Batkid: The coolest viral marketing campaign you’ve ever seen

If you haven’t heard about Batkid this week, you’ve been living under rock. Just in case you somehow missed it let me summarize for you…

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Miles, age 5, is in remission after battling leukemia, and told the Make-A-Wish Foundation that his wish was to be “Batkid” and they mobilized the city of San Francisco to make it happen.  And well, that’s awesome. I mean, way to go, kid, you couldn’t have thought of anything cooler to wish for.  Ever.  And the rest of the world clearly thinks so too.

Miles’ wish got picked up on a blog and spread like wildfire. Not surprisingly, a lot of San Franciscans were eager to help make his dream a reality. On Friday, November 15th over 11,000 people volunteered to turn San Francisco into Gotham City and cheer Batkid on as he sped around in the Batmobile, responding to countless threats and saving the city. Then they made sure to tweet and post every second of it out to the world, ensuring that Batkid is now every bit as famous as his favorite superhero.  If you want a more detailed outline of Batkid’s day, BuzzFeed has done a nice job of compiling the best of the extensive social media coverage in one place.

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There is nothing not to love about this story – a cute kid, defeating cancer, Batman, and a whole city rallying behind the cause – you might be heartless if it didn’t touch you at least a little bit. Seriously, after reading about super typhoons and towns leveled to the ground, everyone in the world needed this story this week. And thanks to social media everyone got to hear it regardless of whether or not they live in the Bay Area.

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It’s not surprising it went viral, but it went so, so, so, so viral. On Friday #batkid was #1 on Twitter. He was also the star of my facebook news feed. Videos on Vine, Vimeo, and every major news channel abounded.  He got shout outs from Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Brittany Spears, not to mention a quick Vine video cheering him on from the President himself. Safe to say the celebrity endorsements took Miles’ fame and this story to a new level, but it also put Make-A-Wish Foundation on a whole new playing field.

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I don’t mean to take away any of the pure, wholesome, joy that is Miles’ story. It’s an amazing story. But it is also the most incredibly brilliant PR stunt I’ve seen in a long time. Make-A-Wish Foundation’s site got so much traffic on Friday that it had technical difficulties:

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The foundation took something it does every day – making sick kids’ dreams come true – and turned it into a global fundraising strategy. And because they accomplished the campaign through social media, mobilizing the general public and celebrities to cheer on Batkid, it comes across as entirely organic.  After hearing Miles’ story, it’s hard not to want to donate to or volunteer for this organization, but I strongly doubt that anyone has thought their reaction was actually in response to a marketing campaign. In fact, when I tried to Google: “Make-A-Wish marketing strategy” I got next to nothing. There was one blog post from 2011 and that said Make-A-Wish was going to shift from traditional to social in their marketing efforts. Mission accomplished.

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The marketer in me wonders how long they planned to do something like this. Who vetted the wishes to find the perfect poster child? What criteria did they use to identify him or her – a cute kid, with a wish that would excite and require the help of the community? Was it even more than that?  A story about a child who has made it to remission is an easier and happier one to digest.  It’s a story of hope rather than of fear, and that may be the tipping point for it going viral. Did they enlarge the typical wish budget to make sure this story was news worthy? The Make-A-Wish sponsored video  does a fantastic job of telling Miles’ story but it doesn’t discuss how much thought the foundation gave to making this a social media phenomenon.

As a nonprofit, Make-A-Wish Foundation, survives on donations, so you might say that exceptional PR is their greatest product and generator of revenue. As such, it’s essential that their marketing and communications team figure out the exact formula for making something go viral. Miles wish was precisely that. And regardless of whether he and his wish were handpicked to be the new cover story for the foundation or it happened organically, his story has helped to ensure that countless other sick kids also have the opportunity to have their wishes come true.

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When I was ten, my friend Stephen was diagnosed with cancer.  Make-A-Wish Foundation granted his wish to go to see a game in Yankee Stadium and meet the players. A decade and a half later I still remember how utterly thrilled Stephen was by this event, and I’m still obsessed with this charity – and even have a soft spot in my heart for the Yankees (yes, I know, Bostonian sacrilege).  The point is though, that there is staying power in compelling stories that connect a potential donor to a charity’s mission and brand. I wonder if Batkid will have that staying power and whether or not we’ll see Make-A-Wish use social media to promote more stories like his in the future.

