Phraya Nakhon Cave South of HuaHin, Thailand

Need is Dead — Marketing lessons from the #ThaiCaveRescue

As I have surveyed the landscape of nonprofit marketing and storytelling over the last few weeks I have come to startling and sobering conclusion — NEED IS DEAD.

Sadly the world and the people living in it have evolved past the point of being moved to action by need in all but the most extreme cases. As I write this there are still 4 boys (at the time of publishing they are all safe) from a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave waiting to be rescued. The attention of the world is captivated by their plight and impending rescue. While at the same time we have already almost forgotten about a boat that capsized in heavy seas killing as many as 50 people just a few hundred miles from the boys in the cave.

With the attention of the world focused on the boys in the cave. People with other important and worthy causes are trying to use the hashtag #ThaiCaveRescue, the current focus of the worlds attention, to draw the attention of the world to their cause. The reality is it is not working and will not work because #NeedIsDead. The causes they are trying to promote are worthy, the needs are real, the suffering of those people needs to be alleviated.

Still in the end we don’t care. Why?

The reason we are able to engage the #ThaiCaveRescue is simple. The problem is one of a kind, it probably will never happen again, as compared with the chronic problems of the world that have existed forever and will continue to exist like poverty, violence, war, famine etc. It also has a seemly simple problem and solution — Get the boys out of the cave before the water rises. Finally there is an enduring hope that the boys can make it out alive. We can all look at the situation and see a way for it to be resolved and a happily ever after to occur.

The question I have been asking myself as I survey the landscape of humanitarian work and the marketing that is being done to fund these important projects is this: How can we apply the truths we can observe about society we see in the #ThaiCaveRescue to our thinking and our marketing strategies going forward?

I think the first thing we have do is acknowledge and own the fact that need alone is no longer a viable marketing strategy and ultimately we must walk away from it and stop using need as a crutch. We have to realize that need is the lowest common denominator in the nonprofit sector. EVERYONE has and is dealing with very valid need. In the age of information and global connectivity need is everywhere, we can find it everywhere we look. To put it more bluntly, we are assaulted with it everyday on social media, on the news, and on the street.

What is missing in the nonprofit world is the presentation of solution, impact and hope.

Part of the draw of the #ThaiCaveRescue is that there are solutions and it is a problem small enough in scale for the average person to wrap their mind around. If you take a deep dive into the hashtag you will find everyday people proposing solutions. The scale and relative simplicity of the problem encourages people to mentally engage the puzzle and look for ways to get the boys out of the cave.

The challenge that we now have in nonprofit marketing is to move from engaging our audiences and donor bases on a need level and to move toward engaging them around a solution and the impact it is having.

Making this switch is, at the core, about changing perspective and changing our focus. There are several key perspective related things that make the #ThaiCaveRescue highly engaging. The two most important factors are scale, solution. The scale of the problem makes it easy to engage, because it is only affecting a few people, and we know based on simple science that it cannot last forever. We know there will be an end to the situation, good or bad we will have closure and will be able to move on. Also due to the simplicity of the problem it is easy to envision a solution — even for those of us who are not rescue personnel or engineers.

The presentation of these two factors — scale and solution — form a foundation on which our hope for a good outcome is built. We can see a happy resolution to the situation and we all understand what the impact of a successful rescue will be, sons, brothers, grandsons, will be reunited with their families and be able to continue pursuing their dreams.

To further apply this to nonprofit marketing I think we need to be incredibly careful of how we present our work. Obviously we are all working with need in various forms. The challenge is to remember that need is not the the trump card we have come to believe that it is. Need is not the story we are telling, it is just the setting in which our story occurs, the story of how our solution creates a new chapter in the stories of real people.

The formula looks like this:

Presentation x (need + SOLUTION + IMPACT) = HOPE

Presentation is the key, how do you frame the need and the solution? The most common approach to communicating scale in the nonprofit world is to communicate the vastness of the problem. For example …

“Millions of people are trafficked and enslaved every year….”

I believe that the opposite approach is more effective, that in a world where need is more common and available than any ever before, the effectiveness of the solution on a personal human level is the most important scale.

How does our solution impact one person, one family?

That is a relatable scale we all understand and value, individual people, family and friends. It is what makes the Thai soccer team so compelling and relatable, we all know people with children that age, most of us have been on youth sports team, and our kids participate in similar activities. We can relate on a personal level to the situation.

Keeping our narrative relatable to our audience is key to keeping them engaged. If they feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem they will be less likely to see our solution as viable.

The vast scale of the worlds’ problems is a direct affront to hope.

Business ideas are often evaluated based on whether or not they are scaleable. Can we make this idea work at a vast scale and make lots of money? That is the pitch to investors: “This business can have millions of customers and make millions of dollars.”

The reverse should be true for nonprofits and need. While we can easily process the scale of huge profits and vast wealth. We can only process need on a small scale, and as humans we need to see solutions that have a real verifiable impact on a personal level in order for us to have hope.

As nonprofits we need to move on from need based marketing and focus on presenting our solutions and their impact in a way that uses need as a setting for our story of hope, not the main character.

Presentation x (need + SOLUTION + IMPACT) = HOPE

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Humanitarian, photographer, filmmaker, storyteller, brand strategist. - - I write about nonprofit marketing and brand Strategy. Founder of - SharingDots.org