Social media: the new benefit concert

Save the Children's celebrity campaign to raise funds for east Africa is using sites such as facebook and Twitter.

Little did we know it at the time, but when Sir Elton John closed the miraculously cheesy Concert for Diana at London's Wembley Stadium in 2007 with Are You Ready for Love, it was the end of an era.

The days of huge benefit concerts, which began in 1985 with Live Aid and continued in 2005 when Live 8 attempted to Make Poverty History, were over. Perhaps the sight of the comedian Ricky Gervais desperately filling his slot with the excruciating David Brent dance from television series The Office was to blame. It may have been Tom Jones's frankly horrific cover of Arctic Monkeys' I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. But one thing's for sure: when charities need some major fundraising these days, they no longer book massive stadiums and call Elton John's people. It's just not cool anymore.

What is cool, of course, is going viral online. So it's fascinating that Save the Children's new campaign to save lives in east Africa isn't an advert in a newspaper or a heartbreaking television commercial. Eminem, Lady Gaga, Coldplay and Kanye West may have signed up to help, but they won't be taking to the stage to do so. Instead, Save the Children has made this a very 2011 fund-raiser, driven by social media.

So, for example, Justin Bieber has posted details of how to download High Tide or Low Tide - the Bob Marley song Save the Children has chosen to highlight the plight of those suffering amid appalling famine conditions - on his website. Simply by agreeing to do this, and tweet the story, Bieber has potentially mobilised his 46 million fans to help.

The other pleasing by-product of downloading the song is the video that comes with it. Put together by the Oscar-winning director Kevin McDonald (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland and, most recently, Life in a Day) it's a suitably harrowing yet necessary collection of images from the areas struck by famine. Interestingly, though, Save the Children isn't measuring its campaign, called I'm Gonna Be Your Friend (a lyric in High Tide or Low Tide) by how well the song or the video does in the charts. Instead, as the senior news editor at Save the Children, Steve Sidebottom, explains, it's all about the online reach.

"On the first two days of the campaign [August 9 and 10], we reached more than 125 million Twitter streams," he says. "This created a big buzz and flow of donations. So, using social media adds to our ability to reach wider audiences and build awareness of who we are and of the work we do."

It also helped that more than 150 stars joined in on social media at the same time to promote the appeal. Sidebottom calls this groundbreaking, and while the haunting video matched with emotional music is just the kind of tactic used to raise money on charity telethons such as Children in Need in the UK, it is rare that a campaign such as I'm Gonna Be Your Friend gains support from such a wide constituency.

When Save the Children launched the appeal, it estimated the combined reach - taking into account the amount of Facebook and Twitter followers of each star who signed up - to be a staggering 891 million people. It makes Concert for Diana's 15 million television viewers seem a bit lame, although Sidebottom isn't sounding the death knell for such events just yet.

"We don't believe that online campaigns will replace live televised events such as Live Aid," he argues. "What online campaigning can offer is an amazing way of reaching a very large number of people very quickly. That's important when you consider the urgency of the situation in east Africa. Huge live TV events are still an incredibly powerful way of motivating people, especially those who do not use social media regularly."

But it is telling that there has been no major televised benefit concert since A Billion Hands, which took place in Mumbai in 2008 and featured Anoushka Shankar and Jethro Tull helping to raise money for those affected by the attacks in the same city. Perhaps the cost is too prohibitive. Perhaps, after all the criticism Bob Geldof received for Live 8 (which attempted to raise pressure on political leaders rather than money), it's too much hassle. Putting a video up online and getting stars to link to it seems a whole lot easier.

"But then, you can never know what's going to go viral," says Sidebottom. "You aim for it, of course, by using key ingredients for success, such as novelty, celebrity, humour - when appropriate - and music. We have been lucky that our Bob Marley east Africa appeal caught on."

Still, at least some things don't change. One of the 150 stars is, yes, you guessed it, Sir Elton John.

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Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM


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