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Why The "Digital Death" Campaign Failed Despite Celebrity Support

IMB_DigitalDeath4 Last week on December 1st to support World AIDS Day, a small group of celebrities with millions of fans led by Alicia Keyes decided to sacrifice their digital lives to try and save real ones. The campaign, cleverly called "Digital Death" was supported by posters, online ads and a well branded microsite. The premise was simple: a group of celebrities forego using Twitter or Facebook until $1,000,000 in donations are raised for their cause. Anyone involved with the idea might have guessed that this would last for a day or two before the target was met. It has been five days and the donations still haven't even hit $300,000.


This idea isn't bad. The celebrity support is top notch. And the branding is really strong. So why did a campaign like this which has all the individual pieces it should need for success fall flat? Here are a few reasons:

  1. IMB_DigitalDeath3 Inherently egotistical idea. The premise of this entire campaign was built on what is a fairly egotistical idea: that fans care so much about the tweets of their favourite celebrities that they would be willing to donate money to a cause in order to get them back. For core fans – this premise likely holds true … but there are likely many fans of the celebrities who just don't care THAT much.
  2. Asking for too much. When I first saw this campaign last week, they had a minimum donation of $10. Immediately that struck me as a huge strategic mistake. Currently it has been reduced to $1, but this choice likely cost them many supporters who might have given a buck or two at the beginning of the campaign when the buzz was highest, but would never give $10. Even the American Red Cross raising money after the Haiti earthquake had a minimum of $5. The initial minimum of $10 was a big hurdle, and even though they corrected it – it likely was too late.
  3. Unclear connection to cause. The campaign was understandable for what the celebrities were doing, but the connection between stopping the use (or overuse) of social media and helping keep kids fighting AIDS alive was a very thin one. The best campaigns are ones where the themes work together, and in this case they didn't.
  4. Going against cultural trends. There is a big cultural trend today towards feeling overloaded. People are bombarded with marketing messages, tweets, updates, followers and friends. Most of us just want a bit more simplicity, so when a group of relatively prolific celebrity Twitter users decide to "go dark" – more than a few fans likely breathed a sigh of relief. For those folks, paying to bring back the noise would be like writing a check to someone to punch you in the nose. The money might go to a great cause, but I still like my nose too much for that.

How could this campaign have worked and still made a big impact? One core thing I would have changed is to use the power of all these celebrities Twitter accounts for something more than silence. What if they all chose to spend 24 or 48 hours ONLY tweeting about Keep A Child Alive? Or how about donating some of their own money for everyone who asks them to stop their digital death? 

This campaign had a chance to be something great – but now the only thing left for us to see is how the celebrities participating will come "back to life" online and quietly leave this behind them.

Update 12/6/10 4:06pmUsher breaks his "digital death" pledge prematurely.

Update #2 12/6/10 9:02pm – Looks like the campaign miraculously went viral and raised over $700k in less than 24 hours so they are now at over $1 million raised. Either that or some of the celebs put up some cash to get their own digital lives back.

21 thoughts on “Why The "Digital Death" Campaign Failed Despite Celebrity Support”

  1. What the celebrities and bloggers with the huge number of foolowers fail to realize is that the numbers don’t always equal to peoplw who have the money to buy your products or donate to your cause. We are tired of the celebrity overload because every where you turn, there’s the latest out of popularity stairing back at you. What turned me off from the whole campaign was the excessive glamour, especially the one with Kim Kardashian posing in a coffin, now that was a bit much. I donate to several causes and will donate to it not because of some celebrity but for the children who need it. When is the media going to realize that when one is fed to much of the same things that we eventually get tired of it and I’m tired of the celebrity overload. BTW, great article.

  2. This screams elitism. It’s like they’re saying: “I’m so important, look at me, I am dead. You are supposed to love me so much that you will give $10 to see me tweeting again.”

    Who cares?

    If they want to raise money for aids, why not just donate money themselves, and encourage their followers to donate. Do a short YouTube video that is “Sponsored” by whatever charity they like and ask the viewers to donate to that charity.

  3. I’ve seen this tactic used in other campaigns as well, and what makes me skeptical of the effectiveness of going offline in support of a cause is that in social media, out of sight is out of mind. People may not notice the absence of one person’s tweets in the daily stream. As you said, unless someone is a rabid fan that hangs on every tweet from that person, no tweets = zero visibility for the cause. But tweeting ongoing endorsements and promotion of the cause can be extremely powerful.

  4. My first thought when I heard that these celebs were going to go “dark” on social media was “Good! Less of the Kardashians! Hope this one goes on for a very long time!” I was utterly unmotivated to participate in this, no matter what the cause, because yes, the basic premise was extremely egotistical and off-putting. (I also do not follow celebs.) Another problem was its passivity–what the celebs were NOT doing. How many people really cared that these celebs would not be tweeting for a few days? For most people, there’s more than enough of greater substance to fill the void.

