We’ve all seen it. Something starts to trend on Twitter and some company jumps in on the hashtag as an attempt to try and “pimp” their product. A disaster happens and your inbox gets crammed with emails asking for help and some are great (like relief organizations actually helping), some are a bit odd (an organization not working around the disaster asking for prayers or establishing a new fund to help) and some are just wrong (talking about the disaster as a way to talk about their own issue). It’s that last case when being relevant is irreverent.

With the Boston Marathon Bombings happening yesterday a friend already passed on an email from an online fundraising company waiving their fees for anyone who raises funds for a related cause. Both his and my first impulse was “too soon”. The desire I think is a good one and the idea I think is a good one but it didn’t feel right. And when you try to be relevant around these sensitive issues you need to be ready for a backlash and possible backfire.

The agency I work for manages multiple nonprofit brands online and through social media and we try to do a few things for our clients and their brands:

Always be listening.

What are people saying about you? About your issue or cause? About themselves? Just saying in general? Listening is what can allow you to see that fine line between relevant and irreverent by getting a sense of general sentiment of the people.

Look to engage.

Listening is great but it should lead to engagement in the form of a comment, reply or timely message out around the same topic or issue. If you aren’t looking to engage why should the rest of your community engage with you?

Be relevant to your audience.

Notice the last part… “your audience”. When you send that email, is it benefitting your audience, supporting what they care about or helping them do something they want to do? Or is it really about you.

There is an extremely fine line between relevant and irreverent and whether you cross that line often comes down to two things: timing and it really being about you.


Had that fundraising company mentioned above waited a few more days, collected a bit more information, identified a few causes that have sprung up and then sent out their email the vibe would’ve been much different. But the day after, early morning email came across more about them and their brand and their platform as opposed to helping causes or empowering people to do something they wanted to do.

The unfortunate thing about our connected, social media world is we often rush communications so much and want to be the first that we don’t consider what sort of timing is actually appropriate. We blast things out without enough information and have to go back afterwards. Timing is critical and it takes time itself to know what the best timing is. So don’t think you have to be first or immediate, take your time and figure out what the best timing really is.


For the sake of argument, let’s say the email mentioned above from the fundraising company was not too soon the question is then who is this about? Who does this help? By waving the fees the company will not make as much money in the short term (or any depending on their fee structure) so what do they get out of it? The brand win. They get to be a “benevolent company”. They get to be a “first mover”. They get to expand their user base. They get to leverage the fundraisers on social media. They get a lot really which makes it a great business move but is it really helping their audience? If not, then it’s really not a great business move in the long run.

And this is where the timing question comes back into play as they could’ve found an organization or two that is doing great work, got behind them and encouraged people to fundraise for that cause with no fees. That slight shift in time and message now begins to help the audience (who at least to some degree wants to help but probably doesn’t know how) by offering a tangible response with incentive while taking an active approach.

I really like the company and their work and think they were only slightly too soon and slightly too much about themselves in their idea and execution which really shows just how fine that line is and when being relevant is irreverent.

So as you consider how to get involved in the Boston Marathon Bombing conversation, the next national disaster or trending political topic be sure to listen to conversations going on and get a sense on appropriate timing, look to engage in conversations and most importantly be relevant to your audience for their sake. Not for yours.