From Imprint, Cobb Technologies by Kate Vinnedge:

It is no secret that organizations are struggling to find meaningful ways to connect to their donors — and for Cobb Technologies’s charitable arm, Imprint, this struggle was all too real.

For more than a few years, Imprint has relied on our annual golf tournament held in the spring. This event usually dictates Imprint’s budget for the year, and consequentially the causes it supports. But, as virtually all events did, our golf tournament was forced to the wayside by the pandemic.

Imprint, as you can read in our blog, The Race to Richmond: What Imprint Does and How You Can Help, works closely with schools in the Richmond area, serving kids who face food insecurity, and who require extra attention in their education. Since schools were shutting down in the spring of 2020, we decided to hold off on fundraising, and wait until the fall — hoping that the virus would be gone by autumn.

As we are all aware, however, the virus is still here — and our annual spring golf tournament that had morphed into a fall golf tournament was canceled, once again. We wanted to, more than anything else, hold a fundraiser, and help spread some happiness in the name of helping kids. But we also wanted to be a safe and responsible organization, and follow social-distancing guidelines.

Like most organizations in 2020, we were at an impasse — we wanted and needed to get people involved in our cause, but our past experiences with fundraising weren’t giving us anything to work with. Short of ideas like a holiday card, we were coming up empty.

And then, along came a service technician by the name of Steve Scott. Steve is a veteran of the 7 x 7 x 7, a grueling endurance-based challenge, characterized by completing seven marathons, in seven days, on seven continents. Yes, you read that right. Seven marathons, spanning all seven continents, including Antartica, in seven days.

Steve had a plan to raise money for Imprint’s cause — and that plan is to run from Danville, Virginia, to Cobb Technologies’ headquarters in Glen Allen, Virginia, a distance of 168 miles, in just five days. And so, The Race to Richmond was born.

Cobbtober Run Video screenshot

Video by Nicole Willis.

GENERATING BUZZ DURING A PANDEMIC

There are two hallmarks of 2020 — everyone is glued to their screens (because there’s nothing else to do), and reading about one man doing a 168-mile run in five days wasn’t the craziest thing you’ve read this week.

This leads to a scenario where potential donors are both a captured-but-disinterested audience. Sure, they may know your organization is doing a round of fundraising, but is it as interesting as murder hornets, or the Browns defeating the Cowboys? Probably not.

Now, we admittedly did get lucky with the fact that we have an employee at Cobb who is physically capable of running 168 miles in five days. Not too many organizations can claim something like that — but a rapt, desensitized-to-strange-news-audience gives every organization the ability to let the curtain down a little bit. To open up, and engage in honest and personal conversations with donors.

It’s never been a secret that personalized messages perform better than non-personalized communications in marketing campaigns. But something we at Cobb have learned during this pandemic is audiences don’t just want personalized, they want connection.

We’re all social creatures, to one varying degree or another — and because of necessary social-distancing measures in place, we’re all craving that human connection. We reminisce about sitting at a table with five friends, of listening to live music in a venue, of simply going grocery shopping without dodging people like, well, the plague.

Out of all our new marketing ideas implemented during the pandemic, one has made a lasting impact — our bi-weekly webinar, Coffee With Cobb. It’s nothing special in the world of webinars, other than that is ours. For thirty minutes every other Thursday, our audience is invited to listen to our employees discuss everything from cybersecurity to LinkedIn branding.

We started this webinar because we were looking for new ways to connect with clients — and when we first began, we had no idea if it would be successful. Now, more than five months later, it is going stronger than ever, with our average audience steadily increasing every event.

Throughout the pandemic, we were creating new personalized email campaigns, creating content in the form of blogs and videos, and reaching out via every tool we have. Our webinar, however, was and is the most successful of all of these ventures.

And if I were to venture a guess, it is because it gives our audience something to connect with. An email, at best, engages the interest of someone for a period of time, and provides them with a next step if their interest is piqued. A blog helps someone solve a problem, or learn more about a topic. A video does the same.

But all of these mediums produce a one-sided conversation. Our live webinar, however, creates a community. A decentralized, socially-distant community of semi-strangers, perhaps, but a community nonetheless. Stranger things have happened this year.

Audiences, especially in 2020, crave connection to community. And, after our Coffee With Cobb experience, we took this lesson and applied it to the Race to Richmond.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

Imprint’s Race to Richmond hits all of the usual fundraising notes — raffle tickets, sponsorship packages, by-the-mile donations, and merch. Our marketing is running through all the standard mediums — social, email, native content. The mechanism that is driving our latest fundraising campaign is nothing special.

What is special is how Imprint is providing our audience with the opportunity to connect to a community — livestreaming.

We all are familiar with causes starting their message with, “If everyone seeing this donated x number of dollars, we would have enough money to defeat cancer/end child poverty/save the whales.” And largely, this is true — once a fundraiser reaches critical mass, donation goals are quickly met.

The trick is to get that critical mass of audience engaged. Audiences are inundated with the ever-evolving crazy that is 2020. They are distracted, but craving connection with other people. And this is where a livestream can help.

It isn’t as simple as just creating a livestream for any event — it is the spirit of the event that makes the difference. Now, not everyone is as lucky as Cobb, and has an expert long-distance runner in their back pocket.

If you are struggling to come up with an idea for a livestream, don’t be afraid to lean into the crazy that is 2020. Collectively, we as a society have grown a more refined palette for discerning honesty from commercialism during this pandemic — and as audiences share personal stories of their quarantine hobbies with their friends via Zoom and their followers via Instagram, businesses and organizations should follow suit.

The key is honesty. Find an employee in your organization that is both passionate and driven. Ask them perform their passion on a livestream — but with a catch. This catch could be that they have to do their hobby for 24 hours straight, they have to do it blind-folded, or in a swimming pool, or while drinking hot-sauce.

Truthfully, the “catch” doesn’t matter. What matters is the “honesty” equation. This is why Youtubers and Twitch Streams are so successful at crowdfunding for charity — they use the honesty equation for their fundraising. Not only do they do what they love with a “catch,” (usually playing a video game for an extended duration of time), they do it in such a way that involves their audience.

This mix of passion plus obstacle is the perfect meta explanation for charity: helping others is good, and the challenge faced is something the charity overcomes. By creating a situation where your fundraising mirrors this, you can create a more engaging fundraising experience for your audience.

Using Imprint’s Race to Richmond, we can look at how our livestream follows this principle. Our employee, Steve Scott, will be doing his passion — long distance running. But, there’s a catch: he has to run 168 miles in five days. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be special — and you get to be there every step of the way.