Does #TheDress Show Yet Again That Charities Get Real-Time Social Better Than Brands?

One of the mantras of modern digital marketing is that teams have to be working in real time -- so called 24/7 marketing. The Oreo biscuit 'dunk in the dark' tweet is always rolled out as the example of how successful a brand can be. Its light-hearted tweet went viral, after the lights failed at the Super Bowl, and earned the brand a place in most talks given at any social marketing gathering.

The #nomakeupselfie lead the way in Britain when a cancer chairty's social team quickly realised the fund raising opportunity of a phenomenon that had start to go viral and could be used, with light shove from the charity, to get its message out to millions of people.

So, it's fascinating to see #TheDress debate now being used by The Salvation Army to highlight the awful problem of domestic abuse. The campaign started in South Africa where the charity claims one in six women suffer domestic violence and it has soon spread to all corners of the social web where it's been shared by celebrities, charities, politicians and seemingly half of London's digital marketing industry. 

The campaign features a take on the dress Tumblr posting which asked whether people saw black and blue or white and gold. To this writer who's colour blind, it's a mute point but it did at least make other people see how subjective colour is and led to the first conversations within my earshot where it wasn't me being asked "so what colour do you see x colour as?" It turns out, it may be down to the white balance on the device you're using as to which colour combination option you see but, at the very least, it started a huge debate which has seen a huge range of celebrities throw their social followings in to the conversation. Tumblr has reported #TheDress post has been viewed 73 million times and peaked at 140,000 views per minute.

The Salvation Army did well to pick up on the colour conversations happening around the globe and turn it the 'black and blue' conversation in to raising awareness about domestic violence. It's hard to see how much success it's had because it's early on in the campaign and the fractured nature of its accounts for different regions, and those of the many people who have retweeted it, means you cannot gauge how well it's been shared. However, it does appear to have been shared on Twitter several thousand times over its first weekend. So, hats off to The Salvation Army and those involved in its offline and digital marketing for such a clever move. 

It begs the question. How come brands don't do more of this? We saw quite a few viral jokes around the football world cup last summer, particularly after Suarez bit an opponent, but generally it's brands who are sat down in conference rooms and told to be more 24/7 yet it's charities which make the most of the opportunity. What does this tell us? Brands seem able to pick up on events at major sporting occasions and react in social but it's charities who appear to be more tuned in to consumer-led virals which come out of nowhere and take off. 

I would suggest that the take-out is brands feel they are able to latch on to public events without being seen as jumping on a bandwagon created by an individual. Conversely, the public don't mind a copy cat campaign if it's in a good cause. I'd also suggest that even though they talk about real-time marketing, few brands are set up to achieve it. When the world is leaning forward to watch a spectacle, so too are the brands. At other times, they are off guard and don't see an opportunity when it arises. 

I also wonder if it tells us something about social. When a brand can walk away from social with an engagement rate of 1% and say it did ok, surely that tells us the vast majority of people on social don't want to be sold to or made aware of a brand, they want to share experiences and banter with their social circle. 

This can surely be challenged, though, can't it? If brands use a little more ingenuity. A beer brand could've had a field day with a joke about white and gold (the head of the beer, the body of the beer), a bookie could've laid out joke odds for which colour it was. Specsavers could've jumped in, surely? It's not for me to tell them what to do but when my daughter showed me the original picture last week, I knew it would be massive and was expecting some jovial prank pictures from brands. Instead, its a charity once again which has taken the bold move to ride the phenomenon and add another slide to presentations on social media that go beyond the #IceBucketChallenge and #nomakeupselfie. 

The take-outs then are as we expected. Social is about personal connections and brands are very much the outside visitor in our conversations with one another. It means charities are better placed to act in real-time but it also shows a massive opportunity for brands to break through from the background and get us actively sharing their content. It seems odd that this is the game brands are generally playing yet leave it to the charities to show them the way.

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