Captain Tom Moore’s 100th birthday walk for the NHS has been an inspiring good news story at a bleak time. But how has he managed to cut through the noise, connect with so many people, and inspire them to donate, when so many charity campaigns struggle to make even small sums?

Although his achievement is notable mostly because it seems so unlikely, it does capture principles of marketing – and business more generally – that many charitable and business campaigns can learn from.

The big tip

Malcolm Gladwell’s popular science book The Tipping Point has inspired fierce devotion and many critics since it was published in 2000. In it, he argued that “ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread like viruses do”, which is something we all know a lot more about today than we ever did then. He focused on the role of the people he called ‘connectors’, who have many contacts, and quickly spread messages to new audiences. We might think of them now, perhaps, as ‘super-spreaders’.

He came up with the surprising result that their role helps link anyone to anyone else on the planet in six hops, concluding that, if those connectors were motivated to deliver your message, you could have a powerful impact.

But information theory casts doubt on the importance of connectors: the six-hop rule functions whether you go through connectors or not. You may have been surprised by how many people you can find in even just two hops from your LinkedIn contacts, and considered how impactful posting to your contacts could be as a result.

What no one disagrees with (though too few social media users seem to have internalised) is that the power of messaging matters. Gladwell argues that ‘stickiness’, meaning that we recall the message easily, and context – the relevance to our time and place – are both incredibly important. Captain Tom may have been massively boosted by the connectors of news channels and social media platforms, but it’s what he did, and why he was doing it, that pushed him past the tipping point.

Awesomeness inspires

According to analysis by content tool BuzzSumo, of the 10,000 most-shared articles online, 17% evoked laughter and 15% amusement. It’s no surprise, therefore, that viral campaigns often attempt to make us laugh; see, for example, Old Spice’s hugely successful ‘The man your man could smell like’ campaign from 2010.

But Captain Tom isn’t trying to make us laugh. And in fact, laughter and amusement rank second and third in the list of what inspires content to go viral. The most powerful driver, characterising 25% of the most-shared articles, was “awe”. Genuine awe is in much shorter supply than jokes (and, unlike jokes, can’t be manufactured or bought in). But when you find it, it’s extremely powerful because it pushes people to change their view of the world, not just spend money. Although, as Dove’s Real Beauty ‘sketches’ viral campaign showed in 2013, and Captain Tom has shown us now, they can often go hand-in-hand.

Keep moving

At more than £30m on his 100th birthday, Captain Tom is by far the largest ever fundraiser on the JustGiving platform. But along the way he has also become the first person to have a number one record on his 100th birthday. This is a record that’s unlikely to be broken soon (though you can never count out the Rolling Stones).

Captain Tom may have been massively boosted by the connectors of news channels and social media platforms, but it’s what he did, and why he was doing it, that pushed him past the tipping point

But charity fundraisers, like businesses, should not assume that because something worked once, it will carry on working. Diversification strategy is almost as old as Captain Tom, and wearing just as well. First expounded by Igor Ansoff in his article ‘Strategies for Diversification’ in the Harvard Business Review in 1957, it introduces the Ansoff matrix. Ansoff argued that some companies develop their markets and find new customers, while others develop their products. Diversification requires you to do both.

And so, back to that number one record, a model of diversification. Some people may not like giving to charity, but may be happy to purchase a song. Some may not relate to a man walking around his garden, but be moved by the power of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, or the emotive tones of Michael Ball, who has been in training for this moment all his life. A new product, and a new market. They’ll be teaching this one in business school for decades.

Lean fundraising

In response to any need for fundraising, many innovators spend a long time creating a complex context or event, recruiting partners, investing in facilities, and developing branding. This can work spectacularly – the London Marathon, for example, has over the years raised £1bn for charity – but it can also mean that, by the time any funds are raised, many weeks have passed, and there are debts to pay.

Captain Tom’s approach is similar to the principle of the lean start-up, as popularised by the author Eric Ries. He recommends a process that focuses on getting a product to market quickly, around which others build services, and from which the entrepreneur can learn. Don’t think, ‘Can we do it this way?’, but instead think, ‘Should we?’. Getting moving quickly means that others have a successful, small-scale event that they can join in with.

Holding out for a hero

During times of disruption, we take comfort by making sense of the confusing reality. We do this by imposing a narrative on events. But coronavirus by itself doesn’t offer an easy explanation: it confounds our ideas of fairness, for example. And so we seek a hero.

In 1949, mythologist Joseph Campbell captured this in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Setting out the idea of the archetypal hero that is common to the most powerful stories, the book has influenced screenwriters, world leaders and entrepreneurs alike. The archetypal hero lives in his or her ordinary world, is called to adventure, finds challenges and inspires helpers, survives an ordeal, and returns with the great prize. Whether our hero is Indiana Jones, Steve Jobs or Captain Tom, a heroic narrative inspires those around us (think volunteers, employees or business partners) and the audience (donors or customers).

If, in these testing times, your business is approaching heroic heights, don’t be modest about sharing that narrative.

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