How CBS Is Donating to Charity One Video Stream at a Time

“Viewers to Volunteers” app will enable users to give to their favorite cause simply by watching feel-good content

Finally, a charity campaign that even the most cash-strapped couch potatoes can get behind.

Last week, CBS rolled out a new venture called “Viewers to Volunteers,” or V2V for short, which allows users to accumulate points simply by watching feel-good videos.

The kicker? Those points can then be converted into donations for their favorite causes.

“In 30 seconds we turn viewers into volunteers,” CBS’ EcoMedia division founder and president, Paul Polizzotto, told TheWrap. “We want to create an environment where content has context.”

The idea is simple: enable people to donate to causes they care about without digging into their pockets. All they have to do is watch videos sponsored by Toyota.

But don’t expect to see your favorite episode of “The Big Bang Theory” or “CSI.” Viewers accumulate credit points by watching a CBS news clip that might feature Toyota’s social-conscious work or short-form documentaries on research done at local hospitals. All videos are five minutes or less.

Brands have long used social causes to burnish their images. NBC struck gold when it locked in big-name marketers for its “Making a Difference” segments, featuring companies and regular do-gooders for example. But what’s remarkable about V2V is that it allows consumers to decide where their donations should go.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Tri-State Toyota Dealers Association president Paul Muller told TheWrap. “We still want to sell a car, there’s no secret in that. But in doing that we want to encourage people to do something for somebody else. It’s a win for Toyota, it’s a win for CBS and it’s a win for the consumer.”

It’s also a big win for the 11 charitable organizations that have made the initial cut. At a time when many non-profits are still dealing with the lingering effects of the economic crisis, V2V could help deliver a much-needed shot in the arm.

“In many ways it can be a game changer for us,” Starlight Children’s Foundation Global CEO Jacqui Hart told TheWrap. “CBS has the power to curate captivating content so that consumers will go to the platform and continue coming back and engage in this positive publishing.”

Hart’s organization helps 600 pediatric community clinics and hospitals that serve more than 26 million children around the country. The group provides everything from new equipment to hospital renovations.

While 60 percent of Starlight’s $60 million budget comes from major corporations, the rest is donated by regular people who simply want to help.

“Individuals have the power to solve really big problems,” said Hart. “If you and I are watching CBS programming or engaging in content anyway, this allows us to do it in a purposeful way and have our entertainment time, which is an incredibly finite resource, be used for social good.”

So far Toyota is the only advertiser on board. But CBS is negotiating with other major sponsors. V2V will start as a site, with an app set to launch next month.

Branding experts say this solves a major problem for sponsors looking to get their messages across without annoying potential consumers.

“These days viewers don’t like to be interrupted to watch ads,” said Andy Marks, president of Marks Entertainment Media, a consulting firm hired by CBS’ EcoMedia division to develop V2V’s strategy. “What V2V offers is an environment free of interruptive advertising in the traditional sense. There’s no preroll or banner ads hawking Toyota products, there’s only great content, some of which features Toyota’s corporate social responsibility efforts. But mostly it’s just entertaining and inspiring content that is not branded.”

There’s another added benefit for companies looking to jump on board: a positive association with their brand.

“Advertisers and marketers are genuinely putting their money where their mouth is,” Marks said. “Brands are always looking for a positive association with their good works and this is the perfect context for them to do it.”

For now, V2V will launch in four major markets: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Dallas-Fort Worth, where CBS has reached deals with Toyota dealers. But, the plan is to go national when the app launches in April. That’s also when the points system will take effect.

The challenge for CBS will be getting viewers to download the app and then watch clips that tackle social issues.

“This is just the beginning,” said Polizzotto. “What we’re doing is bringing together technology, digital content and socially positive impact that is transformative.”