We are not funny – why nonprofits suck at being “viral”

Lately I have been present at a lot of pitches where someone from my organization would tell an agency: “And we need a viral video”.

At that point you can always see someone on the agency’s side flinch because that person knows: we won’t have the guts.

As long as we are aiming for safe we will never create something that gets passed along like crazy.

Yes, as a non profit organization you will always find people who are sympathetic to your message and will spread it. As a result getting a couple of thousand or even a couple of ten thousand views (depending on your mandate and the size of your organization) is easy.

But can you remember the last time you saw an advocacy video from a non profit organization that had more than 100,000 views (except for “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Home“)? Or one that you couldn’t wait to pass along because it was so cool?

Don’t make me feel sad!

As an industry we are very good at making heartfelt, emotional videos – but most of them make me feel sad. And I don’t want to pass on something on my friends that makes them feel sad. At the bottom of my heart I want to be perceived as funny, as cool and maybe also as someone who has something important to say; but I definitely don’t want to be know as “the guy who always sends the sad stuff”.

Sad can work

Admittedly sad can work. I just went to the YouTube channel for nonprofits and looked at the most successfull videos. “Don’t die for a diet” (below)  is one of them. It has over 300,000 views, and is one of the saddest ads I have seen in a long time.

Funny is better

So, is that video a success? Sure. But my point is – how much more could we achieve if we were funny?

I think it’s a mistake to compare all the sad messages with all the other sad messages and use that as our baseline. Instead we should compare the sad videos with the funny ones and use those numbers to define success. Because if you do that, you suddenly realize that there is an unrealized potenial that’s not just in tens of thousands, but in the tens of millions.

I’m not saying that we should marginalize the suffering of vulnerable people. But why can’t we at least try to be a little bit tongue in cheek like this old spot for condoms?

You will notice that this video was not made by an NGO but by a company selling condoms. But it could just as well have been made by an NGO advocating for safer sex or trying to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies. But I bet that even if this idea had been on the table, it wouldn’t have been made it because it might offend people with obnoxious children. FYI: This video was viewed over 16 million times!

I think this doesn’t only hold true for videos, I think this is true for a lot of our messages.

So, here are some random ideas that I think could be viral:

  • UN Mine Action creates and distributes a customized version of “Mine Sweeper”.
  • The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) asks Jibjab, the guys behind this video, to create an e-card about pandemic (H1N1) preparedness
  • Amnesty creates a version of “Hangman” where you have to guess words from the Declaration fo Human Rights.

Update: Please also read my follow-up post “10 nonprofit videos that don’t suck”.

What do you think? Are we taking ourselves to serious?

  • marty

    What about storyofstuff.org? It is one of the best mixes on the web. ( 7million views. )

    • Timo

      Thanks Marty – that is an excellent video. And I actually don’t think it disproves my point. I even think it supports it. Because while Annie Leonard is being quite serious, her use of scribbled animations and graphics is actually humorous.

      Let’s think about what a lot of NGOs would have done instead of the scribbles: the stable imagery would have been photos of birds caught in plastic netting, rivers turned ochre by heavy metals, a member of a native population looking sadly at a bulldozer etc.. We have all seen these pictures.

      That storyofstuff.org didn’t go down that route and instead presented their message the way they did might in my opinion have contributed to their success – exactly because they don’t make you feel bad.

  • Juliana

    You speak my mind…especially about the “guts” part.
    Nobody will be able to make good stuff if they are always clinging to the safe side.

  • Juliette

    Shameless promotion here, but at Greenpeace, we have a few videos that got a lot of views – with a touch of humor:
    The thing is, not every web video we produce is aimed at being viral, so the plots are not always so well researched 🙂

    • I absolutely *loved* the one about the sunshine – that really made me smile (which might say a lot about me…).
      As for “Forst Love” – I liked the call for videos – though I’m scared to think about what kind of submissions you might have gotten…

  • Nice post Timo

    What do you think about the intro for Exhibit Darfur?


    Although it’s a true story, it rides the line between sad and powerful.


    • Hi Jeff,

      this is a really difficult one for me to comment on, because the issue is so severe and maybe because I know quite a few people who are currently working or have been working in Darfur.

      However, looking at the video I think:
      – it’s too long
      – I dislike the “see how good you have it message”. Juxtaposing the daily decisions of a parent in a peaceful country and of a parent in Darfur doesn’t work for me. To me that sounds a little bit like saying “Finish your plate because children are dying in Africa.” The one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. To me that is too much trying to instill a bad conscience.
      It’s well made but it doesn’t work for me.

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