The Shrek Effect

April 4, 2020

I’m gonna put it right out there. I am frustrated! 


There, I said it.


I know I am not alone because I talk to administrators of schools about this all the time: superintendents, principals and sometimes teachers too. We talk about how to cut through all of the “noise” in order to communicate important things to our community.


You’re probably thinking: what in the world does this have to do with Shrek?


Hang in there and it, hopefully, will soon become clear.



In the movie, Shrek, there is a scene where Shrek, Fiona and Donkey find the storybook character refugee camp. They are there to ask the community to join them in defeating Lord Farquar but nobody can hear the message because when the trio arrives all the storybook characters see is 2 ogres coming into their camp! Some of them flee. Some of them hide. Some of them start attacking the incoming group. Nobody waits to see what they are going to do. Nobody realizes that these ogres are not here to eat them, stomp on them, or any other such traumatic and potentially fatal activities. It takes quite a lot of defending themselves and eventually Shrek losing his temper and screaming at them all to snap everybody out of it so that they can communicate their benevolent mission.


I encounter this phenomenon all the time. See, I have a business and to many in the world any business of any kind is the social equivalent of an ogre in storybook world. My business happens to be officially organized as a “for-profit business” which makes it seem all the more ogrish- although I’d like to point out that I encountered the Shrek Effect when attempting to communicate the resources and activities organizaed by the non-profit organization I founded years ago as well and the schools I work with encounter it too.


Here is how it goes. I have the obligatory Facebook page, Twitter account, and Instagram account. I join Facebook groups to offer advice and support to my community. I also collect email addresses from people who have taken my programs and want to know when more opportunities present themselves. For some, I have cell phone numbers that I can call or text. Mostly I do not collect snail mail addresses. Schools also have most of these same communication resources available to them.


Having a social media account is only useful if the people who want to hear from you have found your page and liked it first of all. In order to get people to find your page/account and like or follow you, you have to communicate that it exists…. and that is where the Shrek Effect starts. How do you get people to find your page/account and like or follow you so they can stay up to date with your communications?


I’ll tell you what huge corporations do. They advertise- mercilessly. Everywhere you go and look you see their hashtag, Facebook page name etc. It’s in your face all- the- time. They even run Facebook ads just to get you to like their page. They employ (read pay lots of money to) “influencers” to utilise their “friends list” and access to Facebook groups to “recommend” their page in a seemingly non-agressive way to “get the word out”: thereby becoming ogres in the social media space. So when a small, or in my case micro-, business or school tries to reach out to get people who would organically have an interest in liking and/or following their organization, all people see is “OGRE!” and they run away. We get blocked from groups, our posts get passed over in favor of that funny video of the cat falling off the counter, our emails go into the “spam” or “junk” box, and our “friends” are definitely not going to share our announcement for fear of feeling like they might be “promoting a business”. If we are lucky, we get to scroll through each and every post in every group we belong to looking for someone expressing a need we fulfill directly and, then!… and only then are we allowed to let them know we exist with trepidation lest they misundersatnd our attempt to communicate helpfulness and report us as “spamming” them to the administrators who will then boot us from the group altogether. Nevermind the number of hours we spend in that group genuinely helping people without any request for remuneration or reciprocity. Schools, likewise, find it very difficult to reach the same ogre-fearing sector of our community and wind up preaching to the choir and bombarding those of us who make ourselves contactable in a desperate attempt to reach everybody.


Meanwhile on our trip through these posts, we get to pass copious examples of someone in the group vociferously announcing their joy at having found this product at (insert any large corporation/ franchise/ website) complete with link directly to the product page, or refering their husband/ friend/ neighbor/ teacher who just happens to have this skill in case you might need such a service, or touting the virtue of (insert large NPO or celebrity) who is giving away FREE book readings, performances, tutorial videos, limited time subscriptions, etc. Apparently, these activities do not, somehow, ring the ogre bell. Although all of these posts also promote someone’s business and downright sell certain productss, these posts somehow survive without anyone feeling like they are. 


So here is my question for you to ponder: Why?


Why do you feel like it’s ok to give away free promotional opportunities to large organizations that can and do regularly afford to reach you while denying these same opportunities to small or micro-businesses and civic organizations who are trying to tell you about what resources they can offer you?


Why doesn’t it feel like “promoting a business” to spread the word that a large arts company or museum is streaming a free performance or program? 


Why it does feel bad to allow a small business announce a new program that is meant to connect people who have a need with freelancers who provide the fulfilment of that need in pursuit of making enough money to pay their bills? 


Why are small businesses not supposed to ever make any money and afford to pay their bills? 


Large NPOs have huge budgets supported by a dozen or more grantors, often including government grants, and that is what allows them to stream their production for free. Those grants pay all of their employees to perform for free and the streaming for free actually helps them qualify for future grants. By spending current budget in the pursuit of providing community benefit and not bringing in any income, these organizations are doing what is called in the NPO industry “demonstrating need.” This is one of the top requirements for qualifying for grant money. These same organizations have lots of money for marketing and advertising- money that your friend, family member or neighbor who is trying to pay their bills doing what they do through a small or micro-business and your local school system generally lack. So by passing on these “announcements”, you are promoting a business as much as if you were to allow a small/micro-business to post their announcements. They are equally promotional and equalling announcing.


So… why do you treat them differently?


I hope you’ll take some time to ponder the Shrek Effect and see if you can allow yourself to open up to the idea of supporting people- especially people you know, and schools in getting the word out about what they have to offer and are trying to communicate.

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