ASU Lodestar Center


influencers from Quit Together campaign

Nonprofits and influencers: How one organization harnessed the power of social media celebrities

May 9, 2023 — In the last few years, influencer marketing has emerged as a social media strategy used by brands to reach a younger population. The increased number of influencers in the United States — in 2022 approximately 3% of Americans could be considered influencers — and the intimate bond and trust that they have with their followers are factors that contribute to the success of influencer marketing media campaigns.

This has opened a world of possibilities to nonprofit organizations that seek to reach wider audiences. While they can benefit from the established connections of influencers, nonprofits have to consider the time, money and resources that have to be invested when planning and carrying out this type of social media campaign.

Such was the case of Truth Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that inspires young people to quit smoking and nicotine through community and youth engagement programs and innovative solutions.

In 2021, Truth Initiative ran the “Quit Together” campaign in partnership with influencers Victoria Annunziato (King Victober), Tosha and Jerry Purpdrank, who have more than 12 million followers on TikTok combined.

In the span of six weeks, they posted TikTok videos giving updates on their quitting journeys, inviting their followers to stop vaping, spreading information about the benefits of being nicotine-free, and sharing milestones together along the way.

“I think we came to the realization that we couldn't just come to young people with problems and facts about vaping being dangerous, how it’s affecting their health, their physical health, or their mental health. We needed to come to them with solutions as well,” said RG Logan, the senior vice president of brand marketing at Truth Initiative.

Laying the groundwork

Before launching the influencer marketing campaign, Truth Initiative created a free and anonymous messaging service that targeted teens and young adults, who would receive messages that ranged from quitting tips, emotional support, and motivational reminders.

“I think making sure that we have people that can speak from experience, because, we know, especially if you're talking with young people, they're not gonna want to take advice from somebody who's never been there before on how to quit,” Logan said. “You want to talk to somebody and relate to somebody who's been through that themselves and sort of understand the trials and tribulations of nicotine addiction, and hopefully is somebody that you really sort of admire and respect.”

Truth Initiative decided to collaborate with these influencers because of their passion for this topic and the connection and wide reach they had with their online community, regardless of the number of followers, Logan said.

When creating the “This Is Quitting” messaging program and designing the influencer collaboration, Truth Initiative took into consideration data that they had collected from their 2021 study published in Addictive Behaviors.

According to the survey, among the young smokers who expressed a desire to quit vaping, approximately 43.6% believed that having a support system on social media would be beneficial. Meanwhile, 41.7% reported that following a group of social media influencers who were also quitting would be helpful. Additionally, 40.8% of respondents stated that watching an influencer quit vaping themselves would be useful in aiding their cessation efforts.

The initial enrollment numbers of the messaging program were between 200,000 and 250,000 people when it was launched in 2019.

Benefiting from the momentum, Truth Initiative was able to triple their numbers with the “Quit Together” influencer campaign, reaching over half a million people by 2022.

Collaborating with influencers

Other nonprofit organizations can look at the Truth Initiative campaign as an example that influencer marketing, when executed correctly, can be a success and help them reach their engagement goals.

When asked for advice for nonprofits, Abby Zufelt, director and professor of practice at the Digital Audiences Lab in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that organizations should ask the “why, who and what” questions before deciding to collaborate with influencers.

  • Why do we want to work with influencers? What’s the goal of the collaboration? 
  • Who do we want to align ourselves with? What kind of influencer and online persona?
  • Do they share the same vision and values as we do? 
  • What exactly are we looking for this influencer to do for us? Are we looking for them to do content creation, reshare information or becoming an ambassador for us? How long will the campaign last?

These factors will determine the time, money and resources nonprofits invest in the campaign. 

“An influencer marketing campaign and influencer partnership really isn’t successful if you’re not aligned on the same values and mission,” said Zufelt. “Doing that research is going to be very key to the start of any influencer marketing campaign.”

The power of influencer marketing for the nonprofit sector lies in how the organization shares their story of impact, Zufelt said.

Donors and volunteers often want to see that their contributions are making a difference, and influencers can help organizations share how they are helping them do so.

Influencers have an established bond with their online community based on trust. Therefore, this type of collaboration can help nonprofits start gaining immediate attention from an already engaged audience.

The benefit is even greater when the organization collaborates with influencers who share the same values and see the mission in the same light as they do.

“It feels very organic if a specific influencer or creator has talked about the subject that the nonprofit works with,” Zufelt said.

Such was the case of Truth Initiative, which approached three influencers who not only shared the same principles as the organization but had first-hand experience of vaping.

