#nomakeupselfie works no matter the motive

I will caveat this blog post with two things up front:

  1. I spend my life (and a large part of my career) trying to understand how news spreads and why we behave the way we do on the Internet
  2. This week I have seen my mum go through the first steps of her breast cancer treatment

Those of you who prefer listed articles (e.g. 5 reasons you will be happy today, or 14 of the best jokes of all time), this is where the click bait ends I’m afraid.

Over the past week I’ve met some astounding people. In real life I’ve met the nurses who have rallied around to help my ageing 68-year-old mother understand cancer treatment, the doctor who performed the operation, and the other patients in the hospital who all have their own stories about how they discovered they had a lump and are now all going on their own journeys. In the online world (I still separate the two, forgive me), my newsfeed has been bombarded by my female friends, many of whom have been posting #nomakeupselfie photos from Tuesday. Some of them contained links and details of donating to Cancer Research, some of them didn’t. What a coincidence given what’s happened this week, I thought.

This morning I decided to investigate a bit more. We’ve got the time for the follow-up appointment, my mum is feeling better, and I’ve got a bit of time to do some reading. Upon some Google searching, the conversation is largely positive, but there’s a debate about whether it’s charitable, or actually an act of narcissism. Most of that debate focusses around this article by Yomi Adegoke. Indeed, from further scooping around, it led to a R4 Today programme on the very subject. And of course there’s a MailOnline article on it. That all happened on Wednesday, and on Thursday Cancer Research UK announced they had received £2m in donations over the course of 48 hours. This in itself squashes Yomi’s argument in the most part, as the financial evidence is proof of success in my mind. However, I felt a need to write about why I think #nomakeupselfie is working and will continue to appear in my newsfeed over some days.

Going back to my profession, the campaigns I work on are measured by four things: exposure, engagement, influence and action.

  • Exposure: have people seen it?
  • Engagement: do people get involved?
  • Influence: have you changed the way someone thinks?
  • Action: have people done something as a result of the campaign?

I’ve been asked countless times to ‘make something go viral’ or ‘create great content that people love’ and in order to do so, you need something people understand. Some try to with cats (in fact, a lot of companies try with cats), but this has worked because people understand what a selfie is. It’s in the dictionary. It defined the Oscars. It’s on the catwalk. Therefore there’s a low barrier to entry to get involved. If we’re talking just about sheer exposure to breast cancer (Cancer Research has admitted it’s a trend they jumped on, not their own brainchild), this has worked.

Having taken the selfie, people are now nominating friends to do the same. It’s loosely similar to Neknomination, which Yomi Adegoke talks about in her article. Where the similarity ends is when you realise that you’re not dreading a nomination, or asking friends to do something that is on an absolute scale abhorrent. You’re asking them to do something with very few repercussions and something that people talk about in the offline world: going out with no make-up on. That’s how engagement has built and continues to grow in the campaign.

Is this campaign going to change the way people think about cancer? Well, no. Trying to truly understand cancer is a task that has no end. This is where I strongly disagree with Yomi. With any charity, trying to really understand the root is going to take far more than a selfie or marketing campaign. Even having gone through some of the process this week, I don’t really understand all of the combinations and permutations of the disease. This campaign was never going to achieve that – it takes much, much more. Comparing the braveness of going through cancer against uploading a selfie with no make-up on misses the point of the campaign completely – the two are nowhere near on the same scale, and I highly doubt anyone is arguing that it is. This campaign isn’t about getting people to truly feel what it’s like to have cancer, it’s about a wider group of people trying to help those who have been diagnosed.

But finally, converting the awareness into cold hard cash is the hard part. This is where technology is allowing us to do bigger and bolder things. More people use Facebook on mobile than on computers now, so the flip between uploading that selfie and sending a text is small – it’s about three presses away. Granted, a small percentage might not convert from Facebook to text message, but trying to make any money from a social campaign should be seen as a win. Indeed, what’s the outlay from a charity trying to raise funds from a spreading trend? Relatively small. The £2m stat shows that people took action: the hardest part of any campaign.

On at least three of the four measures, the campaign has worked. It’s just a shame that writers such as Yomi felt a need to comment and attack before seeing the results of the campaign.

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