But there is a rub. For individual donors, the benefits of sharing are much more limited. There is a risk that the sharer’s followers will do so think of them as braggarts or as someone who directs selfless acts for personal gain.
Kellogg School Assistant Professor of Marketing Ike Silver he wondered if there was a way around this conundrum.
In new research, Silver and co-researcher Deborah Small of Yale University found that when donors saw a message asking them to share their donation on their social media accounts to further the cause (rather than just sharing their donation), they increased clicks on sharing links, led to a higher likelihood of recruiting at least one more donation to the charity and raised more money.
“The way we give or withhold moral credit by saying that someone is a good person or that someone is actually bragging doesn’t necessarily motivate behavior that’s good for the world in terms of outcomes,” says Silver. “But this is the first experiment to show the direct impact of a marketing message on downstream funds raised by word of mouth. It’s proof that these kinds of interventions are possible.”
Donations rank as the most uncomfortable topic to discuss
Social media has removed many of the barriers between what is considered public and private, but donations are still considered private affairs. In many cultures, Anonymous donations are greatly appreciated.
To find out how awkward people feel when discussing their own charitable giving, Silver and Small conducted a survey of 198 participants, asking them to rate how comfortable they would feel talking about 21 different expenditures with friends and family. These expenditures ranged from the mundane (buying a dozen eggs) to the cultural (tickets to an art exhibit) to the financial (investing in the stock market).
Participants ranked charitable giving as the most uncomfortable topic to discuss.
“People who spread their generosity through charity are usually seen as virtue signalers and judged negatively,” says Silver. “It’s this thing that should reflect positively on the person, but people still felt more uncomfortable talking about it than anything else.”
Most people think of fame first
The downside to this is that the rules around charitable giving are often opaque, undermining both charitable giving and altruism as a whole. Research has shown, for example, that Altruism itself can be contagious, inspiring others to take part in acts of kindness. But if altruistic acts are considered taboo topics of discussion, this kind of ripple cannot be applied.
To explore the thought process of donors when asked to share their donations, the research team recruited 377 participants and asked them to write down the name of a charity or cause they personally supported. Participants then imagined making a donation and receiving a follow-up message from the charity prompting them to share their donation on social media.
Next participants received one of three writing prompts. One group wrote about the consequences sharing would have on their own reputation. Another group wrote about the implications of sharing for charity. And a third wrote whatever came to mind when considering whether to share it on social media. Then everyone expressed their willingness to share.
Those who considered the consequences for charity (rather than their own reputation) showed a greater willingness to share than the other two groups.
When the researchers analyzed what the participants had actually written, they noticed a telling pattern: those who wrote about how sharing would affect the cause almost always reported positive outcomes, while those who wrote about the impact on their reputation were much more negative.
Meanwhile, the majority of those who could write about anything that came to mind reported the impact it would have on their reputation rather than the impact it would have on the cause.
“It showed us that most people really think about their reputation, but that you can change their baseline to look at the cause,” says Silver.
Reframing messages around sharing
But could there be a much simpler way to change that baseline?
To find out, the team then partnered with DonorsChoose.org, a platform where users can donate to classroom-based fundraisers at underfunded schools in the United States. When donors give through the site, they are met with a pop-up thanking them for their donation and asking them to share their donation on social media.
The research team wondered if this pop-up could be used to reshape donor thinking. If they tweaked the message to make donors think about helping the cause instead of hurting their own reputation, would donors be more likely to share? And would schools see more money?
During a four-week period in late summer 2020, donors who gave through the site (more than 77,000 in total) were randomly assigned to see one of two pop-ups. Half of the donors saw the site’s standard message: “Share this class with your family and friends.”
The other half saw a new message: “Your donation can start a chain reaction, but only if you tell others about the cause. Share this class with your family and friends.”
Both versions of the pop-up contained icons that linked to social media platforms. If donors clicked on these icons, they were directed to the social media platform and given a unique referral link, allowing the research team to record downstream referrals.
Because users shared on their private social media accounts, the research team could not see any specific messages that donors wrote when they shared the link. But the link was personalized, so they could see that any donation that came through the link was a direct result of the user’s social post.
Increase both sharing and donations
So did the new message popup work? The research team found that donors who saw the new message were 5% more likely to click on a social media icon.
While they couldn’t directly measure the number of donors who shared on social media, they could measure the subsequent impact. The same participants were also more likely to recruit at least one more donation from another donor. they also recruited an average of $0.22 more in subsequent donations (16 percent higher than donations recruited with the standard message).
“It was a modest effect, but we were able to do it with a light touch,” Silver said. “We didn’t give donors a bunch of new information. We just changed the messages and it had a statistically and economically significant impact.”
Specifically, donors who gave more money were actually less responsive to pop-ups asking them to share. However, controlling for these low CTRs, the more a donor gave, the more likely they were to recruit at least one downstream donation. The team attributes this result to potentially older, more affluent, less tech-savvy donors who are less likely to click to share on social media, but when they do, they tap into a richer network.
The team also followed up with donors over the next few months to ensure donors weren’t turned off by the messages asking them to share. Fortunately, this was not the case: there were no negative effects on the likelihood that they would return to give again.
Reducing the focus on bragging to promote altruism
The implications for charities are clear: ask donors to share about the cause.
This makes donors less likely to consider the reputational risks of sharing. In fact, it may be worth considering additional ways to achieve this goal. For example, the highly successful Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for ALS research introduced embarrassment or self-normalization into the sharing campaign.
“When a post is inherently embarrassing, it can make people feel more comfortable because they won’t be seen as bragging,” says Silver.
As for the implications for individuals, consider talking about your favorite causes. Silver is for sure.
“As I study it more and more, I feel more willing to go out for causes that I care about,” he says. “I’ve felt the concern about it myself, but my own research shows that these causes get lost when we’re not out there advocating.”