Activists not parrots

Julius Honnor and Laura Robertson

Digital campaign plans often jump from concept and framing to social media graphics and suggested tweets, hopping over a crucial step: strategic content.

Skipping the content means there’s a risk of creating an pandemonium of parrot broadcasters. What if, instead of broadcasters, we saw our supporters as stakeholders? If we educate them and equip them with tools and materials they’ll become activists, not just retweeters.

Using strategic to steer the content we create, curate and share saves time and money and increases the likelihood of success.

If we want to change people’s opinions and inspire them to take action or change the way they behave, social media can be a powerful tool, but it doesn’t work without substance.

By giving people the right content they can move from clicking a button or signing a petition to taking on a more active role: adapting, creating and sharing, and talking to others.

Reach: good for vanity metrics

Big numbers are impressive. They can gain kudos with management, funders and supporters. Big numbers can also help with fundraising. But reach is not sufficient for making people stop and think, or change the way they act. To change the world we need to focus on depth of engagement.

There are three main types of networks: the first, centralised, worked in an era of print, but we don’t think it’s the model we should be aiming for in digital campaigning. The world wide web, and the social networks that are built on it, are decentralised and distributed.

The internet is by its nature viral. Some people are stuck in a centralised, broadcast mindset, but if we want to harness the huge potential power of the internet, we think we should aim for a decentralised model, but one that has more in common with a hive than a virus.

We can have a central message and frame, and also create the conditions for personalised, deeper engagement. Using a centralised, broadcast model might get bigger reach, but it’s unlikely to actually change anything.

Imagine a message from a campaign, retweeted by a friend… Now imagine a message genuinely by and from a friend, about a campaign…

If a campaign’s messages come from real people, they’re more likely to get noticed. They’re also much more likely to get others interested and involved.

A nice example of this was the Women’s March. Social media was full of images of homemade banners. What central messaging there was, encouraged the use of people’s personal perspectives and experiences.

Toolsheds not toolkits

When we worked on the Proud of Aid campaign we were originally asked to build a social media toolkit. What we did instead was to build a hub of aid content. We created and we curated: articles, infographics, examples, arguments, videos, open source images.

The hub was the toolkit. Or toolshed, even. We made it as free of branding as possible. We invited people to find and add their reasons for being proud of aid, and to share them.

The core of the campaign’s success was having a good frame and using content strategically to facilitate engagement at different levels in that frame. People and organisations came, adapted the content, and spoke about aid in their own voices, using their own experiences.

When we facilitate intellectual and emotional engagement, we encourage action. Using content strategically moves us beyond clicktivism to something more substantial, and therefore more effective.

Constructive playfulness

This approach isn’t new; it was used to famously good effect by the My David Cameron campaign, which allowed people to create their own satirical election posters. Given the right content tools for constructive playfulness, people can turn from supporters into effective satirists.

ActivistsAdvocates not parrots

Digital enables a different sort of decentralised relationship between organisations and humans. That new relationship is visible in successful modern campaigns but it goes beyond that, to a more networked model: one that emphasises empowerment and cooperation.

In a non-broadcast, post-centralised world, traditional marketing and PR is passé. Everyone is a potential PR opportunity and not just a target. But people will only be effective advocates if they are given space to get involved, if there is scope for them to add their own personality, their own angle.

People don’t want to be advertised at. But give them the ability to create their own poster and they’ll give you their time, their creativity and share it with their networks. You can set parameters, but this decentralised relationship works best if the parameters are porous.

Substitute advocates for activists and this argument applies just about anywhere. If organisations can see people as community members rather than consumers, they can take advantage of the huge opportunities that digital creates.

Further reading


Gerry McGovern has lots of intelligent insight about the end of the organisation-centric universe.

Networked change for the wins

Tasha Hester explains how NGOs need to adapt.

Yes Equality

Craig Dwyer shares digital lessons from the most extensive civic campaign in the history of Irish politics.

Networked campaigns

Tom Baker lists eight ways to explore a more networked campaigning approach.


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