It’s What Your Non-Profit is Missing: A Social Object

We’re all witnessing the effects of a very smart, new tactic taken on by non-profits, the use of social objects (thanks to Hugh MacLeod for the inspiration behind ‘Social Objects’).

A Social Object is something worth talking about, it’s the reason you tell somebody about something, it’s the topics and stories we talk about.  If it’s interesting enough that you want to share it with someone then it’s a Social Object.  And according to Hugh, if you really think about it, Social Objects are usually never boring, mediocre, or regular, because why would you share with someone something that’s ordinary?

I think smart non-profits are taking advantage of how fast ‘Social Objects’ spread today because the most visible (and most likely successful) non-profit campaigns recently all have a very powerful Social Object.

The army attempted it with car stickers a few years back.


You can make a donation to the World Wild Life Foundation on behalf of someone and they’ll receive a plush animal, a photo, a bag and your animal adoption certificate.  I received one of these as a gift a few years ago and I still talk about it to this day.


The “Live Strong” campaign swept the world over with a simple, Yellow bracelet.  I remember ordering at least 10 Livestrong bracelets back in the day.


The Breast Cancer Foundation did a phenomenal job with the “pink” additions to NFL equipment.  You couldn’t watch an NFL game without noticing the florescent pink players were wearing.



Finally the most interesting case of using a social object is the Movember campaign.


It began in Australia in 2003, but didn’t really catch steam in the rest of the world until 2007 when several other countries joined the cause.  The sacred tradition of growing a sweater on your upper lip, in three years, from 2007-2010, has tripled the amount of money raised for prostate Cancer worldwide to an impressive $72 Million in 2010.  A feat that could not have been achieved without the frictionless donation model of Movember (email request for credit card donations), the vehicle to spread awareness (the internet) and one brilliant, yet hairy, Social Object.


It makes you really think about your own charity you’re involved with.  Who’s going to come up with the next mustache idea?  You can’t copy anyone else, you have to do your own thing.  The catch is that it must be an outlandish idea, something people will talk about when they see it, something that (unfortunately) when most decision makers have the choice, will say no.

This is the paradox, you need an idea that’s weird and remarkable enough that people notice it but not too crazy that your organization can’t get behind it.

Remember; someone at the Prostate Cancer Society “okay’d” using Mustaches to create awareness.  Someone at the Breast Cancer Society said “yes” to putting NFL football players in fluorescent pink cleats and gloves.  Someone at the World Wild Life foundation said “yes” to sending out plush toys of endangered animals you adopt with your donations.

The hidden side of these Social Objects is that if a small group of influencers are publicly supporting the cause, they will create what Robert Cialdini calls social proof.  This is the phenomenon when people see other people doing something and assume it is “the norm” and will do the same.  The increasing connectivity within our social circles makes a strong case for a drastic increase in the effectiveness of social proof.  The evidence?  I would argue it is now “the norm” to grow a mustache during the month of November.  Last year, much fewer men had fuzzy upper lips and the year before that even less.

The combination of a social object and social proof is a very powerful tactic.  Difficult to achieve but for non-profits it’s becoming essential for building a lasting brand.

If you want to know more about Social Proof, Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion(Amazon Link) is a classic that every marketer should read.

Have your own example of a Social Object?  Add yours to the comments below, if it’s REALLY good, I have a present for you…

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