Can social media and social welfare be soul mates?

Is social media the miracle cure for social service, social change and philanthropy organisations? Can it really bring people together for the greater good? Or is it just a lot of smoke and mirrors which promises too much and delivers too little?

Social media is an important aspect of building a communication strategy for progressive causes.

But the truth is very few brands are effectively using it to communicate their social responsibility initiatives. Likewise, most NGOs and change organisations are sluggish about integrating social media into their communication approach.

So, are you implementing your strategy well? Is it creating impact?

This article looks at how social media can ignite social change and development and how to avoid certain pitfalls that come with it.

Mistakes to avoid

Four years ago, when social media was still young, I joined a communication agency in Delhi as ‘one of the guys who does something on Facebook.’ Our firm had come up an innovative green initiative—people could pledge online to plant a sapling in the city. A team of volunteers would plant it for them and send them the e-coordinates of the location. From that point on, it was that user’s responsibility to nurture it.

It was meant to be a great idea. One that would just go viral.

But it never did.

Why? Because I treated a CSR campaign as just another brand campaign.

The principles that work for brands don’t for causes. Brand campaigns rely heavily on user experience and consumerism, two concepts that don’t fit neatly together in the world of social development. Another catch: using the same principles or tactics to promote a cause can be perceived as “greenwashing”, even if it isn’t.

So, here are some things to keep in mind:

Generating real participation

Many online campaigns fail because of absolute lack of any ‘real’ participation.

Recently, as I stepped out of my house in Delhi, I was struck by how many stray dogs lived on the streets. I thought if all those online dog adoption campaigns worked, shouldn’t all those pups have had homes by now?

That’s when it hit me—while it’s not too hard to get a high number of likes on a Facebook cause page, or a lot of retweets of a cute picture of a pup, it is a significant task to get even a handful of actual people out from behind their screens to show up as adopters, volunteers or donors.

Being taken seriously

Here’s the rub—not only are today’s young professionals the largest social media user demographic; they are also the ones who will be the changemakers that we so desperately need. Seeing social media as ‘merely fun’ can be fatal.In today’s world, social media is still predominantly viewed and used as a recreational activity. That’s why many corporations retain a blanket ban on the use of social media sites at work.

Millions of professionals see social media as a break-time activity, pulling their smartphones out to check how many “likes” their last post (made in the previous break) received.

Short attention spans

In this age of abbreviations where you only live once (YOLO), there’s a fear of missing out (FOMO) and a #hashtagforeverything, social media users don’t have time for messages longer than 140 characters or with more than three fully spelled-out words. However, serious social issues often need to be talked about at length, without the use of ROFL, OMG or any other short-hand technique. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see users, especially younger ones, tuning out of a social issue campaign after initially clicking through.

Availability and penetration at the grassroots level

While the issues above affect campaigns in developed urban areas, many social welfare initiatives take place in areas where people live off the grid. This holds true, especially in developing countries like India, where food, water, employment, women and child welfare, elementary education and economic fairness are more pressing issues than, say, environment degradation.

Organisations that work at the grassroots level often operate from areas where internet connections (and at times, even computers) are uncommon. Furthermore, target groups are often more concerned about where their next meal is going to come from than what a computer is and how to use it. Therefore, trying to reach these groups through social media is, as foolish as it is futile.

Using social media effectively for social change

Devising a social media campaign to promote sustainability or equality is tricky. Let’s look at some tactics that you can turn to while charting out a social media strategy.

Know your goals and stay on course to achieve them

Let’s say you start with a Twitter strategy to mobilise sentiment around green energy. You have a celebrity who endorses your cause. What if the celebrity ends up getting all the attention over the cause? If this happens, then it is time to stop and shift the conversation back to the cause. Junk the high but useless chatter about the celebrity. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a celebrity endorse a good cause but ended up making it all about themselves, then, well, I would have had a lot of money to donate to that cause.

Target a focused group, even a small one

When it comes to social issues, accumulating huge numbers on social media isn’t always the ultimate goal. It’s more important to have a clear definition of your primary and secondary target users and to keep your communication efforts focused on them.

People who aren’t your target market may actually take away from the seriousness of your campaign issues and dilute the purpose while increasing the clutter. (No one wants a dude commenting “Itz kewl!” on a post about malnutrition in Africa). We tried to get everyone we could “like” our online sapling campaign, but in the end, none of those people turned up to do the real work.

Be present on the right social media channels

In a perfect world, you want profiles on all the popular social media channels. Who wouldn’t want to see every one of their million-plus followers (on each of these networks) posting photos of their logo tattooed on their ladle-wielding arms as they serve food to the homeless at the local soup kitchen?

Sure, it’s great to have profiles on all the major social media sites and, yes, each of them serves a different purpose. However, when it comes to social media, a tick mark in a box doesn’t really make things right.

Have a clear and visible call to action

Every communication campaign needs an end game or a ‘call to action.’ For brands and businesses, this is usually a buying decision, a subscription or a click leading to a site hit. For a social justice campaign, the end game may vary, but the concept remains the same.

For example: “Hi, you met us on social media. You know about our cause and believe in it. If you want to be a part of positive change, then click on the crying little girl’s face. If together, we can get enough people to click on it, then her cry may just turn into a smile.” Simple, clear and effective.

Involve your audience, beyond reading and sharing: We’ve all seen it—someone we know returns from an overpriced, barely mediocre vacation and the next thing you know, they’ve posted a photo album trying to make it look like the best holiday ever. On social media, people always want it to look good. So, any change-making organisation or initiative working on a social media strategy must answer the most important question— what role will my target users play in this campaign?

This role has to be more than just reading, viewing, liking and sharing content. It has to convert into a user driven online petition; it has to lead to creation of content and contribution of ideas; it has to turn people into volunteers and donors.

Who’s doing it right?

A few NGOs have been quick to understand these tactics and have already taken the lead, most notably the United Nations. In December 2011, the UN launched a social media campaign encouraging people to get involved in the global human rights movement, inspired by the role played by tools such as Facebook and Twitter in the awakening that transformed parts of the Arab world. A few months earlier, UNAIDS launched CrowdOutAIDS. It created a youth advisory board of worldwide users who participated in and contributed to a paper on HIV awareness and prevention.

Among non-profits, a notable example is ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an international direct action advocacy group which works to improve the lives of people with AIDS through legislation, medical research and treatment and policies. ACT UP effectively uses Twitter and Facebook to communicate their message and educate audiences about the work they are doing.

On the business side, Starbucks has its own community, MyStarbucksIdea, where users can share ideas on building a more environmentally friendly cup of coffee. Seventh Generation employs a social media strategy designed to engage and educate its target audience on ethical, environmentally friendly cleaning products.

The trend is also quickly catching up in developing economies—many Indian brands are jumping on the ‘go social to do social’ bandwagon. While some of these are poorly disguised cases of greenwashing, some are genuinely trying to make an impact with social media.

So, are social media and social welfare soul mates? If you introduce them and ensure that they get to know each other and can indeed be soul mates and very compatible ones at that.

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