The end of the MDA Telethon—and what it teaches marketers

MDA wants to trade in its TV and big media presence for digital, creativity and things going viral. Join the club.

MDA wants to trade in its TV and big media presence for digital, creativity and things going viral. Join the club.

When I was a kid, once the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s (MDA) Labor Day telethon aired on our bulky living room Zenith, I knew summer was pretty much bye-bye. It was back to school for me and my mopey classmates.

The telethon, though, had been a long-established staple by the time my grammar school woes came to be. It began airing regularly in 1966, hosted by comic Jerry Lewis, with a broadcast of just over 16 hours. In the coming years, the telethon bulked up to a Herculean 21 hours, with every topline tuxedo-clad entertainer of the day stopping by.

In recent years, though, there were big changes to this fundraising relic. Jerry Lewis’ final hosting stint was in 2010, and after that, MDA cut the telethon’s length dramatically. Last year, it was just two hours. It also changed its name to the “MDA Show of Strength Telethon.”

And last week, another monumental announcement—MDA is ending its telethon.

MDA President and CEO Steven Derks said that the decision was a tough one, but… “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission.”

The Ice Bucket Challenge, as we all remember, raised money for the ALS Association to battle Lou Gehrig’s disease. People would video themselves pouring a bucket of ice water over their heads, but first challenging a friend, family member or colleague to do the same—or donate.

No one could have anticipated the response it got. From celebrities and CEOS to average Joes, the Ice Bucket Challenge was everywhere. And the ALS Association pulled in over $100 million in about a month, with virtually no out-of-pocket costs.

Compare that to MDA’s telethon—considered a decades-long behemoth of fundraising—raking in just under $57 million that Labor Day weekend. MDA got nowhere near the attention or the cash. So, it’s changing its game.

MDA will now invest in digital and mobile, share stories and be more “creative” in its fundraising efforts.

As marketers, this little fundraising soap opera tells us a lot. And it reaffirms what’s happening under our noses, too. Namely…

  • Adapt or die. The thought of anything being 21 hours today is nuts. Twenty-one seconds, maybe. Even though Millennials love to tune into events online and on mobile, nothing is more than a few hours, and everyone is doing multiple things while it’s on. Media, and attention, are forever fragmenting into tinier bits. And television doesn’t have nearly the monopoly of influence it once did. Hats off to MDA for seeing how their audience is changing and trying to adapt to it. Marketers must be 100% audience mindful, too.
  • You have to involve people. MDA’s telethon was a show. You watched it. You gave money. The Ice Bucket Challenge, on the other hand, got people to actively watch, share, participate, and get other folks into it. The lesson? Create stuff people will share.
  • Creativity rules. It’s hard to imagine a fundraiser for any sort of medical condition that doesn’t use the “pull the heart strings” approach. Ice Bucket was totally different. No sad stories, guilt, or feelings of hope for a cure. Just the equivalent of liquid nitrogen being poured over someone’s noggin, over and over. The charity was no longer front and center—it was more of a consequence if you didn’t participate. It felt like an afterthought, and it kind of was (more on that in a minute).
  • Campaigns are becoming more and more nebulous. MDA says that it will still have a presence on Labor Day, but will work to share its stories throughout the year. It wants to connect with donors more frequently, attract sponsors in “new ways,” and revitalize its brand. Marketing, too, is about continual engagement, keeping things fresh, and being more fluid and reactive to your audience.

I wonder how this whole thing will turn out for MDA. Yeah, it’s time to turn off the telethon. But, was the Ice Bucket Challenge a one-time marvel, or the type of fundraising creativity we’re going to see a lot more of?

Most people don’t know that the ALS Association did not create the Ice Bucket Challenge. The frozen feats had been done before, mostly by golfers, to raise money for various charities. In mid-summer 2014, a golfer named Chris Kennedy had icy water poured over him, and challenged his cousin, Jeanette Senerchia, to do the same. Jeanette’s husband had ALS, and that’s where the connection came in. She recorded it, posted it, and everything exploded from there.

It was all a great, big, happy, $100 million spontaneous phenomenon. Can you replicate that? Perhaps. But marketers have been trying to figure out how to make things go viral for years now. Maybe our fundraising friends will figure it out.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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