Media Blitz vs. Media Noise: What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

By Susan J. Ellis

As I write this Hot Topic, we’ve just ended the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s (EIF) attempt to mention volunteering in all types of media. Despite the announced list of over 50 television shows planning to incorporate either a public service ad or a story line about service during the week of October 19-25, the media blitz was more of a bust. The messages were all over the map in type, length, and meaning. It took conscious effort to find the teeny, tiny mentions of service and, if it was hard to catch our eyes, why think the general public was aware of anything?

For all the brilliant media minds involved, there was no defined message or target audience. Worse, several new Web sites were opened, each with a “brand” name and logo; EIF launched “iParticipate.” Despite the Obama Administration’s desire to center attention on its portal,, the media messages almost never mentioned that.

In contrast, the media campaign that was the most consistent and appealing was the Disney Corporation’s “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” promotion. Their repeated ads send people to a clear and direct Web site, channeling would-be volunteers to HandsOn Network to find service opportunities. They are definitely generating buzz.

What’s important is not which shows carried the volunteering message or even how well. The questions that concern me most are:

  • What is the goal here? To get people to volunteer for anything at all or to stimulate meaningful service?

We can say the word “volunteer” a million times, but it only matters when someone applies it personally. So far, the media attention has not generated much action.

Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch, the nation’s largest online registry of volunteer opportunities, reported in his blog that:

Over the course of the week this historic TV campaign produced an average of only 775 new visits a day or 2.6% of our weekly total of 208,400 visits. This amounts to perhaps 100 new volunteers.

These were not the results we expected, or the results you deserve.

Further, he noted that:

…there were serious technical problems with “unresolved system bugs related to the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s implementation of the new All for Good APIs [Web site no longer findable, 2014] left thousands of interested volunteers on browsing through an aggregation of incomplete, incorrect, duplicate, out-of-date and out-of-place volunteer opportunities…

VolunteerMatch notified the various organizations of these problems, but they remain unfixed, again raising the question of whether the goal was to mention volunteering or support it.

When you consider the cost – talent and effort as well as cash – of getting even these small mentions of volunteering on the air, plus the expense of forming new organizations and Web sites, has there been return-on-investment? What could you have accomplished with even a small part of these resources?

  • Who believes that simply mentioning volunteering in a haphazard way is enough to “enter the consciousness” of Americans and translate into action?

It is hard to pinpoint who (if anyone) is acting as advisor to the media on what the needs of agencies are and how to recruit volunteers. I’m positive that the EIF wanted to do the best job, but haven’t we had enough of the presumption that all people need is a push to volunteer (preferably from a celebrity) and off they’ll go?
Advertisers craft commercial messages to get consumers to buy something specific, not simply to “go shopping.”

Also as usual, all the focus is on getting people to give their time (to anything, in any amount) without any real attention to whether organizations want or are ready to welcome them.

  • What does all this emphasis on getting people to volunteer communicate to the many people already deeply involved in service?

Missing from the publicity was any sense of the millions of Americans already doing volunteer work. Media messages could do double duty as current volunteer recognition as well as encouraging others to start getting involved.

Similarly, the new crop of media messages ignore well-established volunteer opportunities. A great example is Make a Difference Day which actually took place at the same time, but got very little acknowledgement from any of new Web sites. The push of new players to re-brand volunteering results in competition and dissipated energy.

  • Do calls for volunteering that offer a tangible reward compete with non-remunerated service or do they stimulate new people to test the water of volunteering?

The Disney promotion represents a variety of cause-related marketing campaigns that – legitimately and sometimes creatively – capture consumers for the product while also doing some good for a cause. But the monetary value of a ticket for one day at Disneyland® or Disney World® is between $72-$94! Even if a “day” of service is as much as eight hours, this amounts to a reward higher than the minimum wage! This is more than a token thank you and completely out of reach for any nonprofit organization to match (and they should not want to anyway).

Since these commercials are running side-by-side with the EIF messages, are we confusing the public? Is volunteering important for our society or a means to win a prize? Again: what are we trying to do here?

Your turn. What are your thoughts on these questions, or can you pose some others? Also, has your organization received any calls at all from new people seeking to volunteer who refer to something they saw in the media that made them act?

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