How to take the plunge with social media

One of the advantages of running workshops in marketing communications is that I get to meet a very wide range of interesting people from a diverse range of sectors. There’s no doubt that the sessions are always a learning curve for me, as well as for the people who sign up.

Earlier this week, I met a representative of the British Heart Foundation – a charity known for its pioneering research and campaigning work in the field of heart health. They also seem to be ahead of the game when it comes to the successful and innovative use of social media to communicate their message.

It would be wrong to pretend that BHF is a small organisation. Through fundraising, legacies and its retail operations (as well as some public funding), it raises the equivalent of $185m a year. On the other hand, it’s not a Nike, Coca-Cola or Shell. From my conversations, it’s taking the world of social world very seriously though – making sure, for instance, that people are on hand to answer queries on platforms such as Facebook in real time and that medical expertise is on tap to tackle even technical questions on people’s conditions and treatment as they arise.

BHF has made one of the big psychological leaps that many businesses fail to achieve with social media. Success requires investment. That means investment of time, staff resources and money. People who dip their toes in the water will often complain to me that they can’t see the return. But a little half-hearted tweeting is no kind of strategy. It may be fine for an individual who uses the microblogging network for fun, but is hopeless for an organisation using it as a mass communication tool. No one expects to run successful advertising or direct mail campaigns by devoting a few minutes a day to them. Social media is no different. It’s hard work, I’m afraid.

Further evidence of BHF’s forward thinking in this arena can be found in their current ‘mend a broken heart’ campaign. The charity’s scientists have identified the fact that zebrafish have the capacity to regenerate their heart cells and it’s hoped that they’ll be able to conduct more research into these unique biological properties. The thinking is that humans may, eventually, be able to heal their tickers in the same way as their aquatic friends.

If you go to the BHF homepage, it’s possible to enter an animation of a water tank and create your own zebrafish who swims around with a message. At the time of writing, there are over 5,000 fish in the nicely designed virtual pond – each one a potential supporter or donor. Embedded video gives background information on the campaign and it’s possible to involve your friends via Facebook, where the charity’s page is liked by over 100,000 people.

The neatness of this particular package comes down to its strong thematic content, high production values and genuine sense of involvement. There’s actually a reason to visit. Unfortunately, with so many other brands, there just isn’t.

So hats off to the BHF for making a splash. My only question is this: why exactly are the zebrafish suffering from heart failure in the first place? Perhaps a lifestyle change is in order.

The science in black and white: a BHF boffin explains the importance of zebrafish to research