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  • Digital channels offer unprecedented opportunities to engage people with causes
  • Digital channels offer unprecedented opportunities to engage people with causes
    ING Nederland, Creative Commons (2013) ©

Anytime, everywhere: starting movements on social media

As the number of charities and non-profits increases, people are being hit by 'causes' on all fronts. To cut through 'cause overload', smart businesses are thinking more like non-profits.

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How do you start a social movement? As the number of charities and non-profits increases, people are being hit by 'causes' on all fronts. And with two thirds (66%) of people around the world saying they prefer to buy from companies that give back to society, it's becoming harder for businesses to communicate their broader purpose.

Cutting through 'cause overload' means starting a movement people can really get behind, and for businesses, this means thinking more like a non-profit. We spoke with Allyson Kapin, author of Social Change Anytime Everywhere to uncover insight into how non-profits are upgrading their approach through digital channels.


Define your community and ripple out
Starting a movement is about identifying your community and separating them from the crowd. This is nothing new, but it’s one of the first things you need to do. Your community is the people already on your email or direct mail list, or who you are engaging through social media; board members, donors, activists, supporters and the stakeholder who are really part of your mission.

The next thing – and this is where social media helps – is to spread your message to the wider network: people you have a connection with through your existing community. This means creating stories about your movement that people will want to share with their own community – people who they think might be interested, but who might not have heard about your movement yet. The goal is to get the extended network to become part of your community.

Your community is the people already on your email or direct mail list, or who you are engaging through social media; board members, donors, activists, supporters and the stakeholder who are really part of your mission.

Allyson Kapin, founding partner of Rad Campaign (2013)

Then there's the crowd: everyone outside of your community or network. Crowds are a much larger and tougher group to reach. It's unrealistic to think that you're going to be able to reach everybody in the crowd with your movement, but if you do, you have to be prepared for scrutiny.

Take Invisible Children, for example: the organisation was not prepared for the viral popularity of the Kony 2012 video as it spread beyond the community and network, to the crowds. These crowds had no connection with the organisation or cause; it was the first time they were hearing about Kony, and they were shocked. Yet because of its popularity, the video attracted lots of scrutiny very quickly – around their video, the organisation, the founders, and the amount of money spent producing the video. There was such an onslaught of feedback and criticism that the founder ended up having a nervous breakdown. It was tragic and the world watched it unfold through the media and social channels.

Break down your vision into manageable chunks
If your campaign is focused on 'ending world hunger' you may need to rethink your strategy. These campaigns put a lot of weight on people's shoulders and are not an effective way to motivate people. It makes them feel helpless.

If you can break the long term movement into smaller goals that feel realistic, and explain how just one person can have an impact this helps motivate people to join: they feel like they can achieve something and see meaningful results from their actions.

Anyone can do something for their local community; like donating $50 to feed 25 homeless people breakfast at a soup kitchen. This approach is also about reframing the impact of campaigns to tell one person's story. People don't relate to thousands of other people, they relate to one person.

Understanding this requires you to identify shared goals. So while you're thinking; ‘what do we want to achieve as an organisation?’ you need to be asking; ‘what realistic and manageable actions can we get people to take?’

The Kony 2012 campaign video received 180 million views in the first month alone
Invisible Children ©

Be human and ignore vanity metrics
Messages that sound like they’re regurgitating a press release or marketing jargon won’t be shared with wider communities. The number of US non-profit organisations has grown by about 60% over the past 14 years. People are being approached across multiple channels: on social media, direct mail, email, text messaging, public service announcements, television, posters, billboards, and even on the street through canvassers. The key to cutting through the noise is to be human and have meaningful discussions with the people you seek to reach.

UNICEF recently launched a huge Facebook campaign, which essentially said; 'likes' are great, but what we really need right now is to raise money to purchase vaccines for children in developing countries. That was perfectly legitimate. With a cause, it's fine to tell people what you need and when you need it.

Rather than focusing too much on vanity metrics – Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers – be concerned with the level of engagement.

Allyson Kapin, founding partner of Rad Campaign (2013)

Rather than just overloading people with demands – “share this,” “donate here,” “sign this” – movements should also provide support to their community. That’s the equivalent of really awesome customer service. Organisations are often so focused on raising money and generating awareness they forget the human side of grassroots organising. Your supporters are real people who have taken the time to connect with your cause; they have feelings and they want to be engaged personally. They want to know that you value their opinions.

Rather than focusing too much on vanity metrics – Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers – be concerned with the level of engagement. It's better to build deep relationships and personal connections with people. The better relationships you have with your community, the more advocacy you'll get and the more money you'll raise: having 2,000 highly engaged followers can be better than 200,000 people who don’t care.

Being transparent, and showing direct impact
With traditional media, causes usually talk about their impact quite generically. Social media means you can establish a direct line between what you're doing and where it’s having an impact. This means sharing stories about your successes, and sharing your failures, too: what you have learned and how you plan to address them – in the age of instant communication people are expecting to hear that now.

