10 Experts on Using Real-Time Marketing and Memes for Cause Awareness

Unless you’ve spent the past couple of weeks away on a deserted island (make that a deserted island without internet access!), you have likely seen the “Straight Outta __” meme pop up in your social media newsfeed.  It began as a promotion of the N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and, such as it is with those lovely little viral campaigns, it caught on like wildfire.

Soon, we saw versions meant to make us chuckle and commiserate on trivial low moments in life- from regular folks:

 and more from big brands- who likely have a staff dedicated to real-time marketing, like this: 

The struggle is real… #StraightOutta #Pabst   A photo posted by Pabst Blue Ribbon (@pabstblueribbon) on

Even the White House picked up on the trend… and became the subject of criticism 

Alternate forms of message delivery

The good news: According to the 2015 M+R Benchmarks Study, online giving is trending upwards (up 13% y.o.y.) and averaging $82 for a one-time gift/ $22 monthly. The bad news: while open rates are up, the response rates are lower.

Advocacy messages performed many times better than fundraising messages in terms of response rates  (2.9% versus .06%, respectively), but the response rate had declined significantly year over year. Clearly, the challenge remains in finding the most effective way to deliver your messages.

According to the study, the response rates for fundraising messages were lowered due to “lower page completion rates” (psst: I hope you’re looking at your online forms right now, on a mobile device!)  and advocacy messages due to “lower click through rates.”

So, that leaves you with a dilemma: How best to increase engagement- and stand out from all the noise online?  How can you connect with new and existing constituents?

One suggestion: Make it fun and part of what’s trending in popular culture. In other words, employ a strategy called Real-Time Marketing (see some examples from AdWeek here) and a device called a Meme.


But, can you use memes to increase cause awareness?

What is a “meme,” anyway? Generally speaking, a meme is a humorous image, video, or phrase that is copied (often with variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users. Remember a little thing called the #IceBucketChallenge? That is a video form that dominated last year’s social media newsfeed.

Given the proliferation of smartphones coupled with people’s natural attraction to interesting images and fun, a meme can be the perfect social media “snack.” At the time I’m writing this, the hashtag #StraightOutta has 215,714 posts on Instagram alone. Memes aren’t new, in fact, they have been around for years. Like anything that “goes viral,” the key is a popular acceptance of that digital tidbit and a desire to share it. If you’d like to learn more about memes and how to use them, check out this past post.

Memes for Social Good?

Can you take a meme and leverage its mass appeal to help increase awareness for your cause? Yep. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what USA for UNHCR @USAforUNHCR on Instagram. This nonprofit, dedicated to…” raise funding and awareness for the humanitarian work done by UNHCR,”  took what may seem an unlikely leap: to go from N.W.A. and Compton, to a philanthropical message. But it worked. Brian Reich, project director at the Hive (a special project of the nonprofit), “….decided to risk a departure from what might be considered standard, approved outreach approaches.”  For more about his strategy, and my opinion on it, check out this 8/13/15 post on The Daily Beast, by Lauren DeLisa Coleman.

Tips, Advice, and Pitfalls…

In typical Third Sector Today-fashion, I wanted to hear from practitioners in the sector and then share their thoughts with all of you.  So, I emailed several leaders in the sector for their opinions on The Daily Beast post and advice on employing memes for social good. While just about everyone agrees that memes can serve as a fun and easy way to get more traction in social media, there are also some considerations about the level of effectiveness, not to mention the technical and legal pitfalls to avoid.  And I couldn’t help but meme them all! (You’re welcome.)


“A big part of being effective on social media, especially gaining visibility and new audiences — whether as an individual, corporation, or social for-profit — is tying into popular culture and whatever is trending. I would particularly recommend this practice with a Meme such as this that allows easy customization.” -Jake Lloyd, Communications Manager of DC SCORES

“Taking a popular meme and using it to promote awareness around refugee issues is so simple, yet pure genius. It does not require any tech knowledge, since the meme is already set up for anyone to use and adapt for their own hometown or situation. What is required is a forward-thinking nonprofit professional who is online, aware of trends and ready to experiment and try new things. Too often nonprofits stay in their own little silos, thinking that the worlds of pop culture and media trends do not apply to them. What if social change organizations actively participated in these conversations - using popular hashtags just like brands and businesses do?

The result will be dramatic. Younger people, who often view the third sector as out of touch, bureucratic and ineffective, will become exposed to issues where they are - on social media, using hashtags and memes. 

This is a brilliant example of marketing a message TO the people, instead of creating a great website or social media campaign and expecting people to come to IT. I am frequently asked - How can my nonprofit cut through the clutter and noise on social media and get our message heard? The answer? JOIN the clutter and the noise, in a thoughtful, proactive way, and you will be heard.” - Julia Claire Campbell, Principal, J Campbell Social Marketing

“Memes for a cause?  Why not?  The crowd is like water – it is a natural force that will do what it is going to do and we can choose to put up a barrier and try to stop the wave or ride it to shore and then immediately swim out to catch the next one.

