Can Augmented Reality revolutionize nonprofit marketing and donations

Can Augmented Reality revolutionize nonprofit marketing?

Nonprofit marketers have struggled for years to bridge the gap between intentions and action. Typical nonprofit marketing campaigns use emotional appeals to evoke empathy within potential donors. And while marketers have become increasingly good at stirring empathy, this only tackles one side of the problem: intentions.

Emotional appeals are great at forming intentions to help, but they don’t stimulate potential donors to actually take action. In order to bridge the intention-action gap from this other side, savvy nonprofit marketers can use augmented reality (AR).

In this article, Paige HurnerCameron Bones, and Joachim Scholz explain why augmented reality can revolutionize nonprofit marketing.

It boils down to this: Unlike traditional nonprofit marketing campaigns, which solely use emotional appeals that focus on the need of recipients, AR shifts the focus to the action and the difference a donor can make. We discuss four ways how nonprofit marketers can transform good intentions into action, and we even contrast the different ways how augmented reality and virtual reality can facilitate nonprofit marketing.

How AR Boosted Donor Engagement

One example of AR-powered nonprofit marketing is the NHS Blood and Transplant AR Campaign. The British National Health Service (NHS) launched a campaign to get 200,000 new blood donors. NHS volunteers placed a sticker on the donor’s wrist and hovered an iPhone over the sticker as a virtual needle took their blood.

Nonprofit marketing can benefit from Augmented Reality

The virtual needle was linked to a large billboard across the street, which featured an empty blood bag and a sick patient. As the bag filled with virtual blood, the patient on the screen gradually looked healthier. After the bag was full, the billboard displayed a message, thanking the virtual donor by name.

The campaign was successful in both reaching its goal of 200,000 donors and getting more people under the age of 45 to donate. MarketingWeek has a good video that sums up the campaign nicely. Here at MKTGsquad, however, we go deeper of course and ask:

What exactly made NHS’s AR campaign so successful?

4 Ways how nonprofit marketing can transform good intentions into action

Augmented reality stimulates action because it allows nonprofit marketers to create experiences that mimic reality. This kind of marketing strategy revolutionizes the way consumers engage with a campaign because it shifts the focus from the recipients to the donors themselves.

Simulated action is the driving force behind the success of AR in nonprofit campaigns. You can use this for your own nonprofit marketing by following these four steps:

  1. Build momentum
  2. Link action and effect
  3. Create donors’ confidence
  4. Appeal to consumers’ narcissism

1. Build momentum

Building momentum is necessary when motivating people to make donations. To do this, you need to interrupt the lives of everyday people in a way that is memorable and influences participation.

We all know it’s important to give blood or to help supply clean water to communities. But since it doesn’t affect our daily lives, we simply don’t get around to doing it. In a world where people have become numb to the posters of sad faces or devastating landscapes, how can you stop people and get them to engage with your cause?

Use AR to create an interaction that demands attention and emphasizes the issue at hand. AR interrupts the flow of consumers by creating interactive and meaningful experiences.

Augmented reality can demand attention and emphasize the social cause

NHS executes this well by merging AR with blood donation. By showcasing the billboard in a popular area, they forcefully asked potentially donors to interact with the cause, while also enlisting bystanders to see the effects of the simulated good deed.

So far, this campaign comes straight out of the digital marketing playbook on creating interactive experiences. Incorporating augmented reality, however, takes it one step further, as it enables donors to experience the direct effects of their actions.

2. Augmented reality links action and effect

Consumers are more compelled to donate if they are confident that their contribution is making a difference.

NHS offered a “trial run” to donors, by allowing them to donate virtually. Potential donors actually went through all the motions of giving blood, including the effects of their participation. As the bag fills with “blood,” the donor sees the direct result of their participation. The patient on the screen no longer has hollow cheeks or a sickly disposition.

Here are the before and after pictures to see for yourself:

Augmented reality can simulate action and show effects

Watching the patient’s health improving through their own simulated action demonstrated to potential donors that they can have a visible impact on someone else’s life. This link between action and effect motivates potential donors to become actual donors in the real world.

In other words, being able to experience a simulated donation, and its effects, brings potential donors one step closer to bridging the gap between intention and actual action.

Simulated action makes actual action much more likely

Using AR to simulate an experience is effective because it mimics the motions of action, while building momentum. It shows the consumer what it would be like to engage in a particular experience, making them more likely to donate.

Nonprofit marketers can learn a lot from NHS’s techniques: use AR to engage everyday people, gain interest and awareness from bystanders, and show people how their (simulated) actions can have a real effect.

3. Boosting donors’ confidence

Even if consumers have good intentions to help, they might not take action because they lack the confidence that they are able to help. This is especially true when you ask for anything else than money: people’s time, their skills, or in NHS’ case, their blood.

