Interview with Adam Penenberg

I recently finished reading Adam Penenberg’s book Viral Loop. The book focuses on technology-based businesses from the last 10 years who have grown virally. I found the book extremely thought-provoking, bringing to light observations I’d seen for a long time but never verbalized. It was a really good read. The author has offered to answer a few questions regarding a nonprofit application of his book.

You talk about finding a funding model that you can tie to a sustainable viral loop, can nonprofit do something similar using donations or fundraising?

Absolutely. Viral marketing relies on people passing on information they deem worthy–whether it’s a link to a funny video on YouTube, a political message, petitions, etc. If a nonprofit has a passionate core group of donors then the key would be to incentivize these donors to reach out to their social networks of friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. It would work well with a specific campaign. Ideally, the non-profit could create a Facebook application that could incentivize donations. Let’s say your organization is called Save the Cats (STC). I’d set it up like this: Create a Save the Cats branded app fueled by virtual currency. Just by downloading the you receive $100 in STC dollars. They can be spent at any number of retailers that donate inventory the retailer would like to sell anyway. You then get $30 off a shirt from the Gap, $20 off a rental car, $40 off a pair of rollerblades, etc. As your cash reserves dwindle you can earn more virtual currency–it doesn’t cost STC anything–by getting 5 friends to download the app and donating a certain amount of money. It should be small increments, say, $10 each. And so on and so on. Once you have a large enough installed base you can try al sorts of things. At the very least you gain thousands or even hundreds of thousands of new names to add to your donor lists. You raise money for your non-profit. And you spread your message. It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved.

Do you know of any nonprofits that you feel are using viral techniques you describe in your book well?

Causes on Facebook has something like a quarter-million fans. And it’s viral. I don’t know of many charities that have adopted viral models, other than the odd video or webpage the originators hope would go viral (for example: RSPCA viral charity communications). Barack Obama’s presidential campaign online was helmed by a founder of Facebook and it was viral–and very effective. I think political campaigns and any non-profit with a strong message could deploy viral marketing methods to multiply the impact of their fundraising at very low cost.

Do you have any recommendations about nonprofits that are thinking about engaging in social media and participating in online community?

Go where people are: Facebook, with its 500M users, and LinkedIn. Offer value. Give people a reason to donate to your cause beyond the usual appealing to their better nature. People are constantly bombarded with requests for money. You need to make your users feel engaged so much so that not only will they donate, they will spread your message for you–even without being asked.

Should nonprofits stay current with new and developing technology and online trends?

Obviously. Direct mail is very expensive and it annoys people. Calling people at home is even worse. It’s much more cost-effective to create a social media strategy that induces people to raise money for you through their social network of friends, family, colleagues and neighbors.

Could there be synergy for start-up viral businesses to work with nonprofit communities in a similar way to how Facebook approached universities?

As long as the business and non-profit share similar goals. Obviously KFC sponsoring breast cancer awareness is not an ideal partnership. But I like the idea of retailers working together with charities. And one of my favorites is Blanket America ( You buy something, and Blanket America will give a similar article to a person in need. In other words, Buy 1 blanket, you automatically donate 1 blanket. It’s charitable capitalism, in which the mechanism of giving is taken up by the retailer, not the buyer. In fact, the buyer just by doing what he normally does–buy a pillow, blanket, or something else–he is donating to someone in need. It’s a pretty interesting trend and offers all sorts of viral possibilities. The key is bridging the gap between businesses and charities. Once done, it’s very powerful.


One Response to Interview with Adam Penenberg

  1. Joe Garecht says:

    Great points, Adam. Too many non-profits think a viral or social media strategy is simply throwing up a facebook page or establishing a twitter account with automatic staus updates from thier blog posts, but never engage in the real work of marketing that social media presence.

    If you build a website, you have to market it (that includes viral marketing). If you build a social media presence, you have to market it, too…

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