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Matt Damon And Water.Org On Building A Winning YouTube Campaign: Toilet Striking

Turns out, Matt Damon is a really funny guy. And funny gets results, even when the subject is the plight of the 2.5 billion people around the globe who lack access to clean water and a toilet.

On February 11, Water.org launched StrikeWithMe.org, an unusual campaign to raise awareness of a vexing problem that is hard to message: the plight of people who struggle without clean water and working sanitation. "Of all the issues in the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) world ," says Gary White, internationally renowned water engineer and cofounder of Water.org, "the sanitation part is the most challenging for people to think about."

Damon films a mock interview with LivePrudeGirls, aka Milana Vayntrub, left, and Stevie Nelson.

The campaign has at its core a humorous conceit: Damon, internationally renowned actor and person who excretes waste, was not going to use a toilet until the water crisis was solved.

The campaign itself was a reboot of the traditional public service announcement, designed from the start to take advantage of new media, niche audiences, and the reinforcing loops of distribution that are challenging the hegemony of the one-to-many model of television messaging. Relying on pro bono help from Damon’s entertainment-industry colleagues, YouTube, eight independent video bloggers, and Makers Studio, the Water.org team spent in the mid-five figures for the campaign. "We could spend $5 million or more and do a traditional PSA and buy a spot at the Super Bowl or the Oscars," says Mike McCamon, Water.org’s chief community officer, "or we could spend mid-five figures and access an audience of the same size while giving people a clear, measurable way to get involved."

Potty humor seems like a no-brainer for a web video campaign, but not necessarily for a nonprofit. "We’ve been experimenting for two years now on how to get people to care—literally give a shit," Damon told me. "Statistics like 'every 20 seconds a child dies from a preventable water-borne illness’ are shocking and true. But people aren’t shocked by statistics. And they don’t want to share them with their friends." But the team has had good luck with humor in the past. Last Christmas, "Damon Claus for a Cause" got over a million views and gave the team confidence. And for the last two years, McCamon has been tapping popular, and sweetly funny YouTube talent, like Craig Benzine’s WheezyWaiter (Benzine was a waiter and he has asthma) and the Vlog Brothers—Hank and John Green—and bringing them to tour Water.org projects in India and Haiti. He gave them free reign to film and vlog as they saw fit. "No foul language and you had to treat the people and the issues with respect," he says. "Those were the only rules." Benzine describes the trip as life-changing. "I’d never been overseas before, and it was great for my audience to come along." His crowd, falling way outside Damon’s typical demo (women age 35-45) raised $5,000 for an earlier Water Day promotion.

The campaign was initially conceived by Josh Lieb, the Emmy Award-winning producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who has also worked on The Simpsons and Newsnight, among others. "It started as a writer’s meeting with just me in it," he says. "I wrote it up, gave them [Water.org] some options, and then a lot of people in the comedy community suggested things until the campaign took shape." He concedes that making sanitation funny, at least as it relates to poverty, is a challenge. "How do you find something funny about this horrible crisis—that’s funny enough to get people’s attention online but it’s not so distasteful that it thwarts what you’re trying to do?"

There were some concepts left on the writer’s room floor. "Another way to go, rather than Matt being a good guy—who decides not to go to the bathroom for everybody—is that he’s ‘bad Matt.’ " Lieb breaks into a grin. "Okay? He has this action-hero training. He thinks that people who don’t drink dirty water are sissies. And he’s tired of trying to get clean water for these people, because, you know, he drinks from latrines. Okay? And he’s fine. He’s fucking Jason Bourne!" Lieb starts revving up, recalling the campaign that wasn’t. "So he’d be kissing a girl on the set and then he’d go say ‘excuse me’ and stick his head in the Port-a-Potty…and then go kiss Charlize Theron." He pauses to gauge my reaction. I have an image of a horrified Theron clawing blue Port-a-Potty water off her perfect face. "That’s pretty funny," I say. Later, when I recount this alt campaign to Jennifer Schorch, Water.org’s chief marketing officer, she breaks into an even bigger grin. "It’s a credit to my team that that idea did not make it all the way to me."

The campaign started with a mock press conference. Although traditional celebrities posted videos of support, the team was counting on the YouTube stars to make the campaign work on the web. Damon appeared in a handful of related videos created by select vloggers who had submitted concept ideas to the Water.org team. "This is where it gets interesting," says Keith Quinn the former head of digital for Paramount and current Water.org board member. "The Water.org channel doesn’t have many subscribers. But Shay Carl, who is filming today, has three channels with about a million." (Shay was pretty excited by the opportunity.) Quinn believed that with the right YouTube stars and the deft application of metadata, the content would feed through an entire cluster of devoted niche megafans, bringing new traffic to the site and new advocates to the issue of clean water. The team was hoping to leverage the combined fan base of some 2.5 million individual subscribers.

The filming took place at YouTube studios during the course of a single day. The vloggers put Damon through his paces. "I just gave Matt Damon notes on my script," whispers Benzine to me excitedly after running the actor through a few versions of the script he wrote for WheezyWaiter’s take on the strike. "He didn’t get the wink (his signature sign-off) exactly right at first," he jokes. "But he nailed it eventually." It was a busy day for Damon: Breaking up with his toilet thanks to EpicLloyd. Suffering through awkward flirting with the LivePrudeGirls. "It was fun and a lot of work," Damon told me afterward. "And the scripts were really, really good!"

For Water.org, the risk has paid off. The day of the launch, traffic to Water.org doubled from its previous all-time high. "The ‘press conference’ video is just about one million views on YouTube," McCamon says. "The other YouTube creators and PSAs added another 1.6 million views and 250,000 visitors to the campaign website." For the organization, the engagement was meaningful. "Over 90,000 visitors took some sort of action—watching the press conference, signed up as a supporter, subscribed to our YouTube channel, made a gift or sought more information from our main site." Though the team is still crunching the numbers, it currently appears to be a healthy 35% conversion rate.

McCamon is happiest about their automated social-media posting mechanism, which lets supporters "donate" their tweets or Facebook statuses to Water.org for occasional updates. (It’s software that Water.org developed and has just made open source.) "We’ve had around 8,250 people "support the strike," which enabled us to post content on their social media channels. By adding some 22,000 visitors via the donated tweets and multiplying that by the additional posts, McCamon estimates that the aggregate social reach of those posts may exceed 16 million people. And they’re enjoying the outreach from unexpected fans. "We’ve had three toilet manufacturers contact us," he said.

[Photos by Ramona Rosales]

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