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Friday, 23 March 2012 09:54

Funny business: Four best practices LaughFest uses to raise serious money

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LaughfestGRAND RAPIDS — Most people never associated “cancer” with “funny” — at least not until LaughFest came to town. In just two years, the ten-day festival, a fundraiser for Gilda’s Club, has become one of West Michigan’s most anticipated and well-attended events.

Last year more than 55,000 people from 25 states and Canada came out for LaughFest. And the revenue they helped raise for Gilda’s Club’s free cancer support services is no laughing matter. In 2011, LaughFest netted over $330,000 — a hefty sum organizers hope to exceed this year.

Mission accomplished

Some might wonder how Gilda’s Club — whose biggest moneymaking event before LaughFest generated a mere $70,000 — hit the big time with the event. Leann Arkema, Gilda’s Club president and CEO, chalks up LaughFest’s success to four best practices that any business or nonprofit can use to scale up its events.

First and foremost, focus on the mission — before doing anything else.

“The most successful aspect of LaughFest is that it’s mission driven,” Arkema says. “We didn’t start any branding or marketing until we were very clear on mission and what we were trying to accomplish.”

Teasing out the mission was a lengthy process that started more than two years before the initial LaughFest, which honored Gilda’s Club’s tenth anniversary, was scheduled to take place.

But the comedic roots of the event — and Gilda’s Club itself — stretch even further back.

In 1995, comedian Gene Wilder co-founded the nonprofit in memory of his late wife Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1986. Best known for her work on Saturday Night Live, Radner’s memory lives on in West Michigan through Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.

“Gilda had that childlike enthusiasm in her characters,” Arkema explains. “From the beginning we wanted to have that whimsy. That was the legacy that she left.”

Target practice

Radner’s legacy informs Gilda’s Club programming and helped organizers identify their target audience — in a word: everyone.

“Gilda was diagnosed with cancer and lost her funny. She went on a journey to find her funny again,” explains Arkema. “Our target market is anyone who has an emotional impact due to cancer or grief. Our product is our journey with them as they find their smile.”

Statistics show that literally everyone will be affected by a cancer diagnosis at some point. And, of course, everyone experiences the death of a loved one. Fortunately, that’s not all people have in common.

“We all laugh and we all need each other when big things are happening in life,” says Arkema. “Emotionally, at our core, we are all the same.”

All humans share a certain physiological similarity, too: the inability to experience physical pain while laughing.

“A laugh is actually a vacation from pain,” explains Arkema. “Your body cannot be in pain at the same time it’s laughing. It’s physically impossible.”

Good things come to those wait

This is precisely why Gilda’s Club incorporates humor into nearly all of its onsite support services, a fact that Arkema says surprises many non-members.

“We knew that people who didn’t know us had a deep-seated belief that we were just for women, just a touchy feely place or depressing,” explains Arkema.

Combined with its mission-driven “airtight strategy,” this particular piece of information became the foundation for LaughFest’s visionary marketing campaign.

Instead of relying on the Gilda’s Club name alone to generate interest, organizers hired experts to help them brand LaughFest and upend the characterization of Gilda’s Club as “sad and depressing.”

“We knew we wanted something simple, something clean, something that would resonate with people. And we knew we’d know it when we saw it,” says Arkema, who hired Reagan Marketing + Design to help create the LaughFest brand. “The other piece was getting the experts around the table.”

But even with experts in your corner, don’t expect things to happen overnight.

“We took the time to bake the concept before pulling it out of the oven,” says Arkema. “I have to give Mary (Reagan) and her team a lot of credit for being patient with us. It took many rounds of brainstorming and creative process.”

The result was well worth the wait, she says.

“The room was hushed in silence when we saw it for the first time,” says Arkema, describing when the now ubiquitous smile sign was unveiled. “We knew it was the right thing.”

The yellow-and-black icon, and the idea of “guerilla marketing” it all over West Michigan, were two of those pitch-perfect marketing ideas that everyone was, is and will continue talking about.

“When the signs first started popping up in windows, people didn’t know what they were for,” recalls Charlsie Dewey, a freelance writer and PR specialist at Sabo Public Relations. “Everyone started asking each other if they knew what the signs were about. They definitely generated curiosity and built a buzz. This year the signs offered a familiarity. People were glad to see that the festival had done so well and would be back again.”

The signs work because they are simple and positive, Dewey continues, and they leverage a natural human response into customer engagement.

“When someone else smiles at you, it is almost impossible not to smile back,” says the PR strategist. “I think the signs really represent what LaughFest is all about.”

Something for everyone

After completing what Arkema calls “90 percent of the homework” — fleshing out mission, market and brand — it was finally time to move on to the fun part.

Event organizers opted for a festival instead of a one-time comedy event. The format provides more opportunities for involvement and, as the annual success of Festival of the Arts and ArtPrize demonstrate, West Michiganders love a festival.

Next, they booked talent and venues that would work for people of every age, taste and income level. In 2011, this included a lineup of 642 artists at 49 festival stages. This year, visitors enjoyed a range of performances from heavy-hitters like Whoopi Goldberg to free exhibitions of local photography.

“We wanted to create a way to get everybody involved — not just people who can afford a $250 dinner,” says Arkema. “We also wanted to marry that with the heart and soul of the community and showcase what makes them laugh.”

Ruth Terry is a freelance writer and consultant who curates content for magazines and corporate clients. Find her at

Read 2400 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 August 2012 10:29

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