Ceci n’est pas une pipe

One of the news articles I tagged for re-reading last week was this one from the Wall Street Journal — it’s from August 2007, but was recently tagged by somebody with the nptech tag.

The article includes a nice round-up of online places — social networks and other tools — that young people have been using for charitable and philanthropic endeavors. I’m especially interested in the evolution of sites like DonorsChoose.org and Kiva.org, because I think these person-to-person charity and micro-loan networks are among the most compelling new developments in philanthropy in a long time.

Because I work so much with artists and cultural organizations, I’m naturally curious about how this type of philanthropy could be tweaked to benefit these groups.

Sure, you can donate art supplies directly to an art teacher on DonorsChoose.org. But what about a new fire escape to the children’s theater down the road? Or framing and mounting supplies to the new artists’ co-op downtown?

I’d love to see something that connected donors and individual artists and smaller cultural organizations like this. Bigger cultural organizations have online donation systems, capital fund drives, and special earmarking funds. But a lot of small nonprofit arts organizations just know that their pipes just burst, and if they don’t fix them stat, they’ll have to cancel the next five months’ worth of children’s music/dance/drama classes.

For example.

The other thing that jumped out at me in the WSJ article was the bit at the end about the Salvation Army’s attempt to join the fray on MySpace, with a profile page for a character/personification of the brand called “Red Kettle.”

It so happens that I am reading Naked Conversations right now (finally), so this reminded me right away of the case study they made of Claire, the brand-personification of Vichy (L’Oreal) that “wrote” a blog for a brief, ill-fated time. Here’s the section of the book that talks about Claire.

Notice that it’s in the chapter entitled “Doing It Wrong.”

If there’s one thing that’s true about the new media, it’s that truthfulness and transparency are paramount. Even if you’re transparently personifying a brand, as with a cartoon character or whatnot, and you expect everyone to be in on the joke, it just doesn’t ring true.

A brand isn’t a person. I know it’s a standard marketing exercise to figure out what kind of person a product would be if it were a person, but that’s exactly where it should end: as an exercise. At least where social media are concerned.

The interwebs are now populated by People. Real, living, breathing people who, more and more, use their real names and faces and interact as real people. With other real people.

A brand isn’t my friend (or fan) on FaceBook. A brand isn’t someone I will follow on Twitter. A brand isn’t, in short, a person. It’s an abstract idea. Same goes for a product. A car is a car. A pipe is a pipe. A cigar is, in fact, just a cigar.

What doesn’t work in blogging also doesn’t work on social networking sites. If you want to promote your product, or your brand, you, or your CEO, or the guy in the cubicle down the hall who helped develop it, should write a blog, should build a profile, should twitter. As yourself/himself/herself.

Be who you are. Authenticity is legal tender.

3 Thoughts.

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly that authenticity is where it’s at….and that it’s the human to human network/relationships that makes these sites work (for nonprofits or anyone).

    But (you knew there had to be a but), WHILE being authentic, a nonprofit needs to know that they are consistently showing what they are all about while using “new” media. Mission, brand, call it what you want. In the past (in old, nontech, traditional media world of nonprofits), I’ve seen too many nonprofits that couldn’t communicate what they were about. Some had board members that couldn’t even state their mission.

    So when it comes to branding and nonprofits, the use of new media must remain authentic, but they need to make sure that whomever is doing the networking etc. is truly communicating the soul of the organization. That’s why when we see a certain logo–be it a blogger site or online initiative like frozen peas, we see the logo or name and without even yet reading, we know what they are about—perhaps we even get emotional.

    So be authentic. Nothing wrong if “red kettle” is putting a human face on Salvation Army giving. Hey, I wish someone had taken and taken and shared a video of the young guy singing his heart out at the Hershey K-Mart kettle this past season. I gave when I had already given, just because he was so authentic.

  2. Thanks, audriez. While I agree that it’s important for an organization to stay “on message,” it’s the overemphasis on message control that has led to jargon-laden press releases and indecipherable mission statements.

    It’s commonly heard in the blogosphere that people like seeing the occasional typo in an organization’s blog – that we need more of the human touch, not less.

    So I hear you that the person using the new media should be articulate and passionate, but I would resist further attempts to refine their message by committee. That’s the command-and-control lawyer-inside-your head effect that we’re trying to avoid.

  3. True, and it’s exactly why I limit my working stints in large bureaucracies that still operate that way–even the nonprofit sector has them! 😉

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