When it comes to humanitarian crises, it seems that the Internet is not necessarily the best channel for engaging with the public. Moreover, if you want your campaign to stand out from the crowd you need to get away from traditional approaches and be more surprising, a UK university study has found.

Online charity campaigns must “surprise in order to be effective”

When a humanitarian crisis strikes, the Internet is often thought to be the communication aid par excellence for raising public awareness.  After all, what better information tool could there be than this boundless, real-time channel to tell people about what is happening and get them to commit to a charitable cause?  A key example was the 2012 campaign targeting Joseph Kony, which made great use of the social networks to motivate mass support.

However the results of a study* conducted by the University of East Anglia (UEA) suggest that this assumption should not go unchallenged. The UEA report’s authors set out to discover the reasons why a person does or does not respond positively to an online charity campaign or seek out further information on the subject.

 un site de recommandation pour les donations

         Charity Navigator: recommendation site for individual donors

Reasons given by survey participants for not responding to a campaign include the time needed to search though material online in order to find clear information, and a lack of trust in the reliability of information sources. Many of those surveyed regard information from social media or blogs as “inaccurate or biased”, while traditional news channels still tend to inspire greater trust. 

“My findings suggest that the internet is not a magic bullet for getting people engaged with or caring about humanitarian issues or crises,” underlined Dr Martin Scott, a lecturer in Media and International Development at UEA, who led the survey, in a press release.

Le site de l'Overseas Development Institute a attiré l'oeil des personnes sondées, jugé plus fiable que les sources d'informations provenant d'organisations caritatives

Above: the Overseas Development Institute website, which survey participants saw as more reliable than charity organisations’ own information sources.

In fact, perhaps rather strangely, the UEA survey participants reacted more positively to information provided by organisations that they had never previously heard of, such as Charity Navigator – which helps people make decisions about how and where they donate their money – Poverty.com and the Overseas Development Institute, than to well-known charities like Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children.                  

People are now often dismissive of traditional campaigns,” suggests Dr Scott, adding: “For example, they feel they are being manipulated or that they are not being told the whole truth. The key implication is that campaigns – both online and offline – often have to be surprising in order to be effectiveCampaigns that don’t challenge well-established patterns of avoidance are less likely to succeed,” concludes the International Development academic.

For the purposes of the study, the behaviour of 52 UK-based Internet users was analysed over a period of two months.  

By Pauline Canteneur