Brittany Maynard

Every organization hopes that one day their online campaign will be the one to go viral. How does a digital team take an advocacy message and package it so that it does? And after the digital tsunami hits, can success be a hindrance for your campaign?

Bill Gordon, the digital director for Compassion & Choices, the leading death-with-dignity advocacy group in the U.S., shared lessons he is learning as part of the team behind the Brittany Fund.

Compassion & Choices educates Americans on palliative care issues and their right to die with dignity, comfort, and control at the end of life. Only five states, including Oregon, have authorized death-with-dignity and aid-in-dying laws.

Because end of life issues generally impact family care takers, the ill, and/or the elderly, it is difficult to get the attention of the young, healthy web-native population, but Brittany Maynard may have changed all that.


Twenty-nine-year-old Maynard has become the unlikely face of the death-with-dignity movement. On January 1, 2014, she learned that she had glioblastoma, a fast-moving terminal brain tumor. Shortly after the diagnosis, Maynard’s doctors estimated that, even with treatment, Maynard would have six months to live. Maynard considered her options and decided she’d rather forgo treatment and die “on her own terms.”

Aid-in-dying is illegal in California, so Maynard, her husband, and her mother uprooted their lives and moved to Oregon where access to appropriate medications was available. Over the summer, on the advice of a friend, Maynard approached Compassion & Choices to help her produce and disseminate a video about her life, illness, and choice “to die with dignity.”

Sharing Brittany Maynard’s Story

Enter Bill Gordon, the digital director for Compassion & Choices. After several iterations of the website, Gordon decided to create a lean microsite separate from the main Compassion & Choices website. Both sites would link to each other, but the Brittany Fund wouldn’t be weighed down by the excess content populating the main site. It’s a technique he borrowed from the political campaign world.

“I am a big fan of microsites,” Gordon said. “I like the idea of them as a way to refer to connected external campaigns.” Microsites, he explained, are independent but also drive traffic to (and gain credibility from) the organization’s main site. This helps create an overarching umbrella brand, what Gordon called a “metabrand.” In his estimation, the Brittany Fund microsite was key to the campaign’s viral success.

“I think it was one of the smartest things we’ve done,” he says. Every time the media would share this story about the Brittany Fund, they would say it was “assisted by Compassion & Choices,” so the story, or tweet, or Facebook post, would include two referral links, and both brought traffic directly back to the organization’s websites. The Brittany Fund microsite was quickly populated with Maynard’s story, as told through video, pictures, and text. Then it was a matter getting it out to a well-trafficked website.

“It’s funny to think about what we were going to do. It seems really small now,” he said. “We looked at our last best campaign. It was the story of this woman, Barbara Mancini who had been arrested after she handed her father a bottle of morphine that had been prescribed for him. [The Mancini campaign] got a good amount of press. It got a New York Times op-ed and we established a legal defense fund.”

But then, through sheer hustle, and after several rejections, the Compassion & Choices’ communications team got interested in the Maynard story. People wrote up a story on Monday, October 6, and linked to both sites. Then several smaller outlets picked up the story and linked to the sites. That day Compassion & Choices and Brittany Fund, which normally had about 1,000 to 1,500 visitors each day, saw their web traffic double. The next day, the number of visitors to the websites increased to 333,669 unique visitors.

The Network Grows Fast (maybe too fast)

As Gordon and his team watched traffic rise, they realized they may never have another opportunity for so much free exposure again. Gordon built a virtual card of support for Brittany using a simple online lightbox. Visitors were able to sign (and share) the card, but they also had to leave their emails behind.

Then, on Wednesday, October 9, the digital storm hit. More than 1.2 million people from over 200 countries visited the Compassion & Choices and the Brittany Fund websites. Of these unique visitors, 75 percent came to the websites via social media.

Brittany Maynard and the Brittany Fund had officially gone viral. It was a critical moment: Maynard and Compassion & Choices could greatly extend the the death-with-dignity message to new networks.

