador programs are important and they are powerful. Are you looking to get your message out and expand your base? Social media is the #1 way in which digitally engaged people learn of a new cause …by far. (Source: Georgetown/Waggener Edstrom study) Are you looking to raise more money? A peer recommendation is by far the most effective form of advertising and promotion (Nielsen, 2012 study). So yes, online peer-to-peer activity drives fundraising and might be the single most important thing you can do to raise awareness around a cause. The question is, after you’ve identified and engaged your most influential online supporters, why would they want to help your organization achieve its goals?

Every time we learn of another successful ambassador-driven campaign, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking our most influential online supporters to do the fundraising dirty work for our organization. Every so often, we send them an email asking them to post a message on Facebook, Twitter, their blog, or whatever social network they’re active on, that asks their social media connections to make a gift to our organizations. This practice of having our ambassadors make online asks for our organization is a component of an online ambassador program – from an organizational standpoint, it’s one of the most important components. But to keep an ambassador engaged and enthusiastic about helping an organization raise money, requires more than just relying on them as a crutch to boost online giving in a pinch. It means consistently, throughout the year, delivering on the needs and wants of that ambassador through a program that makes them feel important to your organization’s success (they are), keeps them informed about the inner workings of an organization (many of them want to know), and rewards their efforts. The following are a few ideas on how your organization might do that…

Keep them in the loop: Part of the criteria for being an online ambassador includes having a strong affinity for your organization or institution, which means they want more information about your organization than the average person. Use the Internet – social media specifically – to deliver that news to your ambassadors. Be sure they’re the first to learn of new initiatives, research, organizational changes, or whatever else is happening at your org. I’d argue your ambassadors should know before the established news media. The news media is there to report the story to a larger audience. Ambassadors will do that, but with more zeal than you’d get from a non-biased reporter. (And the ambassadors’ online friends will trust the news more from them than any other source)

Make them feel as though they’re part of an exclusive club: This is an extension of the above tip about keeping ambassadors in the loop. Being the first to know is valuable in and of itself and is something many ambassadors would appreciate. Other exclusive perks include live video chats with your organization’s leadership, inclusion on a website that recognizes the ambassador’s work, and content created that highlights the ambassadors’ impact (a video “thank you”, for example).

Provide them with a service: What can you offer ambassadors? We know of university alumni associations that have provided free webinars for their ambassadors to help them become better online communicators. For example, a series of six short webinars that give tips on “writing for a blog” or “video editing for YouTube.” Not only does this strengthen your relationship with the ambassadors, because you’re offering them a free, exclusive service, but it makes them better at producing content …which can ultimately be of tremendous benefit to your organization or institution. (See “user-generated content”)

Of course, the webinars don’t have to be about using the Internet. Are you a water charity? How about a YouTube video that helps campers purify water for safe drinking. An Alzheimer’s org? A series of webinars with brain games that strengthen cognitive ability. Again, you’re nurturing relationships with ambassadors and, at the same time, giving them content they’ll likely want to share with their networks thereby broadening awareness of your mission.

Give them free stuff! T-shirts, tickets, and other free items do encourage people to get involved. During their recent UMassGives online fundraising event, the University of Massachusetts Amherst saw some of its highest giving traffic take place when a free UMassGives campaign t-shirt was offered for the next 100 donors. Again, ambassadors are proud of your organization – give them merchandise that helps them show off your organization online and off!

Planning an online ambassador program for your organization or institution? BWF’s Director of Interactive Communication Justin Ware can help. Find his email address and bio by clicking here.

Long Tail of Giving Follows Short Online Fundraising Campaigns

A new trend is starting to emerge that provides nonprofits with yet another reason to ramp up their online and social media giving efforts – the “long tail” of giving that follows those short-burst online fundraising campaigns. The roughly 24- to 72-hour, mostly-online or online-only campaigns have already proven themselves to be excellent tools for engaging new donors and boosting overall donor participation. Now, we’re starting to see the value in the “buzz” these campaigns create by the number of gifts that come in online AND off in the days and weeks immediately following the short online campaign.

