Animal Welfare charity, Blue Cross, has been helping sick, injured, and homeless pets since 1897. The charity’s vast legacy means that they are no stranger to change and the transformation of their relationship with their audience. This is evident in their most recent campaign, the Superstar Pets app, which is the first use of technology facilitating organic customer generated content for pet adverts that ran from 22 March until 6 May 2018. The app, supported by TV dancing stars Katya and Neil Jones and their dog Crumble, aimed to help millions of users make their pet a Facebook superstar and put the nation’s pets at the heart of the Blue Cross message. Figaro Digital spoke to Cressida O’Shea, Brand & Communications Consultant at Blue Cross, to find out how the charity is innovating to keep up with their evolving audience and the inflated spend of larger charities in the hugely competitive animal welfare sector.
FD: As a charity with a long history and huge legacy, how has Blue Cross found itself evolving in the digital age?
CO: “We’re getting more engagement on digital and more digital donations. In a way, we’re developing into a publisher and media channel.”
FD: How important do you think it is for Blue Cross to utilise digital media and technology to boost engagement?
CO: “Well, it’s absolutely critical, as it is for everyone these days. It’s all about our content strategy, which is focused on growing traffic and engagement. We work in a very competitive industry and there is lots of action happening specifically in the welfare sector at the moment; Battersea has got a new re-branding campaign and Dogs Trust is in partnership with Netflix. There’s a lot of activity and we really have to punch above our weight because we are massively outspent by our competitors. So we’ve had to fight really hard for the gains we make, in terms of gaining engagement.”
FD: What led Blue Cross to go down the route of customer generated content?
CO: “Customer generated content plays hugely into that point about engagement. The charity sector is cluttered and the animal welfare category within that is very busy, so it’s increasingly hard to cut through. What was important for us when deciding to use customer generated content, is that it’s really a way for us to not just rely on paid for spend, but a way to get people to spread the word for us and for our actual users and fans to become a channel for us. In a crowded marketplace, you have to innovate or die, especially if you’re a bit more of a challenger brand. You simply won’t stay around if you don’t innovate and try and stay ahead of your competitors in that way.”
FD: Many aspects of the Superstar Pets campaign are very ‘on trend’ within digital marketing right now – customer generated content, app creation, a focus on social media, and promotion utilising celebrity influencers. What was it that led you to select these channels, and focus on these aspects, for this campaign?
CO: “Essentially these are the channels where we have strong engagement and so we are really playing to our strengths there. It also goes back to our strategy and the idea that we help pets because pets help us, so in a way that human element is really important. I think the other thing not to lose sight of, is that people who love animals are absolutely dotty about them and they love, love, love sharing content about their animals. So, we are capitalising on a behaviour and trend that is already out there rather than having to create one. We’re giving our audience something of value and a tool that helps them do something that they’re already doing, rather than trying to get them to do something than completely different or that they normally wouldn’t do. Which would be really hard work and would take a lot of investment.”
FD: Due to the charity centring on animals, there must be some automatic engagement in your message. Who can resist cats and dogs? But how do you connect with people digitally on the more difficult aspects of what your charity deals with? (Animal abandonment, abuse, and ill-health.)
CO: “It’s a good question, our strategy as an organisation is all about positive disruption so we’ve made a very specific decision when it comes to our message and output. We wanted to make people feel good, not guilty about giving or sharing. People share the extremes don’t they, the very negative and the very positive, but we have found that our audience are much more likely to share a positive story. When we set our strategic direction in such a competitive landscape, we wanted people to feel good about sharing positive stories. The norm for charity sectors is to often use pathos and suffering, but especially when it comes to animals there are a large number of people who won’t engage with that. They will actually turn away, won’t look, will change the channel, or will view something else, because it’s too awful to watch.
What we set out to do is disrupt the category with positive disruption by telling positive stories, rather than asking people to look at all the suffering of this mistreated, malnourished, and neglected pet. We tell the story more form the perspective of showing how happy a pet is in its new home compared to how it was before when it was mistreated. So you’re showing the positive side and stories, not that you don’t ever mention more negative things we deal with at Blue Cross but you do so in a way that contextualises rather than shocks.”
FD: In the process you are promoting the effect your charity can have on the animals that come through your doors, rather than necessarily focusing on the state they’re in when they come to you.
CO: “Absolutely, so we focus on the positive impact, positive outcomes, turn around stories, and happy endings. It is due to our focus on making people feel good not guilty. If you feel guilted into something, you often feel resentment towards it and you might not do it again. If you feel good, it’s positively reinforcing the action and you’re much more likely to do it again. It’s also about having a sustainable strategy for the charity, and part of our strategy is based on this idea of reciprocity – if you’ve been given something you’re more likely to give something in return, which is a universal truth about humans. We’re leveraging that trait in our message, we show people how much pets are giving them and hopefully that will spark them into giving something back to pets that are in need.
Also, with the Blue Cross Superstar Pets app it fits in with that idea of reciprocity because we are giving people something of value for free. We hope as a result of that, they will think it’s worth sharing and will spread the word on our behalf. It very specifically hasn’t got a financial ask attached to it and that was a very deliberate decision, as we wanted to give something very freely to people. Some people, as a result, will make a donation but it’s not a fundraising initiative, it’s an awareness and engagement initiative. But we do have the option of retargetting those that use the app farther down the line.”
FD: How has the way customers interact with charities digitally shaped the way you communicate as a brand?
CO: “I’ve got two key points to make here. The first one is that I would bracket ‘digitally shaped’, because there aren’t two separate worlds any more: digital and not digital, on or offline. It is one joined up world in which people expect to be able to interact with you in a number of ways, digital being a key one of those. So what we’ve set out to do is build trust with people and to do that by communicating our brand purpose. Our purpose is essentially that we help pets help us, that’s that reciprocity strategy, and that’s brought to life in our motto, “Pets change lives, we change theirs“. We think the most important way to engage people in this modern day and age, is to really connect with them emotionally and talk about our brand purpose; why we do what we do and to connect with an audience on that level.
I think trust is so important in this sector because you’re only going to donate to an organisation that you trust and think is going to use your funds well. Around half of our income comes from legacy donations and these are really important to us. If legacy isn’t about trust then I don’t know what is, as it is the ultimate display of trust to leave your legacy to a charity. That’s on a macro level, but in a more practical way I think the way digital interactions have shaped the way we communicate in that it has forced us to be more open, agile, and able to respond quicker. We’ve gone out of our way to make sure that we’re friendly and not judgemental in any way. Which is especially important if you are, for example, giving up a pet for re-homing – if you’re going to be judged, you’re simply not going to do it. That friendliness can be a differentiator as unlike the RSPCA, who have a necessary reputation for enforcement and coming down hard on people, we want to help people through those difficult journeys for the good of the pets.
In terms of increased responsiveness and agility in digital interaction, we answer the difficult questions as well as the easy, nice ones and have had to ensure we respond to our audience as quickly as possible as every interaction is practically in real time now. When I started working we had to write letters to communicate and there was three days in between writing a letter to someone and getting a response, so a lot has changed.”
FD: How do you see digital transforming the charities sector in the coming years?
CO: “It’s already happened. I really think that that transformation has already taken place and it’s simply a case of building on that now. But basically, there is more spend in digital, more services being offered in digital and it’s really about building on that transformation now.”