Nonprofits Are Learning That Whisper’s Anonymity Can Be a Force for Good

Campaign against bullying shows love can trump hate

Last fall, Adobe and the Ad Council wanted to put a new twist on anti-bullying campaigns by targeting teenage witnesses, not victims. So they designed a powerful campaign around the simple image of an eye, an illustration with the words "I Am a Witness," to convey the message that bystanders are as culpable as bullies.

Big-name media partners like Apple and Twitter donated ad space and resources to the cause. So did Whisper, the anonymous messaging app that's increasingly fostering goodwill with cause marketers despite its reputation as an app for teens to spew hateful comments at one another.

In fact, it was the incognito nature of the app that appealed to the marketers because it can be daunting for people to come forward and support an anti-bullying campaign.

"That anonymity that fosters the bullying can also work in our favor for anti-bullying, because it becomes less of a risk to intervene, which is a big fear," said Kate Baynham, a copywriter at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which worked on the "I Am a Witness" campaign.

Between October and April, the Ad Council published seven promoted posts on the app, asking teens to respond to prompts like "When I witness bullying it makes me feel ____" or "What's some advice you'd give to others in the same situation?" The posts collectively generated 3.6 million impressions, more than 16,000 "hearts" (the app's version of likes) and 4,600 comments.

Buoyed by such stats, the Ad Council is launching a new campaign this summer—a second version of last year's massively popular "Love Has No Labels" campaign. It will include a set of digital promos targeting people who post about "love," the most-searched word on Whisper.

Just like their big-brand counterparts, nonprofit marketers are betting on stealthier tactics like messaging apps to grab the attention of advertising-averse teenagers and millennials.

"Our goal is to be anywhere where these kids are living," said Priscilla Natkins, evp and director of client services at the Ad Council. "It promotes the peer-to-peer messaging that's the underpinning of this message—this is not an adult talking to kids."

Marketers leveraging Whisper

The Ad Council isn't the only nonprofit to embrace the secret-sharing app. Whisper also works with youth LGBT organization It Gets Better Mexico to create content specifically for its Spanish-speaking app. Branded posts are pushed to the app's Popular section, encouraging teens to respond to questions such as, "Has your life improved since being accepted?"

The startup also has a partnership with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that effectively removes any posts that mention imminent self-harm. Anyone who does upload such a post is sent a message encouraging them to contact the organization, and 100,000 posts have been marked since 2013.

In June, Whisper will step up its cause marketing efforts by working with more nonprofits to run sponsored campaigns like the ones it already does with brands including Coca-Cola and Disney/Pixar.

Aishwarya Iyer, a marketing rep for Whisper, alluded to changing the app's reputation for bullying, pointing out that most people—and most marketers—likely aren't aware users are talking about certain issues there.

"On Facebook, you're not exactly going to say, 'I'm not feeling my best self today' or, 'I'm thinking of transitioning,'" Iyer said. "So many people don't realize that people are talking about this in the first place on Whisper." 

That's a message the Ad Council and others are likely to get behind, partly because nonprofits are already running more digital campaigns with shoestring budgets than they were a few years ago. As an example, the Ad Council's Natkins pointed to the "Love Has No Labels" campaign. Unlike a traditional 30- or 60-second TV spot, the digital ad ran for three and a half minutes and has been viewed 57 million times on YouTube since it was uploaded in March 2015.

"Digital platforms allow you to tell expanded narrative stories, and that's so much in the DNA of the issues that we cover," Natkins said. "We are very religiously evolving all of our campaigns to make sure that we are reaching our target audiences where they live and breathe."

Read more about how creativity and tech are fueling today's nonprofits in Adweek's Cause Marketing Report.