For Direct Relief, Cause Marketing, Disasters are a Game

There's social media, and social networking and then there's social gaming. And they're all growing like crazy and can be used for cause marketing. While my focus is generally on how social media and cause marketing can work together, social gaming is an uncharted area for me. Fortunately, I now have a good guide.

Tony Morain of Direct Relief International (DRI) is a graduate of the Six Figure Cause Marketing program Joanna MacDonald and I teach. But he's taught me a few things on how social gaming can be used for cause marketing. Tony must be a serious Farmville player because he's planting seeds in fertile ground.

eMarketer estimates that 68 million American will be playing social games (online games on which you play with people across the street or around the world) by 2012.

A leader in social gaming is Zynga, which is behind the two games you either love or hate on Facebook: Farmville and Mafia Wars. Combined, these two games have 70 million players. That's a lot of people and a lot of potential donors.

That's what Zynga thought when they approached Direct Relief after the Japan Earthquake. Zynga hoped to replicate what they accomplished after the Haiti Earthquake. Players donated by buying Haiti white corn in FarmVille, a Haitian drum in Mafia Wars, a Haiti fish in FishVille, and a chip package in Zynga Poker. The fundraiser produced a bumper crop, raising $1.5 million.

While a violent video game such as Mafia Wars is an unlikely partner for a humanitarian aid organization, Direct Relief decided to move forward, and never looked back.

Zynga created a virtual fan that players of the game could buy for $5, 100% of which went to Direct Relief. In a matter of weeks, they raised $600,000 for Japan. Moreover, they raised more online awareness for DRI than ever before, leading Direct Relief to be listed in Charity Navigator’s Top Ten Most Viewed Charities. This is impressive considering Direct Relief spends a fraction of what the other nonprofits on the list spend on marketing and advertising.

Mafia Wars is partnering with Direct Relief again to help people in the south recover from the devastating tornadoes that swept through the south earlier this month.

What a fantastic cause marketing program. A few key takeaways for cause marketers.

With cause marketing, the money is in the customer, not in the company. Zynga could have just written a check to charity after the Japan Earthquake, but it most likely wouldn't have been for $600,000. Zynga was smart and responsible to leverage its business model and give players a chance to support Japan.

Brand matters. Zynga sought out a well-known and respected organization to partner with. Good cause brands are like magnets that attract money, partnerships and opportunity. If you want to succeed in cause marketing, build your cause brand and companies will follow.

Cause marketing can work after disasters. I made this point right after the earthquake. Zynga didn't try to profit from the disaster or their players' support for victims. They simply chose an easy and powerful way to involve their business and customers in disaster relief.

Even killers have a soft spot. You'll want to steer clear of offline businesses involving the Mafia, but working with non-traditional partners that want to make a difference is okay. While Komen had its misstep with Kentucky Fried Chicken, fast food chains make excellent partners for cause marketing.

But like Mafia Wars you need to proceed with caution and care, or you reputation will get whacked.