  5. The Vow of Silence is a similar concept, but in this case asks people to pledge to remain silent for 24 hours – no talking, texting, tweeting – nothing.

    It doesn’t fall victim to the dour points you’ve outlined, and I hope it grows in the years to come.

  6. When I wrote my post about digital death ringing ‘hollow’ even for Hollywood due to the self-importance/PR blitz and unintentionally crass tonality ( I thought I was the Lone Ranger, (don’t get me started on this wkend’s FB cartoon/cause blurriness)

    Still, I held hope that it would ‘go viral’ to raise awareness and big bucks with other hotshot A-listers eager to pitch in w/matching funds.

    I think you’ve tapped into multiple reasons ($5 vs $10 & other pragmatics as Nedra stated) that have yielded some good tips for nonprofits like me. When I finally get to the ‘ask’ phase, I’ll definitely keep this one in mind. Appreciate it.

  7. Great post! I wrote about the Digital Death campaign on my Pop Health blog last week (, but at that time I didn’t have any information about the outcome of the campaign…so I appreciate you sharing that even after 5 days they have only raised $300,000. I didn’t know that there was a $10 minimum to donate, I think that is a huge barrier. Another place I agree, that I highlighted in my blog, is regarding the disconnect between the campaign and the cause. It was not clear from the poster what public health issue is being addressed or what the call to action is for the audience. Thanks for posting!

  8. @Von – Good point that this is not just about overload of content but for many it may be another sign of overload on celebrities as well.

    @Nedra – Thanks for pointing out the important missed opportunity here of having the celebs use their high profiles and followers to spread awareness instead of going silent and “out of mind” as you put it.

    @Susan – You’re right, the passivity was a big problem with this.

    @ALex – Thanks for sharing the vow of silence – that is indeed a different idea and I hope it does continue to work.

    @Amy – Thanks for commenting and good to hear that some of these mistakes will help to steer you in a different direction when you get to this point with your efforts.

    @Leah – Thanks for sharing your post.

    @Nancy – Thanks for keeping us all up to date on this, I added an update to the post to this effect. It’s fairly obvious that the celebs chipped in themselves, but the end game is some money goes to a worthy cause so its hard to criticize that – even if the execution could have been better.

  9. Though I think this piece brings up some valid points, especially about celebrity, sponsorships, and blind allegiance of fans, I don’t think raising $1mil in less than a week is considered a failure.

    What I do think can be learned from this is the conversation continues, and you will have a much louder, more effective voice if you choose to be part of that conversation.

    Christina Gace

  10. I was completely unaware of this effort but that is most likely due to the fact that I do not follow any of the celebrities participating. I agree with you Rohit and a number of the commenters here that using their following to generate awareness and ask for donations would have been a better way to go. Seems that people may be holding back their donations for longer periods of time just to keep the mouths shut on these celebrities Twitter accounts. And participation from individuals like Kim Kardashian are shameless since just about everything she is involved in seems to be a publicity stunt. There doesn’t seem to be anything genuine about her or her efforts.

    I am glad to see they have reached and exceeded the $1M goal, but seems that this campaign was not as successful as they would have thought. Also should make these celebs wonder if anyone is really listening to them or if they are just providing comic relief when we need a break from reality?

  11. These celebs with all their millions should be more involved in campaigns like, “here’s my check for $1 million, I’m going to do (or not do) blankety blank until it’s matched”. Imagine if there were a dozen or two of them doing that in this campaign. They use their celebrity to do a lot of asking without a lot of donating on their own. I think they’d buy a lot of donations if folks saw that they were involved enough to be donating some of their own cash.

  12. I think you’re completely right. The whole premise around social media is about being shareable, which this campaign completely lost by taking the celebrities offline. And while being extremely egotistical, if executed better, this could have been a stand out campaign.

    If it were me, I would have done the following:
    1. Take the celebrities offline for any personal tweets only and allow them to tweet to their heart’s content about anything related to the cause. This gives their fans something to retweet or forward to their friends.
    2. Made use of the platform’s existing features. Set up the campaign to allow Facebook credits as donations so that the donors don’t have to leave the site to give to the cause.
    3. Get the celebrities building momentum online before the event so their presences would be noticed. The day before, the only mentions to the campaign I saw from the celebrities was their replies to people asking why they were still online, with the usual reply being little more than “it doesn’t start until tomorrow”. No CTA, no countdown, no excitement.

    I wrote a blog post for my agency the day before it went live covering the campaign and outlined a few of my thoughts of how it could be improved. It’s a shame, there was so much potential.

  13. I would have to agree about your topic “Asking for too much.” because for people to give charity for $10 could be to much though me personally I’m always looking to give to charity but $1 to low. Though at the end of the day as long as you give something is good I think.


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