A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “How to Build a Better Call to Action” got me thinking about the importance of clear, accessible nonprofit marketing campaigns. Backed by research in behavioral science, a campaign without a straightforward call to action will not be successful. A well-told story can inspire people to drive change, behavioral science can aid in the approach. High production values, thoughtful inclusion of diversity in age/race/gender, dramatic lighting and music, pithy theme all constitute the makings of a successful campaign. However, without a distinct and effective call to action, the objective will fall short. Many organizations fall prey to this kind of marketing. As an example, Komen’s “Breast Cancer is #Unacceptable” campaign fails to provide a call to action while also instating an arbitrary deadline to cut U.S. breast cancer deaths in half by 2026.
According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The following four principles, rooted in social science and best practice, can help organizations design effective, ‘just right’ calls to action that can drive real change.”
- Make it Specific.
Vague calls to action can leave people confused. Abstraction often means the burden of identifying a particular action falls on the individual supporter, and too many options can lead to no action.
Komen’s campaign mentions abstract support and insufficient calls to “join us,” forgoing a specific action an individual should take to support the campaign’s goals.
- Make it Achievable.
Individuals need to think that their action will make a difference. That they have the ability, through this action, to help progress toward an end goal.
Komen quotes that, “Breast cancer is unacceptable. It kills 113 people every day. African-American women are 41 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. It is also the leading cause of cancer deaths for Hispanic women.” These statistics hinder their goal because they seem daunting and unapproachable. They fail to point out the achievements we have made in breast cancer research, and the positive effect research has had on the disease. They also leave out a crucial “how.” How will they cut cancer deaths in half by 2026, through what means?
- Make it Easy.
Research shows that people actively avoid actions that require them to do something they don’t want to do. To mitigate this, calls to action should not feel like a burden; they should be simple and within reach. For example, donate or send an email to a member of congress. These are easy asks, actions that the average person can picture themselves doing.
Komen states, “More than 250,000 men and women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year” followed by an offhand “join our movement, save lives”. Not only is this vague, but the scale of saving hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives is also overwhelming.
- Make it Feel Like Everyone Else is Doing it.
People need to feel like they are part of a greater community, that everyone else is participating and that the weight isn’t solely on them. We need to know that everyone else is also supporting our efforts.
Komen’s PSA feels unsubstantiated. Sure, we see a group of diverse actors in the campaign, but who else is supporting the movement and how is the support being actualized? It could mean make a donation or attend an event, but a call to action and a sense of greater inclusion is sadly missing from the messaging. Not only does Komen’s campaign not include a call to action, it enforces a baseless deadline. A recent editorial in the journal Nature called deadlines “misguided” and recalled that there have been many earlier promises to defeat cancer. Making unrealistic promises, the editorial pointed out, merely leads to disappointment and undermines public trust in the scientific enterprise. As the journal put it, “hope is not a strategy,” and “discovery does not answer to deadlines.”