How LIVESTRONG Raised Millions to Fight Cancer Using Social Media : Social Media Examiner

social media case studiesIn 2004, a little yellow bracelet changed the cancer cause.

The ubiquitous LIVESTRONG gel wristband, which sold for $1, adorned the wrists of cancer survivors, supporters and celebrities while uniting people around the world in the fight against the disease. If you haven’t worn one, you probably know someone who has.

Simple and inexpensive, the bands created a community that crossed political, geographic, ethnic and age lines. And they brought in an estimated $70 million for the charity.

livestrong yellow braceletThe bracelet craze has slowed but LIVESTRONG is still going as strong as founder Lance Armstrong’s cycling prowess.

Today, social networking at LIVESTRONG creates a viral effect on the order of the yellow bracelet, but in the virtual world.

The year 2009 was monumental for LIVESTRONG. The organization moved into a new headquarters building and appointed a full-time person to social media. The payoff: they raised millions, made political statements and helped countless people manage their cancer better.

Organization: LIVESTRONG

Social Media Stats:


Facebook: 769,167 fans
YouTube: 2,270 Subscribers


  • The 2009 LIVESTRONG Challenge raised $10.8 million – a record for the 13-year event in a down economic year.
  • Online store sales set a new record in the rough 2009 holiday season.
  • LIVESTRONG collected 70,000 signatures for a healthcare petition.
  • Twitter matching challenges have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

7 Days a Week

In 1997, cancer survivor and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation in Austin, Texas to fight for the millions of people around the world living with cancer. The organization – now called LIVESTRONG – helps anyone affected by cancer understand what to expect, what questions to ask and provides one-on-one support along the way.

Today, LIVESTRONG employs 74 people at its “green” Austin headquarters. Brooke McMillan, with the foundation for six years, became the full-time online community evangelist about a year ago – a title that perfectly suits her responsibilities and enthusiasm. She needs that dedication for what is a 7-day-a-week job.

Social media never sleeps,” says McMillan, who tweets and posts via her Blackberry on the weekends.

The LIVESTRONG blog serves as the hub of all social media outreach, covering everything from cancer activism to events to questions about colonoscopies. McMillan and her fellow team members take turns posting on the blog.

But it’s LIVESTRONG’s fervent community of followers that truly build the momentum with their personal stories and support for others. Most have a personal connection to the cause: those fighting cancer, survivors or those who have family or friends who have been affected.

livestrong blog

The LIVESTRONG blog is the hub for their social media outreach.

The Voices of LIVESTRONG

More than 60% of LIVESTRONG’s website traffic comes from social networking sites, but Twitter tops them all as the #1 referral source. In fact, Twitter referrals are three times higher than those from Facebook.

Three distinct voices make up LIVESTRONG’s Twitter presence:

@livestrong – Brooke McMillan, online community evangelist (63,000 followers)

@livestrongceo – LIVESTRONG’s charismatic CEO and cancer survivor Doug Ulman (1,007,958 followers)

@lancearmstrong – LIVESTRONG’s iconic founder and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong (2,449,311 followers)

While no-one can deny the influence of a famous figure like Lance Armstrong – who tweets and posts fun insights on his fascinating life – McMillan is in fact the social media voice of LIVESTRONG.

“That’s something I take very seriously,” she says. “I make sure that the @livestrong account is not just a place to put PR, that it actually has a voice.”

With a social work background – not marketing – she started at LIVESTRONG six years ago by answering calls on the LIVESTRONG SurvivorCare help line. That experience helped her truly understand the cancer community.

livestrong twitter

LIVESTRONG has over 63,000 fans on Twitter.

She continues her education and cheerleading by pointing Twitter, blog and Facebook contacts to LIVESTRONG resources and the support line. For that reason, @livestrong follows more people than follow its Twitter feed.

LIVESTRONG connects its social networking communities of hundreds of thousands with the information they need. McMillan often polls fans and followers about their questions for cancer specialists – and then provides those answers on the blog, with links from Twitter and Facebook.

LIVESTRONG also taps into its yellow bracelet icon with a Twitter avatar with the yellow band across the bottom – now created by more than 50,000 followers.

