CaringBridge Comes of Age in an Age of Social Media

CaringBridge Comes of Age in an Age of Social Media

Seven years before Facebook existed, CaringBridge was building social networks. Now it has grown amid the proliferation of social media.

“I feel CaringBridge should be prescribed, it should be part of the care plan” for people undergoing a health crisis, Sona Mehring says. The fact that she’s talking not about a therapeutic device but an online social networking tool is a clue: to the unconventional place CaringBridge occupies as a brand and to the powerful connection it makes with its audience.

CaringBridge, the nonprofit corporation based in Eagan, has been working this year to reposition CaringBridge, the brand. Mehring started CaringBridge in 1997 as a location on the Web where people dealing with cancer, problem pregnancies, or serious injuries could easily build their own Web pages, then post updates about their situation to get word out to loved ones efficiently, and take in encouragement and support from even faraway family and friends. Now, Mehring says, “there’s a big push around patient-and-family-focused care and that type of more holistic approach to treatment.”

That isn’t the reason for doing a brand update, however. Neither is a lack of growth. The number of CaringBridge sites built is up 10 percent this year over last, continuing a pattern of double-digit annual growth over the life of the nonprofit. Site visits are up 25 percent in 2010. Financial donations are up 43 percent. Those come almost entirely from site authors or visitors, people grateful to CaringBridge for easing and enriching their lives at a difficult time. Their gifts account for about 90 percent of the organization’s revenues annually.

But even with rapid, viral growth—1.3 billion site visits to date, more than 200,000 sites built, and 70 percent of CaringBridge users learning about it through personal recommendations from other users—Mehring says that what drove the brand repositioning this year was “unmet need.” There are 200 new CaringBridge sites built every day, but there are 4,000 people a day diagnosed with cancer in this country alone, she points out. CaringBridge could be helping all of them. So going into the brand project, Mehring says the question was this:

“What aren’t we saying right that people don’t recognize us as a great service to use when they’re going through a health event?”


The Context Has Changed

“I think they were a little more focused on the functionality of the tool, rather than the really larger benefits of the tool,” says Carlo Cuesta, the nonprofit-brand advisor who worked with CaringBridge this year. It wasn’t so much a brand repositioning as a “brand deepening process,” he says. CaringBridge is saying a lot of things right. It just needs to say more now because the context around it has changed.

“If you think about it,” Cuesta says, “five or 10 years ago, people were going, ‘Social media, what’s that?’”

CaringBridge authors are 48 years old on average; site visitors average 58 years old. Given the health-related events that bring them to CaringBridge, users skew older than the general population of adults on line. Nonetheless, many middle-aged and older adults are now comfortable using, or at least familiar with, social media. Cuesta, a managing partner of the St. Paul consultancy Creation in Common, says that as a result, the task is no longer just to help people understand the convenience of the tool, it’s to convey “both the heart and the mind portion” of what CaringBridge does to improve lives.

Cuesta says if the heart portion is enabling people to share intensely personal feelings, the mind portion—especially with a steady drip of news about breaches in online privacy—is to answer the question, “Am I going to be safe doing this?”

The words “personal,” “private,” and “trustworthy” get emphasis in CaringBridge’s updated mission statement and description of its corporate personality. A new statement of beliefs amplifies those ideas (see next page). A “manifesto” builds on them further.

“Lance Armstrong and Livesstrong rolled out their own manifesto a couple years ago, so it was patterned after that, where it’s this rich story of who CaringBridge is,” Mehring says.

The new messaging propels an “Accelerated Growth and Awareness” campaign that CaringBridge launched last summer. With increased marketing and advertising, the goal in 2011 is to achieve twice this year’s growth in number of sites built—so 20 percent.

“It’s not that we had cast the nets wide before and it just wasn’t working,” says Sami Pelton, CaringBridge’s director of program strategy, about the brand work this summer. “But we were preparing to cast the nets wide.”


Empowerment Still Matters

Before Pelton joined the management team, she was a charter board member. And before that, she was a CaringBridge user.

This was in the early 2000s. Pelton was running a local start-up she had cofounded called Search401k. She and Mehring worked there together developing Web-based software that let 401(k) plan managers compare plan providers (CBS MarketWatch bought the company in 2004). Mehring was running CaringBridge out of her home as a labor of love and thinking about incorporating as a nonprofit. And Pelton’s sister was dying of cancer.

Pelton called Mehring one night: “I said, ‘I think we need one of those CaringBridge sites for my sister. Can you set one up for me?’ And she said, ‘Well, Sami, I know what you know about technology, and we’re building this Web-based product, that’s what our career is about. If you can’t set up your own CaringBridge site within three or four minutes, this thing’s not going to work.’”

That early need to prove that CaringBridge was easy to use left a legacy that shows up in at least two ways now. One is staffing. As a software developer who’d worked on everything from feed analysis for poultry producers to fantasy baseball, Mehring had considerable tech skills of her own. But even so, and even though she wanted to build awareness of CaringBridge, her first hire once she incorporated as a nonprofit in 2002 wasn’t a marketer, it was another strong IT person.

“I was really concerned with creating a service that was just really foundationally solid,” Mehring says, “a rock-solid service that doesn’t go down, that’s easy to use, that brings things that people need when they need it.” Today, a third or more of CaringBridge’s 45 employees are information technologists.

