Friday, August 12, 2011

Using Social Media for Social Change

Net-enabled social tools have enabled new models for grassroots activism and community building, and they
have changed how we function in society , how we communicate globally and locally, how we form ties, and how we organize and connect. What is tricky about deploying social media today is not access to the technology, but the knowledge of how to deploy it across multiple platforms. This blog post is meant to take some of the fear and confusion out of the question of whether to use these tools or not.

What do we mean by social media?

When we talk about social media we are describing the web-based tools and services that allow users to create, share, rate and search for content and information without having to log into a portal site or destination. In other words, although in 1998 you might have gone to Yahoo or America Online to post pictures, send emails, chat in real time, today you go to various web services sites to perform various functions which, nowadays, usually involve commenting, rating, communicating or creating and sharing content.

These tools that post pictures and share news are now considered “social” because in addition to the core functions they perform they are created in ways that also integrate users sharing and communicating with one another. Not that this is the opposite of the portal model, where a one-way flow of expert to user was the norm and community was not part of the experience.

In the U.S., the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president reflected unprecedented use of social media in a political campaign. The Obama campaign served as a stunning demonstration of a skilled team’s use of widely available tools. According to a case study by James Burnes and blog posts by Jeremiah Owyang and others, the
Obama campaign participated actively in more than 15 social networks and had 5 million active supporters through these vehicles. On Twitter, “BarackObama” had 112,000 followers. On Facebook Obama had 3.3 million friends, 500 groups, 33 applications. On YouTube, more than 14 million people watched the “Yes I Can” video. The campaign ultimately uploaded 1,800 “official” videos onto YouTube, 15 of the videos were viewed more than 1 million times., a “self-managed” social network, had over 2 million people create profiles on the site; those people created 35,000 volunteer groups and raised more than $30 million dollars.

Importantly, though, effective use of social media to attract people to programs, organizations, brands and products does not require the large-scale resources that Obama’s team so impressively deployed. The campaign’s sophisticated and proprietary voting database, CRM-focused campaign emails and the Neighbor to Neighbor calling software and scripts developed by Obama’s online campaign consultants at Blue State Digital helped raise an unprecedented $639 million in campaign funds. But the services that were the workhorses of the campaign, i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter are free to use and widely available.


The increasing adaptation of these tools has led to additional services that aggregate them together to provide an experience called lifestreaming. Lifestreaming is the ongoing broadcasting of information and events through a set of digital media, or what you might experience as the ripple effect of being able to watch the evolution of a news story, event, or person’s life through the aggregated media of their blog, their videos they post to the web, their Twitters, photos, and so on.

Interestingly, while lifestreaming started as a way for one person to make their life as seamless and transparent online as possible (think about bloggers who post personal details every day, and photographers who create self-portraits daily on their blogs and Flickr streams), it quickly morphed into what might be called event or promotion or community casting — scenarios where anywhere from dozens to millions of people all used inter-related social media tools around a specific theme, event or issue, creating huge virality and awareness.

We saw this type of community casting early in 2004 when thousands of people across the world reacted to the tragedy of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the planet reacted, then saw it again with the London subway bombings in 2005, when the defining photo, sent around the world, was taken not by a professional photojournalist, but by an eyewitness with a mobile phone. When the terrorist attacks happened in Mumbai in November 2008, it was the citizen media, blogs, photos, videos, that showed the world what had happened, and the social media tools, Twitter and YouTube that shared the pain. When events happen, they are shared and communicated across multiple platforms, but people reference and link them together.

Over the past year, there has been an increasing use of social media not only to react to or cover an event, but as a means to create or promote an event. Even more interestingly, social media communications seem to have the effect of creating a virtuous circle where social media organizes data and then feeds information back out to the community, intensifying the experience both online and offline, building awareness, engagement and impact.

Money and Mobilization

When intelligently used, social media is reducing the need for both paid and volunteer staff and reducing overhead and operating costs for organizing. By tapping into the power of a network (and its good will), people can be mobilized, money can be raised, and programs promoted, often with surprising ease and speed.

Would you believe one woman could stand on a stage at a conference and spontaneously raise $2,500 in small donations for Cambodian orphans from a techie audience within one hour using Twitter? Non-profit advisor and consultant Beth Kanter did it at Gnomedex, a tech conference in Seattle. While the sum is small, the speed and the donor pool were new.

Another social media consultant, Laura”Pistachio” Fitton, used Twitter to raise $25,000 in a week, leveraging her contacts and her contact’s networks. Asking each of her Twitter “followers” – all 44,000 of them - to donate $2.00 each, Pistachio get enough response, and enough public re-tweeting, or re-publishing, of her request to raise $25,000 for Based partially on the success of that, she participated in a worldwide effort, the Twestival, to raise $500,000 for the same cause.

But it is not only about raising money; social media has the power to mobilize people and drive conversation more effectively than many traditional brand marketing campaigns and at a fraction of the hard costs. And these are not isolated incidents. Social media tools are providing the means for fundraisers to operate more efficiently, with less overhead and greater margins, and for organizers and brand managers of commercial and nonprofit endeavors to build awareness, increase traffic and expand engagement with their brands.

How to use them?
Having access to these tools does not mean everyone knows how to use them. The gap in the market has moved from having access to having knowledge. While Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on are all free to the user, having the knowledge and skill to meld them together into an organizing strategy and marketing plan requires a fairly specific level of experience that most non-profit program managers, fund-raisers and community organizers and activists do not have.

Further, some of the micro-giving occurring with new, previously unaffiliated donors is based on principles of community participation, giving back and good will that may not align with specific non-profit traditions. Moreover, much of the innovation in this area is coming from purpose-driven marketing, PR and social media experts, not from the non-profits, who can be notoriously slow to adopt new methods. On the other hands, the transparency of the new efforts means everyone who is interested has a chance to analyze, learn, practice and integrate these new skills.

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