Real time marketing involves surrendering/sharing control right from the moment when the initial image/campaign/meme begins – it is unsettling to some – thrilling and filled with possibilities for others.” - Ted Davis, Web Director at AmeriCares, who is also responsible for its social media and content

“The philanthropic sector is changing at great speed now. I think we have the tools today, through technology, social media, energy and new ways of thinking to make incredible societal impact. Memes play a part of this because they clearly help raise awareness for an issue. Organizations that care to make the biggest change have to use everything at their disposal. They also have to adapt. The old ways of doing things are either being tossed or done now in complement with today’s tools and practices. The less you do the less you get!”- Wayne Elsey, Not Your Father’s Charity, Wayne Elsey Enterprises


We have long seen a blurring line between our personal and professional lives as we have entered a time in the evolution of communication. Previous generations have  compartmentalized their passions from work, which created a nearly taboo philosophy of blending what is pop culture, to what is proper in promoting a nonprofit. Connecting with Millennials in an authentic way means that nonprofits need to approach promotions in whatever avenue will speak to a potential donor. I would encourage nonprofits to tap into their market in creative, authentic ways, as it will build lasting relationships, after all social media promotion is about connecting with millions on a one-to-one basis.” - Summer Crenshaw, Dir. Product Marketing, DonorDrive Peer-to-Peer Fundraising

“In the grand scheme of philanthropic efforts, there are very few social good efforts that really go viral and cross into the pop-culture sphere. In 2014, it was the Ice Bucket Challenge videos. This year it’s the “Straight Outta …” meme. When social good campaigns do go viral, it’s great, but it’s also a trap for all those nonprofit digital marketers and fundraisers who start really TRYING to come up with viral campaigns for their cause. For most…it doesn’t work out…”- Dan Quirk, Marketing Manager, DonorPro

“It’s imperative for nonprofits to stay ahead of the curve (or at least abreast) with the new, ever-emerging forms of communication such as memes, emojis, .gifs, and listicles. Doing so will helps your nonprofit establish itself as modern, knowledgeable and authoritative sector leaders in your respective cause area.

As seen with the “Straight Outta __” meme, memes are extremely easy to make, share, understand and perhaps most importantly, remember.  Not to mention, memes are more likely to attract the attention of the increasingly important millennial audience, whose opinions heavily influence the general public’s (AKA your donors!) at large.

Before you create one, however, keep in mind these two warnings:

Images found online do not automatically have public domain rights and privileges. This makes it risky for nonprofits to create their own memes without causing legal worries or worse, lawsuits. Always check up on each image’s permissions when creating or, depending on the method, even sharing a meme or .gif.

Funny memes do not always resonate. Innocent jokes and comments in memes can often be inadvertently offensive, which may cause a negative public backlash towards your nonprofit directly. Nonprofits must remain sensitive and think wisely before sharing or creating humorous memes related to their causes or risk a communications crisis.” - Courtney Cherico, Content Marketing Associate, GuideStar


“This meme has certainly gone viral quickly. However, I’m not sure what the impact will be in terms of raising awareness of the refugee crisis.  I’ve personally seen dozens of these memes in my newsfeed in recent days, but until it was directly brought to my attention, I had no clue what it was all about.

If nothing else, I think the refugee crisis will receive publicity simply because of articles like this – which is great. However, if anyone is expecting blockbuster results similar to the ice-water challenge of 2014, I think they’ll be highly disappointed!” - Anthony Jones, Director of Digital Media and Marketing. Ducks Unlimited

This is actually a wonderful example of what Adele Cehrs in her book calls a SPIKE - a “sudden point of interest that kick-starts exposure”.  The way to make this kind of meme-jacking (or newsjacking, when an organization is able to pick up on a current event in the news as opposed to a current cultural theme) work for you is to have the internal capacity to pay attention and capitalize on it. That means you’re already observing and listening through social media to what people are talking about; and if you see something that could be “appropriated” in this way, you have the creativity to make the visuals that almost always go with it, as well as the agility and quick approval mechanisms required to jump on it.  And when it works, it’s a beautiful thing!” - Maddie Grant, Editor,SocialFish.org and co-author, When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business

“I cannot speak for the MDA regarding this, but my personal perspective on this is: I love it…I have watched fundraising and sponsorship development change since 9/11 . We lost state and federal funding.  The competition for US money was daunting in and of itself. I love the idea that this next generation is global and local too, and hope this movement continues to stir emotions, open eyes and hearts, wallets and minds, and think beyond “What’s in it for me? “ and move towards “How can I impact something and improve the quality of (whatever you choose: air, animals, cancer, Muscular Dystrophy, water, etc)?” I love what is happening and everyday I love being a part of this and watching it grow, too.  It is incredible how technology can be a double edged entity - in the wrong hands it can be a scary thing…but this is a gift.” - Janice Reardon, Executive Director, Muscular Dystrophy Association

What do you think? Do you think your organization can benefit from a real-time marketing strategy? Is your organization open to jumping on the next pop culture wave and riding it to shore? Or is do you think there’s too much risk involved?

We’d love to hear your comments (and see your memes), questions, and suggestions in the discussion area below- or Tweet @3rdSectorToday

  • Wayne Elsey

    Great job! Very interesting!