An organisation called charity: water, which brings clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries shows impact really well. By matching donors to a specific water initiative they can show exactly how each donors' money has been spent and what impact it's had on a community. Donor's can track their impact online: and look at the irrigation systems and wells their money has helped build. charity: water even posts videos online so that people can really see the difference they are making.

A couple of years ago charity: water were filming and broadcasting their impact live as part of a big anniversary event. Several supporters were watching the live stream when the well they were showing stopped working. While the organisation was worried about the repercussions, they didn't hide from it: they were completely transparent. Because of that, people became even more supportive: charity: water ended up getting more donations. People wanted to help them get the well fixed.

People can only devote a limited amount of time and money to organisations and with so many causes now, it's more important than ever to become transparent: showing how your donors' money is being spent and impact in the real world. If you're not being transparent about how money is being spent, donors will just go to another organisation. The best way to stand out is to be honest, get stuff done and show direct impact.

charity: water’s big anniversary event for its 200th project, failed to reach to reach clean water
charity: water ©

Choosing the right channels
Organisations can’t be on every channel 24 hours a day, so it’s important to find the best channels for your goals and target audiences. Your audience may be on Facebook, but not Twitter. They may be using Instagram, but not LinkedIn. It’s crucial to understand the strengths and weaknesses of these platforms, and who's using them. You don't want to stretch your resources over 30 different channels if your audience is predominantly on four.

It's the same with mobile. Mobile can be a fantastic way to communicate about urgent issues, but also to survey how people feel about your organisation and work. For example, The Red Cross conducts surveys on mobile, getting feedback on different campaigns and response rates, how effective they are, and what kind of communications donors want to receive. In addition to the urgent appeals, they've used mobile campaigns to learn more about their advocates. When you have a large list of mobile phone numbers you can do this, although there are still lots of legal issues around mobile, and they are different for each country.

You don't want to stretch your resources over 30 different channels if your audience is predominantly on four.

Allyson Kapin, founding partner of Rad Campaign (2013)

Knowing when to use influencers
Using celebrities and brand ambassadors to help organisations raise awareness is nothing new, but with celebrities having such huge followings on social media now, they have become a great way to initially raise awareness about a campaign if they are connected to your cause. It must be authentic.

For example, we worked with Craig Newmark, of craigconnects and craigslist, and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) on a hashtag campaign called #Squirrels4Good. Craig loves squirrels – he likes to photograph them and shares them all over Facebook and Twitter. People on the internet also love squirrels, so we connected Craig with the NWF, who do research on squirrels and their habitats.

We launched the campaign to raise $5,000 for the NWF. Anytime someone used that hashtag on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook or Instagram to share a squirrel-related photo or story, Craig donated $1.

The campaign was an instant social media hit. People from all over shared and tweeted many photos and stories of squirrels. The hashtag spread so quickly across social networks and was doing so well that Craig decided to increase the donation to $10,000. We achieved that goal in three days. Influencers are very useful in gaining a big impact in short bursts, but not necessarily as a long term plan.

#Squirrels4Good demonstrates how brand ambassadors like Craig Newmark can generate a lot of attention in short bursts.
CraigConnects (2013) ©

Insights and opportunities
Getting a movement off the ground takes a lot of planning. It always has; and with the rise of social media, it’s more important than ever to start movements through these new channels. This means defining your community and providing the motivation and support to encourage them to spread your message through their own networks. This means breaking down your vision into manageable chunks: being transparent, human and showing direct impact.

For organisations moving into purpose or cause marketing, it’s critical to really understand the space you're getting into, the community you're trying to reach and the scrutiny you could suddenly be thrown into.

For example, over the last decade Dove have done some fantastic ads featuring real women of all different body types and sizes and the campaigns have received really good feedback. With Real Beauty Sketches, however, Dove soon saw the doubled-edged sword of social media. Initially feedback was good, but it soon began to receive harsh critique. Communities of color expressed that "this represents mostly white women, and doesn't represent me." Others said that the women in the campaign were stereotypically attractive. They weren’t runway models, but they weren’t flawed, either. That was a fair critique.

This criticism was something Dove didn’t foresee when they were filming the ads. They missed looking at their cause through a diverse range of lenses. It's very easy to get stuck pleasing people who you work with; the people inside the building, rather than those outside. So the crucial lesson here is to truly understand who your audiences are, and then build campaigns that really speak to them – not just to your view of them.

Allyson Kapin is founding partner of Rad Campaign, and has spent more than a decade creating award-winning websites and online campaigns for non-profit organisations and political campaigns. Listed amongst Forbes' top 30 female entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter, her book Social Change Anytime Everywhere: How to Implement Online Multichannel Strategies to Spark Advocacy, Raise Money, and Engage Your Community was written to guide non-profit staff through the often-daunting integration and utilisation of online and social media tools.

Related on Canvas8
Go with the flow: moving with the herd’ (June 2013)
Shared emotion: Dove’s social experiment hits a nerve’ (May 2013)
Kony 2012: Hollywood charity’ (April 2012)

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