15 comments

  1. Great Post! Like everyone, this story blew up my every media outlet I saw this weekend. Batkid’s wish is almost as touching as how a city seemed to come together to make this boy’s wish come true, and without social media I’m not sure how possible it would have been. I think you bring up a great point about the marketing/PR aspect of the story. I had not even thought of it from that aspect, but once you said it, it became so clear how fantastic of a marketing/PR event it was. Whether it was a conscious effort by make a wish or not, the beauty of it is that it raised awareness for make a wish by promoting a child’s wish. Definitely one of the coolest wishes i have seen granted!

  2. Great post Caroline! I tried to be strong while following this story…but the pictures of Robin really got me haha. Firstly, I think it’s cool that Buzzfeed was able to capture an entire day’s events and subsequent reactions simply by posting a series of tweets. That style of reporting was more effective than any newspaper article could hope to be. This shows the true power of what 140 characters and a few pictures can accomplish, and why segments of the population are moving away from long Facebook posts to shorter snippets on Twitter and Instagram. Secondly, like Matt, I was so captivated by Miles’ wish that I never considered the marketing implications, which might be why it was so successful. Regardless of how involved Make A Wish was in promoting social media chatter, the wish was certainly effective at generating publicity and the foundation must have seen a huge increase in donations

  3. What a heartwarming story! I saw this article on Buzzfeed too, and I appreciated that they changed up their typical trashy headlines (like the Marathon bombing costume) into something more meaningful. I had volunteered for the Make-A-Wish Foundation for 2 years, assisting the special events director in executing the wishes of the sick child. You would typically see them wishing for a trip to Disney, or to meet their favorite celebrity, but I had never seen such an elaborate wish like this granted. BatKid for a day definitely tops the list! The fact that the viral nature helped to support this child through his battle with leukemia was an excellent way to promote the foundation. I am so pleasantly surprised by MAW’s website traffic, and I would hope that the foundation can sustain this growth of donations!

  4. I loved this! This has popped up all over my social media and news sites so I’m so glad you covered it. I am proud of the Make A Wish Foundation for making something so spectacular successful. However, I don’t think they deserve all the credit. The presence of social media definitely had a huge impact of making this possible. Since this went viral, many showed up to “Gotham City” to make this a day Miles (and the rest of the world) will never forget. The foundation truly made his wish come true by making him into his beloved idol. They also did a favor for themselves by getting their name out there attributing to such a wonderful cause.

  5. Great post Caroline. I had been following this for a few days. The article I read about this event said that this one event was the most elaborate wish they have ever granted. The article also stated that it took Make-A-Wish five months to put together this event. I joined in a simulcast that showed BatKid getting the keys to the city. The major and chief of police as well as other public officials were there to celebrate BatKid’s victory over crime. My niece had leukemia when she was five years old, she’s now thirteen and has remained in remission to this day. Make-A-Wish granted her wish and it was such an important part of her recovery. I was amazed to see how fast and completely this spread throughout the world. It will be interesting to see how this impacts other charities. The fact that this event allowed Make-A-Wish to put a face (and a superhero no less) on their organization and give it that personal connection will no doubt effect the use of social media with other charities. I think the fact that it took place in a connected city like San Francisco worked to their advantage as well. I really enjoy stories about how social media can be leveraged to do the most good. Thanks for the post.

  6. Michael, I think you raise a really good point about San Fran being such a connected and tech savvy city. They’re probably more likely than any other city in the country to tweet and post out this event. I also think that this provided great PR for San Francisco, even if it wasn’t the direct intent — they come off as a loving and engaged city.

  7. MAW volunteer/former PR person here: This was an amazing wish! It must have required tons of planning to execute and reflects the goodwill of San Francisco and its citizens who banded together to help make Miles wish come true. I must point out that it’s been done before, though–see http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2011740342_electronboy30m.html.

    Each chapter of Make-A-Wish grants wishes independently, though the national office sets the parameters for qualification (diagnosis of a life-threatening medical illness; child between the ages of 2.5-18). There is a national PR team but each chapter has a PR staff, which tends to be pretty lean. Each chapter is responsible for its own social media and some dedicate more energy to their efforts than others. The MA and RI chapter operating out of Boston does 300+ wishes per year and relies on appx 20ish staff members and 500+ volunteers to accomplish their mission of enriching kids lives with hope and joy.