Nadine Eaton, head of national campaigns at NHS Blood and Transplant, explains the organization’s efforts to overcome its biggest obstacle: the fear of needles.

“It’s a new way of recruiting people as there’s still a big stigma around fears of needles or people not being aware that we sometimes struggle for donations,” said Eaton. “We hope by doing something experiential people will see how simple it is, how it can help the sick and learn not to take blood donations for granted.”

Instead of a person simply seeing a sign that says give blood, AR allowed NHS to physically show donors their capacity to act and that they can make a difference. As a bonus, people may get over their fear of needles because they can physically see that their small discomfort is worth contributing to a greater good.

4. How AR turns consumers into heroes

Once you’ve developed momentum and confidence, there’s one more step to catapult intentions into actions. Donors need one final nudge towards actual participation, and the answer may seem counterintuitive.

Nonprofit marketing needs to appeal to consumers’ inner narcissism to spark donations.

Although people get defensive when called narcissistic, this is simply an innate human tendency. As humans, we see the world through our own eyes, and who can blame us for wanting to be the hero in our own story? Instead of (only) focusing on the positive effects for recipients, nonprofit marketers should therefore (also) emphasize the donor’s role in creating these effects.

TOMS appeals to consumers' inner narcissist

Leveraging consumers’ narcissistic traits is the main reason why TOMS have been so successful in growing their philanthropic brand. Their “Buy one, Give one” business model appeals to consumers’ desire to be heroic do-gooders much better than writing a cheque ever could: Not only do consumer help others in need, but they also get to wear the visual proof of their ethical superiority. People like to feel proud of their efforts, and as marketers, appealing to this trait can close the intention-action gap.

Augmented reality can tap into the same process and transform it from a business model to a communications strategy. It shifts the perspective from recipient-focused to donor-focused nonprofit marketing by putting the potential donor at the center of the story.

This shift of focus from the recipient to the donor is essential. For the first time ever, donors can actually experience how their heroic actions are critical to nonprofit organizations.

AR makes potential donors the heroes of the action

Suddenly, it is not about helping others in need any longer (alone), but also about one’s heroic part played in helping others.

AR and VR tackle opposing sides of the intention-action gap

More recently, TOMS has begun incorporating virtual reality into their marketing mix. This is interesting, because it provides us a wonderful example to contrast the ways in which augmented and virtual reality can facilitate nonprofit marketing.

Many people think that augmented reality and virtual reality are kind of the same. However, there are important differences, especially when it comes to from what side the intention-action gap is closed.

VR and AR tackle opposing sides of nonprofit marketing's intention-action gap

While augmented reality closes the gap from the action side, virtual reality closes the gap from the intention side.

TOMS’ Virtual Giving VR experience allows customers to immerse themselves in the experience of handing out shoes in a Peruvian village. Check out the video to see for yourself:


This is effective because VR packs a much stronger emotional punch than other print and video media. However, because TOMS’ VR does not simulate action, it is just a more extreme version of traditional emotional appeal-based campaigns. It does not shift the perspective to the donor, and instead retains the focus on the positive effects for the recipients – just as millions of traditional nonprofit marketing campaigns before.

VR makes emotional appeals more powerful, but only AR triggers action

The NHS campaign however, effectively used AR to emphasize the importance of the donor and trigger action. Participants saw the improvement they caused when giving blood. In other words, AR enabled donors to see the direct effect of their efforts, making them the hero in the story.

These examples portray the vital difference between VR and AR. Although TOMS executes narcissism well, it lacks meaningful action that can only be experienced through AR. In our opinion, AR is thus the more effective tool to bridge nonprofits marketing’s intention-action gap.

What does this mean for the future of nonprofit marketing?

AR is the ultimate marketing strategy to help nonprofits generate action. By combining traditional marketing techniques with new emerging technologies, it creates another level of interaction and relevance for consumers.

You can use AR to inspire action in your own nonprofit marketing campaigns. By using simulated action to build momentum and confidence, while appealing to donor narcissism, you can motivate consumers to take the fate of those in need into their own hands.

It is important to remember that a campaign cannot be successful unless executed with the right tools. Even if AR and VR are often lumped together as “the new marketing tech,” learning how to leverage the best type of technology is crucial to a successful campaign.

You don’t have to try to save the world to use AR, but it makes the world of a difference in creating action.

To keep up to date with emerging marketing techniques, subscribe to for upcoming articles on the latest and greatest AR campaigns.

This post was written by Cameron Bones, Paige Hurner, and Dr. Joachim Scholz. Please follow the authors on Twitter for more information on this topic.
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