April is Autism Awareness Month, and companies, including CafePress, are showing their support for the cause by partnering with nonprofit organizations. To talk about cause marketing, what it means, and how businesses can get involved, I invited Jason Falls, vice-president of digital strategy at CafePress and the founder and chief instigator of Social Media Explorer, to talk with me for Marketing Smarts.

Listen to it later:

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Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Choose a cause that's important to your brand's online community (5:00): "[CafePress] simply looked at our community, and the causes that they reflect most vocally are the ones we're going to support... So, in a way, people who uploaded autism designs back in 2005, 2006, 2007, helped us decide that we were going to support autism."

If your company has no personal ties to a particular cause, choose one anyway (8:13): "If you don't have something that makes sense, then I think that you just need to find the [cause]...that the leadership of the organization gravitates to the most, and say 'it may not make sense with our brand, but we're going to support this cause and here's why.' Then, you can create that story as you get to know that organization better."

Handled wrong, cause marketing could actually damage a brand (9:32): "Any time you skirt causes that are going to be close to some...fiery, sensitive, emotional topic...you run the risk of being associated with...controversy."

Respond genuinely in times of crisis (11:50): Companies should be "genuinely focused on contributing to the goodness that can happen in these situations. You need to be doing it because you are a good steward of the community and because you are a member of the community. You do not need to be doing it for publicity."

Reach out to your community after tragic events, like the bombing at the Boston Marathon (15:18): "It was appropriate for us to raise our hand and say, 'Hey, Boston, we're thinking about you.' There's no link in the post. We're not trying to drive people back to CafePress. We're not trying to get people to buy anything. We're just showing our support. I think that's appropriate."

Approach your cause marketing with a service-minded attitude (19:45): "How can we be a valued and valuable contributor to our community? Identify a cause that helps your community."

How small businesses can engage in cause marketing (21:35) "The smaller you are, maybe the smaller of an impact you can have, or maybe the impact has to be more volunteerism versus dollars, but I think every business can step back and say 'what can I do do be part of the community?'"

If you want to know more about CafePress and Autism Awareness Month, visit CafePress.com, AutismSpeaks.org or AutisticAdvocacy.org. And be sure to follow Jason's posts at JasonFalls.com.

Jason and I covered much more ground in our conversation. If you're interested in cause marketing, I encourage you to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3.

Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

Music credit: Noam Weinstein.

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