The #nomakeupselfie Campaign: How Could Cancer Research UK Gained £ 2 Million Donation With A Simple Hashtag?


Woman taking selfie

At the first glance, #nomakeupselfie campaign looks like a common model of how to make a viral message on social media. However, if we take a look a little bit closer, there is another “interesting” fact: the campaign has raised more than £ 2 million for Cancer Research in UK.

Nowadays, it would be reasonable for digital marketing executives and charities to find out how to replicate its success. However, there is a tricky little secret of this campaign: it wasn’t Cancer Research UK’s idea. They found that the campaign gathering massive public attention and gave it an encouragement, yet they didn’t initiate it. A spokesman described this result as “something totally unexpected”.

The question now is “Is there anything that we can learn about the science of social sharing, when viral magic can hit at seemingly random occassions?”

Originally, the hashtag #nomakeupselfie has a devious history. It can be traced to a 5 March tweet by the novelist Laura Lipmann, which used a different hashtag and had nothing to do with cancer. Only days later did the Internet attach the “no make up” idea to cancer, and the connection itself makes no sense. The idea is that posing for a photo with no makeup requires the same level of bravery as facing up to cancer. Clearly, the campaign oriented on an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. At its peak, tens of thousands of tweets a day were being posted with the hashtag.


Why Did The Campaign Become Successful?

 The use of questionably popular hashtag is obvious. However, on a deeper level it made people feel good about themselves. It was about affirmation, self-confidence and authenticity. These emotional aspects are very important because they trigger sharing. Still, there was also a self-denouncing element to #nomakeupselfie. Many people added their photos with self-critical qualifications: “I look terrible.” Of course, they could be pretty confident that the comments underneath would ring in with, “Nonsense, you look beautiful.”

Also, it was easy to join in. You didn’t have to dress up or run a marathon to take part. The real deal was the call to action. Initially, many selfies included links to justgiving pages, but the campaign only really achieved critical mass when the text donation element came to dominate: no forms to fill in or credit card details to enter. You didn’t have to be at your desk. Whether you were posting a photo or donating money, all that you needed was a phone. That’s the essential lesson for any fundraisers: anyone who hopes to achieve viral ability of any kind needs to think about how their message will work on mobile. The bigger something gets, the more mobile comes into play. Make it easy to spread.


The most successful viral campaigns are the ones that don’t do blatant advertising. It’s all about subtlety. There is nothing more tragic than a publisher or marketer that self-consciously trying to go viral. The key of #nomakeupselfie campaign was all about authenticity, removing layers of artifice. People took the bait accordingly because it wasn’t devised purposively by Cancer Research UK. This was a rare example of pure, not manufactured, viral campaign. It might be quite difficult for others to replicate. However, that won’t stop them trying.