17 March, 2019
Social media channels give us our own personal platform from which we can advocate for public issues we care about. If I have a position on healthcare I feel particularly impassioned about, it takes nothing more than a few minutes to draft up a post or share an article that advocates my position to my entire circle of hundreds of connections (and the circles of anyone who engages with or spreads my post). This is empowering a whole generation of Internet activists—Facebook nearly singlehandedly replaced the literal soapbox with the digital for two billion users globally.
At the same time, activists experience the same struggles advertisers and marketers face in an increasingly competitive attention marketplace. In order to have any substantial impact, users need to cut through the static of the hundreds of millions of posts generated every day by delivering an effective and compelling message. This is easier said than done. There are, however, a few things to keep in mind that may help in finding an audience for your message.
Often, an individual activist acting on her own accord (or in coordination with a few other people) won’t have the same rigorous oversight as a social media manager working at a company or structured organization would. In these cases, easier to disregard performance benchmarks or strategy in favor of simply doing what feels right. But acting without strategy, focus, or goals is an easy way to lose grip on whatever position you’re trying to advocate.
Churning out content for the sake of having content is not the most effective approach. Attention on social media is something that must be earned—and when you’ve captured it, it’s a waste to throw it away. Everything you share should be intentional.
A topical example of this is the 2020 presidential race. Currently, I’m backing Pete Buttigieg as my nominee for the Democratic Primary. I’m incredibly passionate about his race—so much so that I’m inclined to share almost everything I come across that has to do with him. But polluting my feed with all things Pete drowns out the content I actually want people to see, such as grassroots funding links, videos of Pete that best portray his character and policies, etc. For me, this becomes a bit of gut decision: I don’t use a tremendous amount of analysis to figure out what to share, short of some back-of-a-napkin math to make sure I’m not sharing repetitive or useless content. Acting with intention means that when I really want to push out a particular interview, spotlight, piece of campaign news, or fundraising effort, I have attention currency I can capitalize on.
Regina Luttrell gives a good example of playing to the strengths of individual social media channels in her book Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect. In 2017, organizers assembled an international march for women’s rights in response to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. They understood that a post on Instagram was not the same as a tweet or Facebook post:
“Each social media platform had a specific purpose. Perez said, “Instagram is inspirational but less interactive. Think posts with messages like ‘Resist. Rest. Repeat.’ Twitter is a good spot to share what partner organizations are up to, and Facebook serves as peak interaction. It’s impossible to talk to everyone, everyone, all the time—but Facebook helps.”
This is something most people have probably put some thought into, and even something that’s intuitive and natural to us as regular social media users. I post different content at different frequencies to Twitter as I do to Facebook or Instagram. But this idea is also easy to overlook within the context of activism. Once again, this returns to being intentional: consider what kinds of content would most likely resonate with your audience in a particular social sphere, and how often you can get away with seeking attention for a cause without drowning out your own voice, boring your content consumers, or being punished by an algorithm that seeks to streamline abundant content out of our news feeds.
Beyond what your audiences would like to consume, consider what you are capable of producing for various channels. Highly visual platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are probably not appropriate places for heavily text-based content. If you struggle with creating compelling visual presentations to argue your case, perhaps team up with someone else with those skills, or else focus your attention on higher-yield social platforms for the content you’re able to produce. Working in a smaller team (the members of which likely have other responsibilities like school or a day job) demands a lot of extra time and dedication which can sometimes be hard to come by. You’ll almost certainly be worse-staffed than an office of full-time employees. Play to your abilities, find ways to work around challenges, and don’t get caught up in shortcomings.
Activism is all about convincing people. There are lots of ways to do that and no particular generalized formula for constructing a good, holistic package to win an audience over. Running a campaign for a political candidate may look nothing like running a campaign for social justice, which as well may look nothing like a campaign advocating for policy reform. Analytics can help figure out what your campaign should look like, sure—if things don’t resonate with your audience, try different things!—but all the same, activism works best when it’s genuine and from the heart. Running a strategic campaign that clearly and succinctly portrays your message can help turn activism into action.