Yet instead of feeling jubilation, Gordon watched in abject horror as the websites crashed under the strain of increased traffic.

A screenshot of the homepage that asks visitors to sign a card supporting Brittany Maynard.

Gordon and his team had planned for a successful campaign, but the success they had planned for was based on their previous best success.

“We said, ‘Let’s plan for 10 or 30 times our normal site traffic,’ but when we received 100,000 visitors an hour, our host server shut us down,” he said. “These things can’t be switched on a dime, the migration from a shared server to a dedicated server can take 24 to 48 hours [to complete].”

Gordon and his team worked through the night to move both sites from their old servers to a dedicated server that could handle viral traffic. During the time the websites were down, the group lost thousands of interested visitors who may have signed on to support Maynard by signing a virtual card and increased the number of people Compassion & Choices could connect with in the future.

Regardless of how many people the campaign may have lost, as of October 23, they registered 250,000 new email address.

“We now have this incredible platform that we can go back to past this moment,” Gordon says. “That is great.”

Cultivating New Supporters, Building Relationships

At an advocacy organization, a viral success is not a campaign success. Brittany Maynard’s voice is creating an opportunity but Gordon and his team know that the work has just begun.

Compassion & Choices sent three fundraising messages in the first two weeks but, Gordon notes, one-off fundraisers are not the goal.

Ultimately, Compassion & Choices has to convince new email subscribers, mostly 25- to 40-year-old women, that even though they came to the site out of concern for Brittany, they should join the movement.

“We talk about that really important adage from the 2008 Obama campaign, which says that ‘people come for the candidate, but they stay for the organizer.’ It’s the idea that volunteers walk through the door because they like this candidate, but they stay and donate their free time because a field organizer has created a sense of community.”
– Bill Gordon, Compassion & Choices

“We talk about that really important adage from the 2008 Obama campaign, which says that ‘people come for the candidate, but they stay for the organizer.’ It’s the idea that volunteers walk through the door because they like this candidate, but they stay and donate their free time because a field organizer has created a sense of community.” Compassion & Choices will try to foster a similar experience, but for an online community.

As a nonprofit organization, the group has the luxury of time. They write a strong email, written in an authentic voice. They’re not chasing votes so they don’t have to burn through, and burnout, their email list.

Nonprofit organizations with a long endgame can strike a delicate balance between asking their email list for money, asking their subscribers for online shares, and giving their subscribers exclusive benefits. “All to often, the email is truly about fundraising,” Gordon says, “but the non-fundraising ask is crucial for building loyalty.”

For now the group is pushing the “non-fundraising ask,” especially as the demographics of their email list has radically shifted to millennial women. Compassion & Choices is asking supporters to step up and take the lead in sharing Maynard’s message.

For example, this week Brittany Fund emailed their subscribers that Maynard and her mother made it to the Grand Canyon, Brittany’s dream trip. The email included a simple message thanking subscribers for their support and some pictures from the trip. Readers were asked to share the email and/or the pictures. In the future, Gordon says many of Maynard’s personal updates will be sent out to the email list, or posted on the website before they are sent out to press.

Several weeks after the Brittany Fund kicked off, it seems like Brittany Maynard is everywhere. She’s on the cover of the October 27 issue of People Magazine. There are countless articles and numerous op-eds opining over end of life issues. Gordon credits both his organization’s technical agility—their ability to quickly create a microsite in-house—and social media for the campaign’s long-lasting success.

Brittany Maynard and her family visited the Grand Canyon last week. This photo was shared with email followers.

But the campaign’s success is a complicated victory for everyone, including Maynard, Gordon, and the entire Compassion & Choices community.

Maynard’s seizures are worsening as her health deteriorates. Soon she will have to make the hardest choice of her young life. Whatever her personal choice, her death is imminent. For her family and friends, Maynard’s passing will mean one thing, but Compassion & Choices will have to navigate this next campaign with aplomb.

These are the conversations the organization is currently having: How can they best honor Brittany’s memory and her wish for the Brittany Fund to continue?

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The Brittany Maynard Fund