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As soon as people figured out the internet could be used to engage people in a cause, backlash began against this new form of activism. Actions like signing an online petition, sharing a story on Facebook, promoting a cause on Twitter, or liking a video on YouTube have all been rolled up in one pejorative term: slactivism. It was the word of the day on Urban Dictionary five years ago and remains a common response to online activism.

Even if you don’t think online activism is completely worthless, you may question its value in getting people more involved in your organization or cause. A new study from Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Waggener Edstrom Worldwide convinced me to remove the term slactivist from my vocabulary.

The report entitled “Digital Persuasion: How Social Media Motivates Action and Drives Support for Causes,” (pdf) gives a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between activism and social media. The people surveyed were active cause supporters and active social media participants - definitely a subset of the general population, but with plenty of variety in the ways these two criteria intersect.

This graphic from the report reveals that after engaging in a cause via social media, people were likely to take a deeper, more valuable action including donating money (59%), volunteering their time (53%), and donating clothing or food (52%).Common actions taken after social media support

Learn how to implement the insights of the report in your nation.

These results prove that encouraging people to show support on social media is an effective early step in your ladder of engagement. To get people to share your content, make sure that it’s compelling. Facts and figures alone are never as inspiring as the story of an individual connected to your cause or organization.

Another key insight from the report is that online skepticism is a roadblock to further action. More than half of respondents (53%) report that they’ve been reluctant to support a cause online due to requests for private information and a sense of distrust. The report recommends building a trustworthy web presence to counterbalance this skepticism. This means keeping your organization’s website up to date, both with updates on your current campaigns and with information on how donors and volunteers are helping achieve your goals. While daily interaction with causes may occur via social media networks, people rely on an organization’s own website to confirm its capacity and efficacy.

The report also provides four distinct categories of cause influencers. These can help you design separate social media strategies for different members of your community. If you’re just starting to create a methodical approach to social media, I recommend starting with two segments:

  1. When someone takes action on your support, personalize the default social prompts to encourage them to share the action. Remember to include social prompts in your email blasts as well.

  2. Create a social media ambassadors program: you can target your most influential supporters (“maximizers” as they’re described in the digital persuasion report) or allow any supporter to join the program. 

Over the years, I’ve seen my online persona become more deeply integrated with my offline interactions. I used to believe I could maintain completely separate identities between my stridently political digital self and my offline professional identity. As social networks expanded to connect friends and family “in real life” online, the ability to maintain that distinction has disappeared. It’s great to see research confirm the intrinsic connection between online and offline action.

Additional Resources

  1. “Digital Persuasion: How Social Media Motivates Action and Drives Support for Causes” (pdf) published by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication and Waggener Edstrom Worldwide
  2. I originally found the report via Beth Kanter’s roundup of new research and tools for data nerds.
  3. Kivi Leroux Miller also blogged about the study’s findings.
  4. How to use Facebook and Twitter to promote your nation
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