Photo by Ben Golub
Note from Beth: Anne Mai Bertlesen and I had a quick exchange at the end of year after I blogged about the Pepsi and Chase Giving Contests in December. She offered to write a guest post that provides an "insider's perspective" having run a number of cause-related ventures including contests.
Just before the holidays, a debate emerged among the greater cause community on the value and role of contests for good. The debate was triggered by allegations that Chase Bank’s Community Giving program on FaceBook was flawed, that groups were unfairly eliminated and that Chase was not transparent in its management and communication of the program. (For an excellent summation of the controversy and attendant commentary, see writer and consultant Beth Kanter’s blog.) The controversy prompted some conference sponsors to consider hosting a forum to examine how these contests are designed and managed.
What’s missing from the current debate though are the perspectives of marketers and corporate philanthropic managers who sponsor and manage these programs. Those of us who have planned, executed and evaluated these types of contests for good on behalf of major brands have done so with the best intentions and not to “cause wash” — i.e., buy good brand karma under the guise of philanthropy. In addition, we know:
- These programs are difficult and resource intensive. Programs, like Chase’s Community Giving and Pepsi’s soon to be launched Refresh Project, that reach millions of consumers, require significant support from philanthropy, marketing, advertising, public affairs, legal, and customer service departments within a corporation to develop, manage and promote. This is not a program that one or two people — who have other corporate responsibilities — can do in their spare time. Just evaluating all the submissions can take many, many people hours. Amazon, in 2005, and Google, in 2008, learned the hard way. Amazon discontinued their program after its inaugural year, opting instead to offer consumers a pre-determined list of charities to support. Google’s 10100 Project not only extended the contest timeline significantly — adding an entire year — but also changed the program mid stream after receiving over 100,000 submissions.
- They can be extraordinarily expensive to run. Like most marketing programs, these contests require promotional support to get the word out — not only to prospective project/cause submitters but also to the eligible voting population. The brilliance behind the Chase Community Giving Program is that the promotion took place largely on Facebook; there appears to have been, at least for Round One, no above the line advertising support nor did the firm invest in the development of a separate program website.
- These contests can bring out the best and the worst in participants — particularly if the stakes are high. The stories that pour in are astounding: causes and issues you might not have known existed, intriguing solutions that upturn conventional wisdom, the courage and conviction of the individuals involved in these causes and issues. But for hundreds and thousands of inspiring stories, there will be participants who will engage in questionable behavior — e.g., utilizing bots or offshore submission “sweatshops” to “stuff the ballot;” submitting ideas or media that they do not own the rights to; accusing fellow participants of foul play; gaming the program.
- Depending on the program design, participants may need time and support to mobilize their supporters. Riffing on American Express’ Members Project (disclosure: I was involved in this program), Pepsi Refresh Project has a downloadable toolkit to help participants develop their ideas for submission. Online seminars that teach non-profits how to use social networking tools is also very helpful as is assigning mentors to projects, which Pepsi will be doing in their program.
- Leader boards can be deceiving if more than votes are required to advance. Some programs have multiple criteria — e.g., achievability, innovation — in addition to popular support as evidenced in vote tallies. In those cases, displaying votes can inadvertently mislead participants to believe the outcome relies entirely on the votes. Communicating frequently and prominently about the other eligibility requirements will help — but some will still be confused. In the case of Chase, it might have been helpful to have a link to Chase’s Corporate Responsibility sitelet since aligning with their corporate responsibility goals was a key criteria.
- Despite the best plans and intentions, criticism will be levied. Be prepared but patient. And, remember, there are important causes and inspiring organizations that will gain exposure and support because of these contests.
Chase Community Giving in four days away from its second phase of the competition and Pepsi has launched it’s Refresh Project. I hope that the Case Foundation includes marketers and corporate philanthropy managers in its forum on contests for good. Just as there are best practices and benchmarks for marketing online, via email, direct mail etc. so too should a body of knowledge be developed about contests for good. And sponsors of these contests for good should be included in the conversation.
Anne Mai Bertelsen is a marketing and digital strategist passionate about making a difference.