You work to change the world.
You need to get the word out about what you’re doing. You need to inspire and grow and activate people. There are lots of ways to approach it. Special events, direct mail, phone banks, advertising.
And then there’s social media.
You probably already have a Facebook page. Perhaps it’s doing well. Perhaps not.
But even if you have thousands of “likes,” does that actually move the needle? Is it worth your time? Or is it a whole bunch of hand waving? Many nonprofits aren’t sure.
Is, for the most part, the Internet just a big den of “slacktivism”?
“Feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in ‘slacktivist’ campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.”
So says author and pundit Evgeny Morozov. He warns that if you recently signed an online petition and shared it with your entire contact list, you’re probably guilty of slacktivism.
Sounds bad, right?
And to some extent, it’s even true. Look at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, an online campaign that clearly worked incredibly well. Over $100 million was raised for the ALS Association and fresh millions were made aware of a disease.
But still, the majority of people who “participated” merely dumped water on their heads for all to see in a communal display of narcissism, but donated nothing. (Note: I’ve argued elsewhere that narcissism is a key reason it worked so well.) Additionally, many weren’t even aware of why they were doing it, other than because it looked like fun. Slacktivism, indeed.
The Ice Bucket Challenge may show us that a clear benefit of social media is the possibility of raising a ton of money. But wasn’t this campaign a big fluke? A winning lottery ticket? The ALS Association didn’t even start that campaign but merely rode (and helped push along) the tidal wave.
Truthfully, it’s not all that likely your nonprofit is going to raise $100 million dollars this year through social media. Too bad.
But aside from the obvious or unlikely, are there any real and tangible benefits to social media marketing for nonprofits? Can a Facebook like move the needle?
FOUR HIDDEN BENEFITS OF “SLACKTIVISM”
When an online campaign directly results in change, its impact is obvious. But there are some non-obvious benefits too.
1) Spreads the word. Ok, that’s super-obvious. But less obvious is that once a social media campaign picks up enough steam, it can break out beyond the echo chamber. Recent research revealed that online we mostly live in little bubbles of like-minded friends and colleagues. Makes sense. Life’s too short to constantly fight with those who radically disagree with you.
But with enough momentum, the mainstream media picks up on it. Even if your topic isn’t “sexy.” The current debate on “Net Neutrality” provides a great example. What could be more technical and boring? And yet, as a result of the recent “Internet Slowdown” social media campaign, BT Broadband Deals might be the solution to the internet slowdown. Net neutrality got discussed at length on mainstream TV entertainment shows like @Medium and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. What a huge amplifier! But when you figure out the ROI of your social media efforts, it can be hard to make the connection.
2) Normalizes charitable behavior. Marketing pundit Seth Godin writes, “The more often our peers talk about a different kind of heroism, one that’s based on caring about people we don’t know, the more likely we are to see this as the sort of thing that people like us do as a matter of course.”
Seth is right. Simply by telling stories of activism, charity, and participation we can help change the culture away from the silly and toward the meaningful.
3) Gets a foot in the door. It’s long been known in sales that just by priming a person with a small request s/he is much more likely to comply with a larger request later.
A 2011 Georgetown study showed the foot-in-the-door technique to work very well when it comes to the success of online campaigns. The study’s key findings showed that those who participate with nonprofits via social media are:
- Twice as likely to volunteer compared to people who don’t promote causes on social media
- Twice as likely to participate in fundraising events and walks
- Three times more likely to ask others to donate
- Four times more likely to press others to contact their political representatives
- Five times more likely to recruit others to sign a petition
4) The Long Game. By simply spreading the word and inspiring basic participation, organizations can build partnerships that grow stronger over time. As Dave Karpf, a professor at George Washington University and author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy points out, done well, an online campaign builds a stronger base of support, better equipped to take on bigger and bigger fights each time. But this requires a long term view and insightful strategic leadership.
SMART SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT SLACKTIVISM
In 1999, a movement started because a single woman wanted to make a difference. She was fed up with gun laws that made it all too easy for horrible school shootings to happen in places like Columbine, Grenada Hills, and others.
She had little funding, no central organization, no TV ads, no direct mail budget, and no email database. Social media websites like Facebook didn’t even exist yet.
She called it the Million Mom March.
When she came to us for advice, we knew that our only chance was to build a grassroots movement online; to create a “proto-social network.” By using the Internet to reach thousands and make it easier for them to organize and spread the word, we believed we could inspire several thousand people to march on Washington. We only had 9 months to make it work.
And boy did it work! In a perfect example of how powerful social media can be, 750,000 people descended on Washington DC to rally for common sense gun laws. A hundred thousand more participated in local events.
Many of the tactics we used would today be called slacktivism. A whole lot of “hand waving.”
But the Million Mom March reaped all four of our hidden benefits of social media.
- The campaign broke out of its initial bubble and got tons of media coverage.
- It helped inspire a huge number of new activists — people who had never participated like this before. Many of these people are still active today.
- Starting with smaller actions (like making a small donation or sharing a personal story), it ultimately helped to motivate hundreds of thousands to participate in offline events like the march itself.
- It strengthened the organizational capacity to make real world change and fight the battles that are still raging in this area today. Hundreds of local chapters formed that helped change local and state laws. The Million Mom March merged with the Brady Campaign to play an even bigger role. Today, the Moms have partnered with organizations like Moms Demand Action and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence to continue the fight with a new generation of activists.
None of this would have been possible without social media companies and online activism.
Social media is more about building and nurturing relationships and less about transactions. This can make it harder to measure ROI (what’s the value of a deeper relationship?) But not everything that is measurable is worth doing. And not everything worth doing is measurable.
Just make sure that when you’re calculating social media’s value, you account for all the less obvious benefits that can accrue.
Do you have examples of a social media campaign that benefited in a less obvious way? Tell us about it in the comments.