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    January 19, 2009

    Massaging the Message DOES Matter

    As an undergrad, I wrote a paper exploring the impact of CITES enforcement (or lack thereof) on the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea, in Central Asia, for a class on International Environmental Trade. As I researched the issue, I was heartbroken to learn of what man had done to these prehistoric creatures, around since the age of the dinosaurs, with a complex DNA structure, one which actually involved more chromosome pairs than the humans!

    The sturgeon had a lot of things stacked against them in their fight for survival, despite all kind of international trade sanctions attempting to limit their rapid population demise: the females of the species are the carriers of the coveted black caveat, which fetches ridiculous amounts of cash on the market, they take a long time to mature, so populations don't replace quickly, they compete for clean water with huge corporations and governments wanting to drill and dump in the oil-rich area, and finally, they are not cute.

    (photo from

    Huh? Yes, I said it. Sturgeons are not cute, and therefor not that many people are moved to save them (aside from the super rich who can afford black caviar I suppose). At least this is the theory behind an innovative new "Save the Sea Kittens" social media campaign recently launched by PETA.

    The basic premise? People don't care as much about saving fish, as say, kittens, because most fish, are not cute and cuddly. People's heart go out to cute little kittens who are suffering-we want to cuddle them, and have them curl up on our laps and save them. Can't really do that with a fish, but, at least as far as PETA is concerned, fish need just as much help as kittens do. So, what if we were to change how people perceive fish? What if we could connect the warmth people feel toward small cuddly kittens to fish everywhere? Ta-da! The Sea Kittens campaign.

    I have to say, this is a very clever approach. And fairly well executed: the site is a case study in "Social Media Campaigns 101:"
    • Dedicated campaign with it's own branding? Check
    • Avitars? Check
    • Personalization/visitor involvement? Check (you can create your own Sea Kitten and write a story about him/her)
    • Attempt at Viral? Check (those Sea Kitten avitars can be placed on other personal sites), you can also send it off to friends
    • Engagement/Involvement techniques? Check, check. There is a petition, clear call to action, not so loud, but present call to give $$

      Fish: The Kittens of the Sea
    The question now is: how successful is this campaign? How do you measure it? Well, one thing I have been wondering, is having design and executed this neat concept, how is PETA getting out the word, how "viral" has this become? There are a few key ways to measure this right off the bat without having any access to PETA's database or donation information:

    • Since I got this link from a friend roughly 10 days ago, I have been keeping an eye on the top right hand corner of the site, where it tracks the number of people who have signed the "save the Sea Kittens" petition. And while the number has more than double since I first started keeping score, at just over 5,000 signature this isn't exactly a viral slam dunk, especially if we were to consider what I assume would be a fairly sizable investment in designing this campaign. However, it is picking up speed (viral campaigns often require that tipping point to turn from a sneeze into a full blown virus), so it may be early yet

    • In another ominous sign that the campaign, while cute, may be totally missing the mark with its intended audience was when I searched for "Sea Kittens" on Facebook, and the first three groups that came up were groups dedicated to making fun of the whole Sea Kitten concept, with names such as "Sea Kittens Are Delicious"!

    • I found a very similar pattern on YouTube: lots of people mocking the campaign! Not a good sign

    But the real question is: who was PETA trying to target with this campaign and what were the metrics it was hoping to achieve? New emails? Dollars? Stirring up a discussion (that has certainly happened).

    So the moral of the story: for one thing, this campaign makes a clear point that most of us fundraisers already know--regardless of your tactics, how you say something to your donors maybe sometimes be more important than what you are actually saying.
    The second moral of the story? Gen Yers, as I've noted many times before, are certainly not afraid of sounding off, so when massaging a message, just remember it will sound back to you from every corner of the World Wide Web.

    Personally, I was touched by the idea. I don't think I'll ever stop eating fish (mmm, sushi), but it certainly made the point with me that just because fish aren't cute like my cat, doesn't mean I should stop caring what happens to them.


    Anonymous said...

    My friends have been making fun of this campaign for the past week. I think it does matter what your message is just as much as how you say it and spread it. If your message is stupid, people will make fun of it. PETA may be spreading this one well, but it's only reaching more people who will make fun of it.

    See Donor Power Blog's "Stupid Nonprofit Ads" series for more examples of wasted marketing.

    Mark Buzan said...

    Excellent article. I think it also make s the point of the importance of effective branding, marketing and communications in the non-profit sector. If people aren't aware of a cause or identify with it, they won't give!