Compassionate Consumerism. Where is the Line?

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The message seemed innocent enough, if a little out of left field.

“Jay, just reaching out to see how things are going during these times…” it began. It was from someone with whom I’m acquainted, but not really a friend. And it came through my Facebook page.

I replied fairly neutrally, “I’m doing well thank you. How are you?”

You know, safe. Simple. Not revealing too much or leaning any particular way. A verbal parry if you will.

And then it came. The sell job. A friendly note with a healthy dose of “listen to my podcast… and this other podcast.”

Look, I get it. We all need to make a buck. But this form of familial insincerity really grinds my gears. And it’s also one we deal with all the time, whether we’re marketing products or trying to solicit donations. Where is the balance? Where’s the line?

During this COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been inundated with advertisements that reinforce the message that we’re all in this together. Hunker down, wear a mask, social distance… and when that’s done and you want to get out into this great big world, don’t forget to buy a Subaru.

It’s a delicate balance. Where does compassion end and commerce begin? Can they overlap? What’s the risk/reward? For me, TV ads using faux-concern for global wellbeing in an attempt to parlay that perceived caring into greater esteem amongst the consumer public is less offensive than the targetted, personal message on a social platform. Pandering to the global “we” is a tried-and-true tactic (Google “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” for a heaping helping of additional saccharine to go with your sugar water.) But reaching out to me personally under the pretense of caring, only to barely get that sentiment out before hitting me up for a commercial request? I guess that’s my line.

From a user experience perspective, we want to be mindful of empathetic design when we’re crafting experiences. We see this with hospital and higher-education websites, which try to juggle their primary goals with an often very-vocal fundraising arm. The thought being that if there’s not a giant “Donate Now” button in the most prominent location on a site, then people aren’t going to find it.

But is that in the customers’ best needs? Not too many people hang out on hospital websites, just looking for something to do? More likely, they’re in a position of uncertainty -- a loved one is ill and they want to come visit; they have medical concerns and want to know next steps. From a higher-education perspective it’s the same -- youth are being asked to make sizable investments in an uncertain future, often in locations away from home and all that is familiar to them.

So in either case, does asking for more money really seem to be the empathetic thing to do?

In both cases, it’s far more effective to intercept users during processes that more align with the idea of fundraising. Chances are, the people who are donating to universities and college are either business or alumni. Chances are, they’re not simply coming to your site, but are involved in other activities, or are being regularly contacted by staff as part of a relationship management approach. That’s where the appeals make sense -- slap all the ads you want on your alumni site or magazine. Not only is it more intuitive, but it’s likely going to be more effective.

Same for hospitals -- post-care follow-up, grateful families looking to give back, fundraising events and activities, wining and dining benefactors -- all of those are more intuitive ways of appealing to the right audience than slapping a giant “give us money” request in areas that don’t call for it.

And the same would also go for personal appeals. If you want to reach me on my socials, don’t do it under the auspices of caring and friendship. Buy an ad. Or just publish something on your feed and if I’m interested, I’ll click. But by using an emotional bait-and-switch technique, you’re guaranteeing not only will I not support you now, but I’m likely not going to be supportive in the future -- and you risk that I’ll share my experiences with my peer network.

A buckshot approach to solicitation only guarantees that innocent bystanders will get hit by the shrapnel. But a targetted approach that focuses on using the right tool for the job -- and delivering the right message to the right person in the way that best suits them -- is always going to be more effective. 




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