“All we need is 250 votes…”

This is cruel marketing.

If you're like me, you've gotten dozens of emails over the last week about a promotion that Chase and Living Social are running in which they're promising local businesses that work within their community a chance to win a grant for $250,000. The emails almost always have the line,

All we need is a vote from 250 kind friends and supporters like you.

Here's why it's doubly dangerous. First, clearly the organization doesn't actually get a grant in exchange for only getting 250 online votes. Hey, 250 online votes won't even get you a pack of chewing gum these days. No, all the votes do is make you eligible to apply for the grant. And yet the organization, perhaps a worthy one, is now spamming thousands of people offering this sliver of hope, all in rush to get 250 votes, even though the chances that anything will happen are perilously close to zero. There are only 12 grants available in total. That's pitiful. Hopes raised, hopes dashed.

And then, for the small businesses, the ones who get through this hurdle and then get through the hurdle of the application, once again, hopes raised, hopes dashed.

There's nothing wrong with competitions and difficult to achieve goals. Nothing wrong with making it hard to get into Brown or get a Gates Foundation grant. The dangerous mistake is making the organizations (and then their core supporters) think it's likely, or easy. You end up not only burning the brand of Living Social and Chase (who probably had good intentions) but by extension, hurting the brand and permission relationships of the very organizations you're trying to help. Peter and the wolf… the villagers aren't going to come next time.

Pepsi did the same thing with charities last year, and my concern is the same: when you activate your supporters, you need a clear path to victory, not a wild goose chase.

One significant way around this: have the outbound messages of the tribe be about more than the grant. Figure out how putting in the effort to help your local organization actually strengthens ties, instead of weakening them. The pursuit could be even better than the prize if you establish the right groundwork.

To be really clear: it's harder to cut through the clutter than ever before, but just because a gimmick is going to cut through the clutter doesn't mean you should use it. It doesn't pay to make a lot of noise if that noise ends up hurting you in the long run.