Big Gifts Follow a Big Campaign at Columbia

GivingDayLogoEven without the post-campaign activity, Columbia University’s 2012 Giving Day was a big win for the institution and its alumni. In just 24 hours, Columbia’s supporters gave more than $6.8 million to the University through 4,940 gifts …all but 184 of which were given online. As is typical in short online campaigns, roughly 40 percent of those nearly 5,000 donors were making their first gift and more than half of the gifts originated on social networks (special apps allowed donors to start the giving process from blogs or Facebook pages. They were were then redirected to the main online giving website). But the giving didn’t end at midnight on Giving Day.

In the week following the Giving Day campaign, Columbia saw a significant boost to giving at all levels, with one story standing out. At an on-campus event, a major gift donor stood up in front of a crowd and pledged a seven-figure gift on the spot. The reason the donor gave for the spur-of-the-moment monster gift? They were proud of Columbia for taking such an innovative approach to giving and excited about all the activity around giving to the University they saw taking place online and, specifically, on social media. This is a direct example of social media buzz leading to major fundraising success for a university.

*Sidenote: multiple other institutions tell stories of seven-figure gifts coming in because a wealthy individual learned of the work being done at an institution on Facebook. That work mattered to the wealthy donor, causing them to reach out to the institution and make their first (very big) gift. Lesson? Social media is not just for the annual fund anymore.

UMassGives …and keeps giving

In late April 2013, the University of Massaschuetts Amherst conducted its first ever UMassGives – an entirely online, 36-hour campaign. The goal of UMassGives was twofold:

  1. Acquire new donors to UMass Amherst.
  2. Nurture the growing culture of philanthropy around the institution.

UMass Amherst accomplished all of the above raising nearly $84,000 from more than 1,500 donors. Roughly half of those donors were making their first ever gift to UMass – many of them students. Nothing says “expanding the culture of philanthropy at an institution” quite like engaging hundreds of students and young alumni in a buzz-worthy online fundraising campaign.


Twitter was a buzz with activity, helping virally spread the culture of philanthropy at UMass Amherst.

Twitter was a buzz with activity, helping virally spread the culture of philanthropy at UMass Amherst.

Again, the giving didn’t end with the 36-hour campaign. May 1-8, 2013 – the week immediately following UMassGives – saw twice the number of online gifts given and twice the dollars raised online when compared to May 1-8, 2012. This 100 percent increase to online giving is another example of the long tail following a short campaign.

Ambassadors drive buzz during and after online campaigns

Both Columbia’s Giving Day and UMassGives incorporated a peer-to-peer online communication plan. Or what we call at BWF, an online ambassador program. Ambassadors programs are built around the concept of having your biggest supporters do your communication work for your organization. Ambassadors share content on Facebook, post items to their blogs, tweet messages about your institution – they engage in activity that promotes your organization’s initiatives directly to their online connections. Simply put, ambassador programs are friends encouraging friends to support your philanthropic mission. It’s the age-old “recommendation from a friend” that is and has always been the most trusted form of promotion that leads to the most conversions – in the case of fundraising, that means more gifts given.

For Columbia and UMass, ambassadors were highly active during their online campaigns, igniting buzz in dozens of social media communities and spreading word of the campaigns. That buzz wasn’t extinguished the moment the campaigns ended. It carried throughout the days and weeks following the campaigns, helping to raise more dollars, acquire more new donors, and extend the culture of philanthropy for both institutions. The key is building a volunteer ambassador program for your organization so that you can influence that peer-to-peer activity and enjoy that long tail of giving, long after a short online fundraising campaign.

To learn about how BWF can help your organization build comprehensive online ambassador programs and prepare for online fundraising campaigns, contact BWF’s Director of Interactive Communication Justin Ware by clicking here.

