SBJ/January 2-8, 2012/Opinion

Harnessing impact, passion of alumni to make a difference

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I am proud and honored to be part of the Penn State community. Yes, I am saying that publicly. Here is why.

Like millions of others, I was floored and disgusted by the allegations of sexual abuse at Penn State. As a proud Penn State alum, a passionate football fan and a father, I found myself struggling with a situation that was shaking my identity to the core.

After two days, I simply couldn’t watch the endless debates anymore. Two particular areas were frustrating me. First, the victims of sexual violence were being forgotten. We were missing a national discussion on how to prevent this from occurring in the future — anywhere.

Secondly, somehow the allegations against a few individuals were painting the entire Penn State community negatively — from students to alums to athletes — despite them not being remotely involved. It got to the point where I wasn’t sure it was OK for me to wear my Penn State sweatshirt. If you know Penn Staters, you know we are a proud bunch, whether it is around our football program’s approach or our school’s culture of philanthropy, and it just got
to be too much to handle from the sidelines.

Along with a few fellow alums, we felt compelled to act, to channel the anger, embarrassment and emotion into something positive. The goal: Put the focus back on helping victims of sexual violence by raising $500,000, roughly one dollar for each of Penn State’s 557,000 alumni, in support of RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country (www.rainn.org). By doing so, we hoped to show the world what Penn Staters are really all about.
The website was launched Nov. 10 with the help of social media networks, leading to network TV news exposure by the end of the day.

Strategy and approach

The strategy was simple. Without any marketing budget, advance planning or university involvement, we focused on activating the national Penn State community through what we knew best: social media. From there, things moved at light speed.

Nov. 8: Aligned with RAINN and recruited alums with specific skills.

Nov. 9: Built out core site, Facebook/Twitter presence (www.proudtobeapennstater.com).

Nov. 10: 4 a.m., launched website and RAINN donation page; 9 a.m., put the word out through the social networks of four Penn State alums and RAINN; by 4 p.m. we were on ABC, NBC and Fox, and it snowballed from there.

Proceeds from the sale of the T-shirts went to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
As the frenzy built, a key pillar of our strategy evolved around crowd-sourcing and co-creation. With thousands of emails/social notes coming in and widespread media attention, not to mention our day jobs, we needed to lean heavily on the broader community to support us.

That converted what had started as a fundraiser into a movement. We had active and former NFL/Penn State stars writing open letters supporting us, Nebraska Heisman winners and fans mobilizing to raise money, brides donating wedding favor funds, jewelry store owners donating portions of Small Business Saturday proceeds, authors of Penn State-oriented books donating a percentage of sales, alumni Avon reps donating commissions, and the list goes on.

It was wild. In a decade of social and word-of-mouth marketing experience, I had never seen anything like it. We had tapped into some of the most passionate brand ambassadors ever, focused them on a meaningful cause and given them a platform to run with. The results surpassed my wildest expectations and left me feeling personally inspired.

Results

In a little over four weeks, we beat our goal of $500,000. Of that total, 50 percent was raised 48 hours from launch and 75 percent within one week. More impressive than the dollars raised is that more than 10,000 individuals donated, highlighting a broad base of support for our grassroots effort and the potential of activating the long-tail of alums. This doesn’t include those who bought T-shirts or used our text-to-donate feature.

The Takeaway

While going through this accidental campaign, a broader, strategic question emerged:

In this new social world, are alums under-leveraged brand assets?   

Large schools have hundreds of thousands of the most passionate brand ambassadors out there — something large marketers spend tens of millions on desperately trying to create for their own brands.  

Taking a step back, this goes beyond Penn State and represents an opportunity to mobilize millions of passionate college alums in support of causes, marketing partners and their schools’ brands and fundraising efforts.  

With the right strategy, better leveraging this brand asset should deepen the connections universities (and their sponsors) have with their alums and drive incremental revenue at a time when they need it most.

— Jerry Needel
We reached millions of people through social and traditional media, with appearances on “Anderson Cooper 360,” CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and many others. We drove more than 250,000 people to RAINN’s website to learn more about sexual violence and how they can help stop it.

Most importantly, however, is the impact on real people who needed help. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline, where people going through abuse often reach out for help for the first time, saw its busiest weeks ever during our campaign, with volume up more than 54 percent. Many of the individuals reaching out specifically said they heard about and were motivated to reach out because of the Penn State campaign. RAINN was also able to double its volunteer recruiting with more than 800 people volunteering to help in their local communities.

What’s next

The common thread in the thousands of digital interactions we had with Penn State supporters over the last four weeks was simply, “Don’t stop at 500. Keep this effort going.” With our initial goal behind us, we are now working with our supporters to map out the best path forward.

I’ll say it again. I am proud of the Penn State community and honored to be part of it. Students, faculty, employees, alums, friends and parents of Penn Staters and fellow fans from Big Ten schools stood up, without hesitation, in a time of crisis to put the focus back on helping victims.

The Penn State community is bigger than the alleged actions of a few individuals and now, more than ever, we will continue to show our pride by attacking this cause, by fiercely supporting our student athletes and sponsors across all sports, by celebrating our diplomas, by showing the world what Penn Staters are really all about. Our actions will be what define us as a community. We are hundreds of thousands strong and are committed to re-establishing the reputation of Penn State.

Jerry Needel (jerry@proudtobeapennstater.com) is one of the founders of Proud to be a Penn Stater and a word-of-mouth marketing and social media veteran who has helped start and run social media consulting and analytics companies. Other co-founders included Jaime Needel, Larena Lettow and Bob Troia, all with significant social media, advocacy or sports marketing experience.


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