Is Rush Limbaugh Helping The Sierra Club? A Marketing Case Study

Last Monday, Rush Limbaugh was discussing the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and asked his listeners "When do we ask the Sierra Club to pick up the tab for this leak?", blaming what he called "the greeniacs" for driving oil drilling offshore. I wasn't there, but I'm betting that when they got wind of what Mr. Limbaugh said, there were some pretty happy marketing communications strategists at The Sierra Club.

Agree with his positions or not, no-one would argue that when Mr. Limbaugh speaks on a topic he draws lots of attention to it. The Sierra Club's marketing communications team has attempted to turn what could have been a piece of negative publicity strategically to their advantage and used it to raise awareness of the organization's efforts to promote clean energy solutions and put an end to offshore drilling. The fundraising campaign they've created is slightly wicked: give $10 to the Sierra Club in Mr. Limbaugh's name and get the opportunity to send him the finger, um, a personal message, with the donation. And the hook? Help Rush become the Sierra Club's top fundraiser. Nicely played.

Or is it?

Here's what the Sierra Club marketing communications did to bring the strategy to life:

1. Cut through the inbox clutter.
The subject line: "Why Rush Limbaugh Deserves a Free Backpack" is a great way to get a Sierra Club constituent to open an e-mail. This was permission-based e-mail marketing so recipients had already given a vote of confidence that this e-mail content was valuable to them. On top of that, it's fair to assume that Sierra Club supporters disagree with Mr. Limbaugh's position and perhaps even that they don't like him very much. What could he have possibly done? they ask. By lampooning Mr. Limbaugh with this subject line the copywriter entices them to open the e-mail.

2.  Engage with good copywriting and a strong call to action.
Once they open the e-mail they then learn that Rush has been so good at helping to raise money for the Sierra Club that he deserves a free backpack. This engaging copy ties in beautifully to the call to action. (I wonder if they'll stuff the backpack with all the messages from donors?) The ask is a realizable target - for anyone who feels so inclined, ten bucks, or the price of a movie ticket to stick it to Rush Limbaugh is easily manageable.

4. Socialize it.
Each little blurb in the newsletter allows for socialization and integration of the message through other outposts such as Facebook and Twitter. The convergence of e-mail marketing with social media marketing is opening up exciting new opportunities. Social media complements other tactics such as e-mail and The Sierra Club team is empowering its constituents to reach out to their tribes to connect the Sierra Club with new fans and followers. It's a smart way to use e-mail marketing to complement other tactics and turn those casual connections into meaningful customer relationships.

5. Make it easy to give money.
When you click through from the newsletter, you arrive at this landing page:

It's clean and well laid out and the embedded video of Mr. Limbaugh is the perfect touch.

6. Make the ask everywhere.
The home page of the Sierra Club. Enough said.

7. Make the ask more than once.
Then, two days later, a follow-up e-mail from the Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune.

Remember, The Sierra Club isn't trying to convince people who agree with Rush Limbaugh that he's wrong. They're talking to the people who've already bought in that he's wrong. On paper, it's a fundamentally sound strategy and the marketing tools are being used effectively and judiciously to implement that strategy. So what could possibly go awry? Here's a few things I noticed:

1. Consistent and clear messaging is key.
I saw a big disconnect between the copywriting on the Sierra Club Facebook page and everywhere else. The info blurb, (it's on the left hand side of the page) usually gives some information about an organization. Instead it says: "On May 17, Rush Limbaugh asked his listeners "When do we ask the Sierra Club to pick up the tab for this leak?" That seems appropriate, so help us raise the money to foot the bill."

This makes it sound like the Sierra Club not only agrees with Rush Limbaugh but is trying to raise money to pay to clean up the oil spill. If you click through from this, the copy clearly states: "You and Rush will have the satisfaction of knowing your contribution will support Sierra Club's efforts to promote clean energy solutions and put an end to offshore drilling." Unfortunately, the copy as it's written will prevent some people from clicking on that link as they are put-off right away by the idea of paying for the spill.

Similarly, on the wall post about this topic it says: "Rush Limbaugh wants the Sierra Club to pay for BP's negligence, help us raise the money!" and "Donate $10 today and we'll send a card to Rush Limbaugh telling him that your donation was made in his honor!" Again, this sends the message that the Sierra Club is raising money to pay for the oil spill and that all donations will somehow be credited to Mr. Limbaugh.


2. Using reverse psychology is risky - it can backfire.
Some people dislike Mr. Limbaugh so much they wont give money to anything that has his name attached to it, even if it is to advance a cause they believe in. There has been much debate in liberal circles about whether democrats are giving Mr. Limbaugh more power by talking about him and should just ignore him instead. 

3. Social Media is about listening.
There were more than 110 comments on the above wall post and by my quick count, more of them were negative or neutral in regards to this campaign than supportive. It wasn't a terribly large sampling size, although some would argue that any post that incites more than 100 people to write something is worth paying attention to.

As marketers we must never forget that negative perceptions can be stickier than positive perceptions. Remember the old adage, when people love something, they tell 1 person, when they hate something, they tell 10? Hate something on Facebook and the whole world is listening.

Noticeably absent is a response, new comment or wall post from someone at the Sierra Club. Is it because more than 150 people have clicked on the "like" button already? It's important to think of Facebook as a strategic listening outpost and as such it's a garden that needs daily tending. From a customer service perspective, it would be helpful to respond to the naysayers and to provide clarification for those who, gasp! don't get, what the Sierra Club's intentions are.

Facebook is also wonderful in that it's a place where you can run tests to see what works and doesn't work. Given the subject matter, his post would have been a perfect opportunity for the Sierra Club team to set up A/B experiments to test the efficacy of various post content (photo of Mr. Limbaugh versus no photo of Mr. Limbaugh, for example) and with a combination of quantitative metrics culled from Facebook's metrics tool Insights, and what people are saying on the page, to glean some deep insights.

As a result of all of this effort (and my hat goes off to the team for being so nimble and proactive in the last week or so) the Sierra Club has reported a spike in website visitations and giving to the tune of more than $50,000 already. How much of this is marketing spin or a direct result of the Rush Limbaugh campaign is anyone's guess. I'll be tracking their efforts with interest and will try to obtain some Sierra Club statistics on giving and visitations to their website and various social media outposts in the coming weeks.

In any event, many non-profit organizations would do well to take a page from the Sierra Club's playbook and be half as coordinated in the execution of their marketing communications strategies.

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