Three ways to stop wishing for a big campaign

In the movie Big, Tom Hanks plays 12 year old Josh Baskin who puts a coin in a magic wish machine at the amusement park arcade one summer night and asks to be big. Nothing happens after making the wish so he heads home and goes to bed.

Be big

You know the story. Josh wakes up the next morning and is, well, BIG (and played by Tom Hanks).

Sometimes, your campaigns go big. You probably didn’t plan for it (though you may have wished for it). The ride may be fun but it’s probably not what you expected.


Sometimes, things don’t turn out as you hoped. You didn’t raise much money. New people didn’t stick with you. The media didn’t respond as you hoped. The big suit doesn’t always fit right — you may walk away disappointed but a bit wiser.

Big. And not so fun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question “What does it mean for a to ‘go big’ if you’re a nonprofit?” What is a viral campaign? That’s because I’m organizing a session here in Denver with the folks from Tech4Good titled Going Viral: The Ups and Downs of Hitting it Big. The program is tomorrow so you’ve probably missed it.

We don’t have to find Zoltar and wish to be big but we do need to know what “big” is, tap into what helps make campaigns go big and be ready when it happens (even if it’s not as dramatic as in the movie or the ice bucket).

So… What IS Big?

When it’s really big you know it. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was big. Very big.

Google trends - ALS
A 12 month Google search trends chart tracking ALS and Obama searches. The ALS spike is reminiscent of the Super Bowl and other huge national events.

Kony 2012 was also very big. So big that people may remember it three years later.

And sometimes a message goes big without a campaign. The hashtag #IWishMyTeacherKnew became a sensation in April when the story of a Denver teacher’s project to get kids sharing more about their lives spread across online media and social networks. A simple act by a single teacher ended up being noticed by local media, then national media and spread far (and fast) from there.

#IWishMyTeacherKnew tracks uses of the #IWishMyTeacherKnew hashtag in late-April, 2015. Mention spread rapidly and spiked up and down depending on when national media shared the story.

If you were involved with #IWishMyTeacherKnew would you call it big? I’d call it big for a non-campaign with 7,000 tweets in the past 30 days (Topsy).

Big (like really big) may not be worth trying to create with the most strategic plan out there. The Ice Bucket Challenge, Kony 2012 and #IWishMyTeacherKnew all went far bigger than expected due to factors nobody planned on.

But while you may not be able to plan for “big” you can and should be ready to create it and tap into it when it happens.

Be Ready for Big (don’t just wish for it)

Most conversations about viral campaigns start with a false premise: We can make a plan that will, in three or six months, have everyone talking about our message, creating their own videos about our work and joining our group. Make great content (that people want to share because it’s all about people), make it measurable so you can understand what’s happening, and be ready to act.


Sharing is the currency on which “big” campaigns are traded. A click is nice but sharing spreads. The folks at Upworthy made this nice grid to help explain the value of sharing to viral content:

What is virality
Upworthy explains what is (and isn’t) viral. Courtesy Upworthy. View their full slide deck: The Sweet Science of Virality.

You need sharing to go big. Frame the message for sharing. It’s worth thinking about why someone would share something (like your message) with their friends and family. People don’t share things that make them look odd, mean, shallow or dumb. People share to feel good about themselves and those around them. Create content that’s insightful, clever, passionate and empowering (for the sharer and share-ee).

Empathy can help encourage sharing. That simply means that one should feel a connection with or for the subject of the message. This is easier when people are the subject of the story or talking about how an issue effects them.


How does measurement help your campaign go big? If you want to know what’s working (and what isn’t) you need to be able to assess performance and learn. Every campaign is built on lessons of an earlier effort. In many cases, you can quickly test a message, measure and adjust the next day.

It’s important to know what to measure. Tracking clicks or pageviews may tell you a campaign is growing but (see above) if you’re going for big then sharing is a key metric.

Beyond Vanity Metrics
Beyond Vanity Metrics from the Mobilisation Lab and Citizen Engagement Lab offers several ideas for better measuring campaigns for growth and impact. Get the full report.

Good measurement should also tell you who is sharing your message — where are they, who are they, what language are they using? The right metrics are critical to a good campaign. Think your message is watered down by your internal processes and policies? Measure what’s getting shared and report back on it.


Put your organization and your team in a position to take action on a campaign that’s goes big (or looks like it will). This is where planning matters. You can make a message that’s more shareable but it’s hard to come up with a plan that guarantees going big.

But you can plan ahead by having a nimble team that can create messages, web pages, social media posts and media responses quickly. You can have mobile-ready donation and subscribe forms. You can know who your friends and partners are and talk to them in advance about sharing your message. You can organize your supporters and train them to share messages with their networks, give them guidance and tools for creating their own videos and other social media messages and more.

We may not always be able to plan for going big but we can be ready. And you don’t need to replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge to have a major and measurable impact on your mission.

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