Please Don’t Change Your Profile Picture

Posted on 09 December 2010

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen (or even participated in) that recent campaign that involved changing your profile picture to a cartoon character.

At first, I didn’t understand what that was all about, then I discovered that the aim was to “stop child abuse”. I was mystified and, frankly, pissed off, because I couldn’t see how it would make any difference for abused children. From a marketing point of view, I thought the campaign was a failure.

So I posted this message on Facebook: “Sorry, I’m not going to change my profile picture to a cartoon. How does that stop child abuse?” I also posted a tweet on twitter. The messages attracted lots of responses (thanks, folks!).

Some people commented that the aim of the campaign was to “raise awareness” and “expand consciousness” about the issue of child abuse. One person pointed out that similar campaigns to encourage people to wear a coloured ribbon or a rubber wristband “have done a whole lot of good in the world”. But I have to ask: Have the organisers measured and reported on the effectiveness of the campaign? How do they know that awareness was raised or that consciousness was expanded? Where’s the evidence that anybody has changed their attitude or behaviour?

It’s clear that some people didn’t understand what the point of the exercise was. One person who commented on my Facebook message wrote: “I was wondering what the hell that was all about,” and someone who replied to my tweet wrote: “It’s the Facebook version of dressing up like a cartoon. Mindless Halloween-like fun.” Mindless fun? Doesn’t sound like any awareness was raised there.

Some people agreed with me that the campaign was useless. Comments on Facebook and twitter included:

  • “I’m with you, Kay, I think it belittles the issue and makes people think they’re doing something when in fact, they are not.”
  • “I agree totally, changing your profile picture will do nothing to help anything. How could it?”
  • “Zero impact, but with the annoyance factor of a chain email.”

Someone on twitter defended the campaign, explaining: “Changing pic is meant to show others your ‘badge’ of support for the cause.” I think all that accomplishes is to tell your Facebook friends that you’re a nice person who cares about the issue of child abuse, and that you’re part of the tribe of patting-themselves-on-the-back nice people who care about the issue of child abuse. But so what? What then? Isn’t that just preaching to the converted? How does that change anything for abused children?

Sure, building awareness is an important part of the marketing equation. But by itself, it’s useless. Cigarette companies spend billions of dollars to make me aware of their products, but that’s not going to make me buy them.

Whenever I’m writing a marketing message for a client, I ask myself: What do I want the reader to DO after hearing/reading the message? And when I teach people about marketing and copywriting, I encourage them to ask the same question. It’s all about the call to action – do you want the reader to buy your product, attend your event, hire you, donate to your worthy cause, visit your website, change their opinion, volunteer their time and skill, start or stop doing something, lobby their local legislators…? You have to TELL them what you want them to do next, and you have to tell them HOW to do it.

If I were leading a campaign to encourage people to change their profile picture or wear a coloured ribbon or announce what colour bra they’re wearing (and to spread the word to their friends), all in support of a worthy cause, here’s what I’d do:

  • make it very clear in all my marketing messages exactly WHAT cause it’s all in aid of, who I am, why I’m doing it, and how I think it will help;
  • build alliances with other people and organisations that support the same cause;
  • be (or find) a very visible spokesperson for the cause;
  • create a website/blog that explains what the campaign is all about;
  • create a twitter account and a Facebook account and a YouTube channel about the campaign, and use them to create a conversation about the campaign and the cause;
  • ask people to include a link to the campaign website/blog whenever they send a message about the campaign to their friends;
  • send media releases and do interviews;
  • prepare some sample messages/tweets, with a link to the website/blog, to make it easy for people to spread the word accurately and effectively;
  • tell people about the practical things they could do to support the cause (like, um, maybe donate cash);
  • invite people to share their stories about the cause and the campaign;
  • measure the results (i.e. increases in awareness, changes in behaviour, the amount of money raised…);
  • report on the results to everyone who matters.

So if you want to do something useful to stop child abuse, do something useful! But please don’t pretend that changing your profile picture on Facebook is going to make the slightest bit of difference. It’s an insult to the abused children who need your help.

As I wrote on Facebook, “It’s not the message that matters, it’s the ACTION that people take as a result of seeing/hearing the message. I’m quite sure that if Facebook had been around in the 1960s, a campaign like this to encourage people to change their profile pic to a cartoon would not have stopped my dad from beating my brothers and sisters and me.”


2 responses to Please Don’t Change Your Profile Picture

  • Chris says:

    You make excellent points. It’s not so much that people shouldn’t change their pics, though–do it if it makes you happy–but it doesn’t help. Your last sentence is chilling.

    • kay says:

      Thanks for participating in the debate, Chris (and thanks too for your comment on Facebook, which I quoted in the blog post). You make a good point about “do it if it makes you happy”.

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