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How Far Should Charities Go for a Retweet?

07/04/2014 15:55 BST | Updated 05/06/2014 10:59 BST

Of the first five speakers at Media Trust's spring conference last Thursday only one managed to avoid mentioning the #nomakeselfie. But it's hardly surprising, seeing as the day of TED style talks on creating content for charity campaigns comes in a week where the online craze raised over eight million pounds for Cancer Research, without costing them a penny. In a room of charity digital marketing officers and content creators, whose vague job titles have suddenly become unequivocally justified, everyone was keen to learn how their charity could be the next viral hit.

St. John's Ambulance had already experienced the incredible multiplying effects of catching the Internet's eye with their controversial advert showing a father survive cancer only to choke to death in front of his young daughter with a tag line explaining that first aid could prevent 140,000 deaths a year, the same number as die from cancer. Emma Sheppard, head of brand and communication for St. John's Ambulance, explained how they chose to air it during cosy period drama Downtown Abbey for maximum controversy, even feeding this information to the Daily Mail before broadcast, aware the tabloid would react with outrage. Harnessing the indignation that followed meant although the video was only broadcast on TV four times, it was viewed 200,000 times on YouTube and, crucially for any lingering doubters, this translated into tangible effects with 20,000 following the video's call to action and texting for a free first aid pack.

However, while they easily anticipated the Daily Mail's outrage, the Twitter army is harder to predict. A photo of David Cameron on the phone has the world in stitches, while carefully crafted jokes fall flat. Ali Stunt, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer Action, knows how social media can see a situation escalate when their "I wish I had breast cancer" adverts caused outrage last month. Speaking at the conference on a panel discussion about the merits and drawbacks of shocking content, she defended the campaign saying that engaging with online audiences allowed a small underfunded charity to be heard in a way previously impossible.

So it seems charities are faced with the same question that plagues countless fading celebrities - is infamous the only type of fame the Internet offers? And is shock the only route to this notoriety? Sally Chambers, from fundraising website JustGiving, urged charities to think about what users are trying to achieve with their social media. She explained that as people curate their "online me" they seek out experiences which they can share and which makes them look good. A 5k run might be an efficient fundraising method but does it look good on Instagram? This year's colour run generated 23,000 tweets and I'm not surprised. Those photos of friends laughing in running gear surrounded by a colourful cloud of dust makes them look fun, active, a little kooky but with a strong social conscience - the profile picture dream.

The same principle works for raising awareness. Want to get people talking about your issue online? Sally's advise is: "give them unusual content which makes them look good and shows they care and they will share it." It might be surprising to hear charities speak so cynically about the public but I'm not sure I can deny their logic, and if anyone is going to manipulate my social media induced insecurities I guess it might as well be a good cause.

But Buzzfeed's UK Editor Luke Lewis came with a word of warning. He encouraged charities to post on Buzzfeed Community and open their issues up to new audiences, but cautioned against trying too hard to be funny, describing the "dad at the disco effect". And he's right, firstly because listicles and Mean Girls gifs are a lot harder than they look, but also they can seem a little disingenuous when arbitrarily linking back to world hunger.

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(Photo: Michelle Keegan and Kym Marsh via Twitter)

The scope of access social media offers cash strapped charities is fantastic and if done well can have incredible power. But it's easy to get swept up in the race for retweets without asking what they actually achieve. As people become increasingly savvy, I worry that good causes trying to force the next #nomakeselfie will feel a little bit tacky. Social media trades on a certain type of content and chasing likes might lead groups to produce material which prioritises sharability over their core message. The sort of content causing waves online isn't always the sort of content driving people to donate their time or money to a cause. And ultimately, there's little point in thousands of people seeing your hilarious listicle or shocking video if it doesn't provoke any real change.