Here is what every nonprofit should know before diving headfirst into an influencer collaboration.

Know your audience

Truth Initiative’s “Quit Together” was a successful campaign not only because of the execution but also because the organization knew their target audience and the best way to reach them. 

A nonprofit needs to know the complete demographic of their target audience to wield the right social media platform. Any campaign must match the brand message with the interests of the target audience, or else they won't interact with the content.

According to a Forbes article, running an initial discovery map of key audience segments by interest, identifying key influencers within each segment and learning about the top issues being discussed can save time and money.

Identify the influencer for the partnership

Micro influencers, with followers between 5,000 and 50,000, tend to be the more beneficial choice for low-cost and personal collaborations.

These influencers offer the best combination of engagement and broad reach, according to a report by Markerly, because they have a targeted audience with a higher engagement rate.

Since macro influencers have a larger audience to attend to, micro influencers would be more likely to partake in interviews and events that further the impact of a nonprofit.

“It’s going back to that research piece. Making sure that the influencer you want to work with, no matter the size of the audience, making sure it’s an engaged audience, that’s going to be pretty crucial,” Zufelt said. “I’d rather have 10 really engaged followers that are super fans of that influencer than a thousand people that kind of don’t really care what they talk about.”

Forbes calls micro influencers the marketing force of the future.

Establish social media strategies that call the audience to take action and show the impact of contributions

Influencers can help nonprofits increase their donor and volunteer population by calling their followers to take action, making the process to do so more clear, and showing the impact of these contributions.

Showing the influencer – via videos, pictures and testimonials – volunteering and donating to the organizations are good strategies to call the audience to take action.

It is equally important to make it easier for followers to donate or apply as a volunteer because organizations can lose potential followers between the struggles of signing up, according to Zufelt.

Finally, showing the impact of the influencer’s contributions is essential to incentivize followers to continue to take action as these have positive results on their communities and help the organization achieve their goals.

Challenges to overcome

While influencer-based marketing can help a nonprofit organization reach a wider audience, it comes with its own set of challenges.

“I think, you know, the biggest challenge is time, energy and money. So an influencer campaign, even a small organic one, can be a lot of work to execute,” Todd Vigil, an ASU Lodestar Center knowledge specialist who teaches the Emerging Marketing and Social Media Strategies course for the Center’s Nonprofit Management Institute, said. “You’ve got to find the talent, you’ve got to negotiate what you’re going to do, prepare the assets and execute the campaign.”

Working with micro influencers can be a lot more cost-effective for nonprofit organizations than working with influencers with larger audiences because they want to use most of their financial resources to support their cause.

It is easier to focus on a specific niche and target a specific audience on a handful of social media platforms rather than being everywhere at once, Vigil said. Nonprofits tend to juggle their social media presence on various social media platforms all at once, which in turn distracts them from their mission.

Another challenge that Vigil touched upon was the legal risks involving influencer marketing.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires influencers to disclose any material connection they have with a brand when promoting its products or services. This includes disclosing if they received compensation or free products from the brand.

This, in turn, can make followers question how much of the influencer’s actions and support to the nonprofit organization was determined by the incentive they received.

Nonprofits also need to take into consideration the copyrights of the content that is posted by them or the influencer on social media. They must ensure that they have the copyrights to use the content created by the influencer. Legal formalities like obtaining disclosures and agreements also need to be taken into account while creating a campaign.

Influencer marketing can offer significant benefits for nonprofits, including increased visibility and support for their cause. However, it also presents unique challenges that can impede the success of campaigns. Nonprofits must navigate the complexities of partnering with influencers, including the potential for misaligned values and goals, limited budgets, and difficulties measuring impact. Despite these challenges, with careful planning and a thoughtful approach, nonprofits can harness the power of influencer marketing to make a meaningful impact and drive positive change in their communities and beyond.

Story by Riva Surana and Nicole Macias Garibay, ASU Lodestar Center.

Photos courtesy TikTok (@tosha_ptp @king_victober @purpdrank).

This story is part of the Nonprofit Social Innovation Hub, where organizations can find ideas and inspiration from their colleagues in the nonprofit and philanthropic community, from new operating models to fresh technology solutions.

Learn more with professional development from the Nonprofit Management Institute

If you are interested in more strategies to successfully promote your nonprofit organization in social media, we invite you to sign up for the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Management Institute certificate on Nonprofit Marketing and Strategic Communications.

In this program, participants receive the training needed to lead and manage marketing and communication strategies for nonprofits. They gain knowledge and skills in marketing, communication, public relations and social media for the nonprofit sector.