The other place that legacy shows up is as a still strong—and still relevant, Cuesta and CaringBridge agreed—element in brand messaging. In 1997, when Mehring built the first CaringBridge site for a friend going through a high-risk pregnancy, social media were an unknown, she says, but so was Google (it was founded the next year). For many people, the Internet itself was still strange new territory.

“Being easy to use is something we lead with because, especially back in the late ’90s, this was kind of a new frontier and people were scared of it,” Mehring says. “I used to always tell my mom, ‘Just click around, it’s fine. You’re not going to break the computer!’”

“There’s a wider continuum” of CaringBridge users now, including many who spend hours a day on line, but conveying ease of use still matters, she says. The demographic still tends toward what Mehring calls the “Aunt Bettys” of the world, people who aren’t technology oriented. More important, empowering users is central to CaringBridge’s identity and has been from the start.

“Right away, I put them—the people that we serve, our customers, our audience—right in the middle, empowering them to have total control over what they were doing. That maybe was the root of everything,” Mehring says. “That is how we’ve been able to connect with people and grow the community.”


“More Ready to Participate”

The premise (if not the promise) of the Internet was not only a communications revolution, but a social one as well. Knowledge would be democratized, and we would be connected to other people as much as to our digital devices.

A generation later, some believe that the frivolity of Facebook, viral videos, and only diverts us from the Net’s potential and from each other. A small but growing backlash has started. Books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains have people thinking about the Internet’s impact on society. William Powers ponders whether to be or not to be connected in Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

But these worries over the Internet obscure an essential truth: It’s merely a tool. CaringBridge is using it to build a thriving nonprofit whose funding and growth are driven by users. It’s also delivering on the Internet’s potential to empower and connect us more deeply.

Pelton committed to Mehring’s nascent nonprofit after the “very powerful experience” of having a site for her sister, who could “see all those people gathering around her” in the final three months of her life. “It really made the funeral celebration of her life very rich,” Pelton says. “People were able to travel from all over to be there because they were aware that the end was coming. And then we had formed a connection with these people who we wouldn’t have really known, but we had met them through her CaringBridge community.”

She told Mehring, “I’ll do whatever you need me to do to help bring this thing to life.” Early marketing was in the form of Pelton’s outreach to hospitals and health care systems. About 500 around the country now have partnerships with CaringBridge, and more informally recommend the service to patients and families. There’ll be more outreach to health care systems under the Accelerated Growth and Awareness plan.

Social media will also play a big part in the strategy. CaringBridge is increasing its use of targeted ads that appear on social networking sites—say, in the margins of a page where a Facebook user has written something about a premature birth or serious illness. “With Facebook and other opportunities, we can really target and be present in some pretty specific places where people are thinking about, talking about, and gathering around these conditions,” Pelton says.

Any time, even the frivolous time, that people spend now on social networks can be a positive for CaringBridge, Mehring believes.

“They’re on line, so that’s a huge opportunity for us, that there’s already that barrier broken down,” she says. “They’re more ready to participate and go to CaringBridge.”

This year, CaringBridge has rolled out a Facebook Connect feature that allows a single login for both Web sites; a notification feature that lets Facebook users know when a new CaringBridge post is up; an iPhone app; and a mobile Web site (—all to make crossover from people’s other online activities happen more seamlessly. By year’s end, there’ll be an Android app, and next year, one for BlackBerry.


This Is Not the Barbecue

Other social networks do present challenges for CaringBridge. There’s a growing expectation that CaringBridge will be searchable, for instance, so people can find friends without knowing a site name or password. They can’t, Pelton says, and that’s part of protecting people’s privacy. But CaringBridge might revisit the idea of searchability if feedback from site authors shows that a change is desired by them.

Then there’s the sheer volume of people on Facebook. Over the years, a few health care systems in other states and one ad-based for-profit (Care Pages, operated by New York–based Everyday Health) have set up services similar to CaringBridge. “But I do look at Facebook as probably our primary competitor, in that they just have so many people on that forum already,” Mehring says. Many who want a more intimate and thoughtful conversation might be on CaringBridge instead if they only knew about it, she believes.

Maybe the most important way that other social media have influenced CaringBridge is in helping it define its unique value as a private and purposeful space.

“You don’t go to the barbecue and tell everyone that you have cancer,” Cuesta says. “You do it in a private room, you do it on your own terms, you do it in a way that deepens relationships.” Users understand that Facebook is the barbecue, he says, and CaringBridge is that private room.

Mehring says, “It’s a different kind of conversation that you’re having than on those other kinds of social networks. That needs to be recognized, that needs to be supported, and that needs to be positioned. And that’s the hard work that we’re doing right now.”

An “Accelerated Growth and Awareness” Plan

Launched in July this year, it takes CaringBridge down four paths.

1) Health care settings: Get more hospitals, clinics, and others to refer patients to CaringBridge.

2) Other health-related organizations: Affiliate with groups like the American Cancer Society or National Marrow Donor Program to gain a presence on their Web sites and in their education efforts. “When people hear ‘You have cancer,’ where are all the places they turn? CaringBridge wants to be part of all those places,” says strategy director Sami Pelton.

3) “Targeted brand awareness”: This is “almost a B2C play” to raise awareness in a broader public, Pelton says. It includes public relations and advertising, especially highly targeted ads on social media sites.

4) “Customer Marketing”: Past users making referrals to new ones has been an organic phenomenon. Now CaringBridge will try to increase it and find ways to keep past users feeling connected to the nonprofit.

—Denise Logeland