The devastation in Haiti has brought people from all over the world together online in what can only be described as an impressive display of generosity.

Not surprisingly, Twitter is playing a big role in disseminating information about the crisis. And it’s playing a big role in fundraising for organizations providing relief to Haiti. Unfortunately, unscrupulous marketers are taking advantage of the situation to further their business interests.

It doesn’t take too much effort to find examples of this. Take the following tweets:

all #clothdiapers orders portion goes to @redcross 4 #Haiti Relief

A portion of all of b. Hughes’ sales from now through the weekend will be donated to the Red Cross for the relief efforts in Haiti! Pls RT!!

Just sold and re-listed! A portion of sales will go to the relief effort in #Haiti is donating a portion of our bookings to disaster relief in #haiti. Find more information here:

Help Us Help #Haiti! We are donating a portion of proceeds from on-line sales to American Red Cross Haiti Relief Fund

“Team Conan” by @alexpardee portion of proceeds will be donated to @yelehaiti #teamconan #haiti

Last day of the weekend! But we are still donating a portion to ALL SALES to #Haiti and the Red Cross.

Book a session at this month, you’ll make an impact…giving a portion of this month’s sessions for relief to #Haiti.

Help 2 causes at same time: Buy “I’m With Coco” T’s & prints, with portion going to #Haiti.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with businesses supporting a cause. In fact, without support from businesses, many charitable organizations would be far worse off. And there’s also nothing inherently wrong with businesses donating a portion of their sales to a cause.

The problem here, however, is that much of the stuff we’re seeing is little more than opportunistic marketing piggybacking on tragedy. We’re talking about a major humanitarian crisis here. Marketers who had never mentioned the word ‘Haiti‘ before tragedy struck are now seizing on it to boost sales and goodwill. And many aren’t even being subtle about it.

Unfortunately, such efforts often backfire in the long run. Which is why marketers considering Haiti-related initiatives need to be careful. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t target the hashtag. This is just downright sleazy and makes it’s clear that the real agenda is a marketing agenda. ‘Nuff said.
  • Don’t ask for retweets. If your effort is worthy, individuals will retweet without the push. Again, asking for retweets screams ‘Sleazy marketing ploy!
  • Don’t spam. Want to know what spam looks like? See @sugardipes, who tweeted six times in the past day about its partial Haiti donation using the #Haiti hashtag and referencing @RedCross to boot.
  • Think twice about partial donations. As I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with donating a portion of sales to a cause. Many businesses do partial donation initiatives and it’s a boon for charitable organizations looking to augment direct donations during a normal fundraising drive. But partial donations are not nearly as appropriate when there’s an immediate crisis, as charitable organizations are already receiving lots of publicity and there’s plenty of motivation for individuals to donate directly to the relief effort, which is far more effective. For businesses that do choose to do partial donations anyway, don’t be shady: tell people what ‘portion of‘ means. Is it 10%, 50%, 90%? None of the tweets mentioned above disclosed this information, and as I write this post, this important detail is not revealed on any of the pages they linked to!
  • Consider an outright donation. If you really want to help the Haitian relief effort, consider making an outright donation instead of donating a portion of sales. It will enable you to avoid tying your financial gain to your charitable giving and makes it clear that your intentions are not to drive sales but rather to give back.
  • Use common sense. When it comes to whether or not marketing is exploiting tragedy, there’s an easy way to tell: you know it when you see it. I suspect, for instance, that the average person would agree that this attempt at acquiring additional subscribers to an email newsletter by promising a 50p donation is a bit scummy.

It’s unfortunate that at a time when so many organizations and individuals are working hard to help the people of Haiti, marketers take advantage of the situation to help their bottom line. Don’t be one of them. If you’re truly interested in helping a cause, consider implementing charitable initiatives that aren’t related to an ongoing crisis and that will assist an organization when its fundraising efforts need a boost.