Can emoji help save endangered animals?

WWF International launched its 'Endangered Emoji' campaign, letting users donate to conservation efforts via Twitter. The campaign reflects efforts by charities and advocacy groups to marry social media and philanthropy.

China Daily/Reuters/File
Giant panda Weiwei rests in its enclosure during snowfall at a zoo in Wuhan, Hubei province Feb. 1. The giant panda is among 17 endangered animals that are part of the World Wildlife Foundation's "Endangered Emoji" campaign, launched May 12.

Saving wildlife is now just a tweet away.

On Tuesday, WWF International launched its worldwide “Endangered Emoji” campaign, which lets users contribute to the organization’s conservation efforts by tweeting any one of 17 endangered emoji animals.

The campaign reflects recent efforts by charities and advocacy groups to marry philanthropy and social media. In the last few years, donating to a cause has become increasingly simple, as websites, text messaging, and finally Facebook and Twitter provided anyone with a smartphone or an Internet connection with a way to participate or give with a click.

“The concept of philanthropy and social good is inherently social. None of this gets solved in isolation,” Charles Huang, founder of Twitter donation platform Charitweet, told CNBC last year. “We're moving philanthropy away from a few rich old men to everyday action and civic duty.”

The shift is partly a result of the decline in charitable giving during and following the Great Recession. Technology, however, has played a bigger role: As social media and tech startups gave the public unprecedented access to everything from groceries to pet food to dry cleaning, charities faced pressure to make philanthropy easier, as well.

At first, the answer seemed to be in text-message fundraising: In 2008, United Way encouraged Super Bowl viewers to support their youth fitness initiative by sending the word “FIT” to a six-digit number; $5 would be debited from the viewer’s account for every text sent.

By the time the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the method had soared in popularity, with the Red Cross alone raising about $30 million via mobile donations within two months of the disaster, according to the Harvard Business Review.

But launching a text campaign proved to be a complicated process, requiring in most cases a middleman that first vets each charity based on a range of criteria, and that then connects the charity with mobile carriers to set up the fundraising campaign, The Christian Science Monitor reported. The middleman then charges a fee for incidental costs.

With the rise of social media, text began to take a backseat. Charities today use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Vine, and other platforms to promote awareness of their causes – and, more importantly, receive the donations that might actually make a difference, The Guardian noted:

New apps such as Chirpify and Soldsie connect users' bank or Paypal accounts to their social media account, allowing users to buy items or services by tweeting someone with a particular word. And as easily as a brand can ask consumers to tweet “buy,” charities could ask people to tweet “donate.”

Mr. Huang’s Charitweet works similarly: The app lets users make a donation and retweet a message to help out.

“If you ‘like’ a photo, it doesn't actually help disaster relief in another part of world,” Huang told CNBC. “Charitweet puts money where your mouth is.”

So far, the method has had some success in fundraising. More than 70 percent of US charities and nonprofit organizations surveyed said they found social media useful for donation initiatives, according to a 2014 report by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research.

WWF International's new campaign, done in partnership with international ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, advances the trend while adding a new element: Emoji, which WWF has been using to illustrate its work over the last nine months, says Adrian Cockle, the organization's digital innovation manager. Referring to an article in The Guardian last year, Mr. Cockle calls the popular pictograms "the first truly global language."

"We all love and use emoji all the time," he says. "We want to connect the emoji that people are using to the real species that are being represented."

Indeed, the emoji help promote awareness of the actual endangered species even as they encourage users to give to the cause. The campaign’s home page displays the 17 endangered emoji animals with descriptions of the dangers they face. Hunting and poisoning, for instance, is the main threat to the African wild dog, while Maui’s dolphin population faces plummeting numbers due to entanglements in fishing nets. 

At the same time, participants who sign up receive a monthly summary of their emoji use and an option to donate a voluntary amount. The WWF will then add the equivalent of 0.10 euros, or $0.10, to that amount for every emoji tweeted.

Less than a day into the campaign's launch, Cockle reports an "overwhelmingly positive" response, with more than 7,500 retweets of its main promotional posting and users tweeting their support using emoji. 

"It's so exciting to see people enthused," he says. 

The campaign comes days before Endangered Species Day on May 15.

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