This is a guest post by Kelly Young, who writes daily blogs on her website Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior. She is more than her disease and her website is more than her own story. It is a growing community of empowered patients and a source of information about fighting RA and stories of other patients with autoimmune arthritis.

Do you really need t-shirts for your cause?

I have a t-shirt drawer, doesn’t everyone? Every year, I weed out a few old ones I finally admit I’ll never wear again. There are shirts from every school or church event we ever volunteered for – not to mention those from amusement parks and sports teams. The memories are wonderful, but some shirts are scratchy and never fit right. Do we really still need t-shirts for one more cause? Yes. Let me explain why…

The value of a visual identity

I have watched the birth of a new community. Unlike the diabetes community which has existed online for almost a decade, the rheumatology patient community did not exist at all. But over the last couple of years, patients have begun to connect. Several things played a part in this beginning: first blogs, then a Facebook group, then Twitter chats. But t-shirts played a surprising role, too. Here’s one example.

Launching an awareness campaign using t-shirts & social media

Last spring, Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior held a t-shirt contest based on a Wonder Woman image I created as a t-shirt design called Warrior Woman. People used the design as a profile image on Facebook or Twitter to enter to win the contest. To earn more contest entries, they could also mention the contest on their own blog or social media profiles. Even guys played along.

In case you haven’t already guessed it, the contest was actually a clever awareness campaign for RA. But, it was even more than that: it was also a significant moment for our budding community. Every day, we could see one another using the same image – the Wonder Woman t-shirt design. It re-enforced that we were a team. Before long, members of the community were posting photos on Facebook of themselves in our t-shirts.

Creating a sense of belonging in virtual communities

A virtual community is a real community since real people are involved in real conversations that often become relationships. However, when there is something visual, it helps people to consider the community as real. T-shirts are a one way to help people feel like they belong to one another.

I hope this gives someone another way to think about t-shirts and other kinds of branded swag. They are more than just advertising for a company. And they are even more than just tools for awareness for a good cause. Sometimes, they can help create a family resemblance.