    I am not privy to inside info on this particular wish, but in my past experience, there’s no desire or bandwidth to elaborately vet and plan campaigns around newsworthy and potentially viral wishes. Each family is given the option to opt in or out of publicity around their child’s wish. I would be surprised if, as you wondered, the attention on Batkid was orchestrated as opposed to organic. That’s not to say timely and interesting wishes are not pitched to local media–local kids go to see Pats in the Superbowl was a popular story in my time. The foundation’s first priority is making these kids’ wishes the best possible experience, and they really are powerful positive events for families who have been through so much. I’m so happy that Batkid has helped raise visibility for the important work the foundation does!

  8. Leah, thanks so much for sharing your insight. It’s really fascinating and great to hear from someone who has a little inside knowledge into the process. It’s really interesting to me how Erik Martin’s equally compelling story garnered hundreds volunteers and local media attention but Miles’ story went viral with thousands of volunteers and unparalleled press and social media coverage. Our social media class (which is the origin of this blog) has been examining what makes something go viral or not go viral, and what kinds of social media influencers it takes to make it happen. I think the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Miles make a wonderfully inspiring and intriguing case for this question.

  9. Like the other commenters, I too had batkid stories all over my feeds and enjoyed reading all of the heartwarming stories. It is amazing how viral this story and event became in such a short period of time. I feel that it not only demonstrates the power of viral social media but also the organic nature of crowd sourcing. Yes, the foundation reached out to people to become part of the event, but I’m sure they had no intention of the volunteer spectators growing to 11,000 people. This is such a wonderful example of genuine crowd sourcing and positive social media. Thanks for sharing this piece!

  10. Thank you for the post Caroline! I was definitely one of those living under a rock this weekend… but now I know all about batkid AND how Make-A-Wish Foundation is leveraging social media to support its cause. I definitely agree that the publicity Make-A-Wish Foundation gets in promoting their support of kids through social media shouldn’t detract from the intrinsic goodwill that it’s trying to do for society. It’s a win-win situation – the bigger the foundation gets, the more donations it receives and the more wishes it can strive to make true. Economic motivations shouldn’t be mutually exclusive with genuine efforts to help humanity. And when you get 11,000 people from SF putting in more than just money to help one kid’s dream come true… that’s just heartwarming and is a story worth telling the world about.

  11. I am so glad that you post it this Carolin. The story is very near and dear to my heart – I have a baby boy and as a parent I try to make all his wishes come true. I wish I was in San Fran and I was part of making his wish become true. It would have been an amazing experience to see it in person and your post made it real for me. This is a great foundation and social media made it possible for the wish of a little kid to become true. I recently came a cross another way social media helps kids but this time kids with autism
    http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/06212012how-social-media-helps-kids-with-autism/

  12. This was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I actually watched the video through ESPN, which goes to show the far reach of Miles’ display of bravery. My fascination with this viral video however stems from the potential I see for businesses in helping the least among us on a national level. Although I believe the Make-A-Wish foundation had amazing intentions, I could see the popularity of this heroic tale indirectly encouraging other businesses to make similar attempts that are far less genuine. In many ways I could see this opening the floodgates to a slew ads that appear focused on helping the less fortunate when the actual company is reaping the majority of the benefit. The success of this was undeniable and I pray that I am wrong, and that companies won’t mimic the success of this ad for their own gain.

    Thank you for your post.

  13. Great post. It was a truly fun story, and I like your take on it. Probably worth discussing in class.

  14. Awesome post, Caroline! This is such an inspiring story and I am glad that you wrote a blog on Batkid. the fact that they were able to inspire over 11,000 people to show up and San Francisco and cheer on batkid is absolutely amazing. After such a popular event that, as you said, became the most popular hashtag on Twitter, I am sure that other foundations will be taking similar approaches. but charities aside, I think that this event embodies the enormous potential in social media. To be talked about on almost every social media outlet and getting shoutouts from several celebrities is a large accomplishment. I am excited to see what the next viral event comes to be through social media.

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