Brooke McMillan’s Lessons Learned

A year ago, McMillan didn’t have a Facebook account, but now she heads social media for a recognized foundation. Here’s what she’s learned:

Have a voice
Don’t be boring. Put a personal, distinct voice behind your social media – not a stodgy, corporate voice.

Don’t delegate to an intern
Choose someone with deep knowledge of the organization to be your voice, not just someone who knows social media. “Would you put an intern in front of a camera? If not, then reconsider.”

Don’t be afraid of constructive comments. How else will you know what to do better?

Encourage storytelling
Let your community be there for each other. Facebook fans post their own stories on the site and step in to support each other.

Exceeding Fundraising Goals

When the economy suffers, nonprofit donations overall go down. In 2009, LIVESTRONG worried about a dip in funds from its annual signature fundraising push, the LIVESTRONG Challenge.

The events draw thousands in cities across the country to run and bike in support of cancer research. In 13 years, the Challenge has raised $60 million.

Considering the rough economy of the past couple of years, LIVESTRONG was unsure what the 2009 events would bring. They used social networks to spread the word and build excitement, and quickly filled events and fundraising goals.

They even posted on Twitter and Facebook while on the ground at events with twitpics and updates.

In total, this past year’s events brought in $10.8 million – a new milestone.

“We ended up not only exceeding our goal but reached a new record, which we can hopefully beat this year,” McMillan said.

Supercharging Challenges

More than anything, Twitter helps get it done – and fast.

LIVESTRONG learned its power early on when their CEO Ulman accepted a wager from a donor. If Ulman could reach 25,000 followers in three days, the charity would receive $25,000.

Over three days of “hammering away in the Twittersphere,” tens of thousands stepped up to follow Ulman. In the end, the donor let LIVESTRONG poll the community to determine where to apply those funds.

When a guy affected by cancer, Drew Olanoff, decided to auction off his @drew Twitter ID for cancer, the response went way beyond anyone’s expectations. Comedian Drew Carey (now at @drewontv) learned about the auction, and instead of just buying the ID, he offered to give LIVESTRONG a dollar for every Twitter follower he got – up to $1 million.

Comedian Drew Carey helps LIVESTRONG

Record Holiday Sales

LIVESTRONG sells high-quality, branded gear in its online store, with proceeds supporting the charity. Again, the organization wondered whether holiday sales could top the previous year.

livestrong storeFor the 2009 holiday season, McMillan made sure that the LIVESTRONG community knew about the mostly Nike gear and easy online shopping by featuring specific items on Facebook and Twitter.

Again, LIVESTRONG hit record numbers with store sales during a year when holiday retail numbers fell flat.

I put a little ad out on Facebook and it just exploded,” she said. “I tweeted out different items that were featured. This year it just took off.”

70,000 Signatures

LIVESTRONG actively solicits support for initiatives through its page. This past year, the organization is focused on healthcare reform to ensure that those with cancer have access to healthcare and medications.

Social networking sites drive people to the action site. There, they can create dedication pages with stories of their loved ones and sign the LIVESTRONG Healthcare Reform Petition in honor of that person.

“It makes it more powerful and brings it back to the whole reason why you would sign a petition anyway. It’s not just putting your name on there for another cause,” McMillan said.

Again, Twitter was the leading source of traffic for the healthcare petition. With 70,000 signatures in hand, CEO Doug Ulman arrived on Capitol Hill and met with representatives of Congress.

“When he went, every office had a giant stack of dedications and signatures. ‘These are the faces and people you’re representing and don’t forget it,’” McMillan said.

The Power of the Story

The true impact of social media lies in what cannot be measured: LIVESTRONG’s support of the cancer community.

In that regard, Facebook provides a community of people (781,328 currently) who help each other, separate from LIVESTRONG’s official posts. Every day, about 30 people post on the wall.

“A lot of folks share that it’s the first time to ever write their story. They’re writing it on our wall,” McMillan said. “A guy said his mom was diagnosed and four people he doesn’t know talked about supporting him. This happens umpteen times a day. I’m very proud of the community.”

The spirit of the yellow bracelet lives on.

Are you a cancer survivor?  Can social media help other causes?  How do you create a community of passionate fans and followers? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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