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When Cause Marketing Goes Over The Top

Audience sensitivity to targeting poses new challenges
September 23, 2019

A recent ad blocked by Facebook got me thinking about an emerging question for impact marketers: When does cause-oriented content strike the right chord and when does it go too far?

Surveys show that today’s consumers don’t want to feel like they are being patronized or guilt-tripped by their favorite brands. High-intensity ads with vivid imagery, strong language and melancholy music can be seen as manipulative and a turnoff for consumers.

Although shoppers have come to expect customized service and inclusive language, they’ll quickly tune out when they feel like assumptions are being made about them by a marketer.

On the one hand, I get it – and I feel the same way as a consumer.

I want my coffee order to be customized to my preference, but I don’t want to be schmoozed with inauthentic emotion or invasively targeted when I’m shopping for housewares.

On the other hand, I’m stumped — how can I as a marketing professional evoke emotion, empathy, and inspiration and speak directly to people without making them feel cornered?

Facebook’s Response

Along those lines, Facebook is quashing boosted content that potentially targets – or leaves out – groups of people. This is no doubt to curb criticism, but I think it points to a trend.

Remember that blocked ad I mentioned at the beginning of this blog? Several posts we have tried to boost recently have been disapproved by Facebook simply because they “asked a direct question that made an assumption about a user’s personal attributes.”

“This type of language can feel like an invasion of a person’s privacy, which is something we strive to protect,” Facebook says.

Here are examples of questions that make assumptions about a person’s lifestyle, situation or other personal details:

  • “Does the flu get you down?”
  • “Are you a cancer survivor?”
  • “Do you hunt for bargains?”
  • “Are you trying to quit smoking?”

If you’re a marketer, this is the kind of language that requires caution because it might read as jumping to a conclusion.

What Cause Marketers Can Do

Cause marketers must be even more careful with what we convey and how we convey it.

Audiences have higher and higher expectations for us. We can’t leave people out but we also can’t be manipulative in targeting them.

We can perhaps take hints from Save the Children, which was once known for intense ads with highly-charged emotional messaging. The organization is now shifting to testimonials and stories of empowerment that have a softer sell.

A couple of tips that can keep you moving toward powerful marketing without leaning too hard on emotion.

  • Let the facts speak for themselves. Rely on research and solid sources to describe your cause and the people it impacts.
  • Let stories speak. Use the testimonials of people impacted by your issue to share their authentic experiences.
  • Let people speak. Get as much feedback as possible from a variety of sources to see how your content looks, sounds and feels to people from different backgrounds.

As cause marketers, we don’t need to shy away from the heart or the gut of an issue. The challenge is to continue to communicate well, using strategies that are inclusive and thoughtful — neither weepy nor watered down.

I’d like to believe that audiences will respond in kind.

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