Make Something Go Viral? No Problem

John Haydon is a fundraising consultant and blogger who, simply put, knows his stuff. His recent post – The Secret Behind Viral Content – is chock full of good tips for producing engaging content. Go read it, then come back and finish reading this post…

Viral social media

Image courtesy of

Back? Cool. John suggests in his post, as many social media specialists do, that the viral spread of content is like catching lightning in a bottle. To some extent, depending on your definition of “viral,” that is true. If you have an alumni base of 300,000 living individuals, then aspirations of having your alumni association YouTube video about the homecoming tailgate reach 15 million views is probably out of the question. (click here to read about why that shouldn’t concern you) But, if you have a video that’s smart, funny, and tells the story of your organization, there’s no reason that video can’t pull in 10,000, 50,000, or even 100,000+ views. This happens when a few of your supporters share that video with a few of their friends, who then share it with a few of their friends, who then share it with a few of their friends, and so on – also known as the viral spread of content. Which is precisely what a well-developed online ambassador program should bring about.

Online ambassador programs are built around a core group of online and social media users who are enthusiastic leaders of online communities — communities that are full of people who matter to your organization. When these ambassadors post something, several members of their online communities are likely to see it, “like” it, comment on it, and hopefully share it. Which, of course, is that exponential exposure that leads to something “going viral.” Ambassador programs have been successful in awareness building and fundraising (see Florida State’s Great Give and Columbia’s Giving Day campaigns). Which is why I disagree with the assertion that no one really knows how to make something go viral. It’s as simple as using your ambassadors. Well, sort of…

Going Viral Part 1: Utilizing your ambassadors

After you’ve identified your first core group of ambassadors, connected with those ambassadors, and provided them with a brief orientation program, you’re now ready to put these enthusiastic supporters to work spreading your nonprofit’s mission and message. But don’t take their allegiance for granted. Part of the ambassador process should be an ongoing effort on your organization’s part to learn about the type and formats of content that your ambassadors like to share. As a group and as individuals, what are the content profiles of your ambassadors? Do they more often share videos or photos (or infographics)? Do they like hearing donor stories? How about messages from your organization’s leadership? Produce and curate content that your ambassadors will want to share based on what you observe them sharing – this includes content that’s not related to your mission. Knowing the content profiles of you ambassadors and those in their networks will help you produce content they’re more likely to share, because it’s similar to what they’re already sharing. (For a great piece on how the Obama team used Facebook both to identify supporters and learn about their content profiles, click here).

Going Viral Part 2: Fit your content into the Zeitgeist

John offers some fantastic tips for content creation in his post. His “Science Behind Viral Content” and “Viral Content Checklist” sections in that post are loaded with tips to help your org produce better, more engaging, more shareable content. As stated above, you might have 5,000 enthusiastic supporters of your cause, but if you give them bland content that doesn’t fit their content profiles, they’re not likely to share it. In addition to knowing what an ambassador wants, another technique for creating shareable content is connecting it to the news of the day. What movies are popular? Which hit dance song is topping the charts? Which sports season is heating up? Are the Oscars right around the corner?

At the University of Minnesota, I was part of a team that created two videos that I believe fit the definition of viral. Both were more the result of a strategic plan than they were luck. Each video connected to the pop culture zeitgeist.

The first, The Science of Watchmen, was released just a few days before the highly-anticipated film “Watchmen” hit theaters. The purpose of the project was to promote the University of Minnesota’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Knowing full well there would be scores of “Watchmen” fans scouring the Internet for anything related to the movie — and knowing that there would be plenty of potential students and science fans (our core audience) in that group of “Watchmen” fans — we produced a short video that looked at whether there was any plausible science behind the science fiction in the film. In the first few days after we posted the video it received 250,000+ views and sits near 1.8 million views today.

A year later, we tried a similar approach with another video meant to promote the Department of Physics. This time, we connected the science to another popular topic, football. In the video below, Professor Dan Dahlberg does the math to determine just how many Gs wide receiver Eric Decker withstood thanks to a vicious hit he took during a recent Gopher football game. The video was released the week before Thanksgiving at the height of both the college and pro football seasons. It didn’t have the same success as the Science of Watchmen, but it currently sits at 115,000+ views …not bad by most mortal standards.

One person’s idea of “viral” is likely different from the next. But if your goal is to increase exposure by having your content spread out through the vast networks of current and potential online supporters, it can be planned for and accomplished through a strong online ambassador program and corresponding content strategy.

Justin Ware is a fundraising consultant who specializes in online and social media engagement at Bentz Whaley Flessner. To contact Justin, click here.