By Emilia Honkasaari, Communications Coordinator at the Embassy of Finland in Washington, DC
Engagement. Impact. Futuristic. Needed. – These are the words experts used when asked to say what word first comes to mind when discussing digital campaigns for social change.
The Washington, DC Chapter of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition (DDC), in partnership with the Embassy of Sweden brought together leaders in digital campaigning to discuss the challenge of inspiring physical action through digital campaigning and share ideas for attaining success.
The interactive discussion held 28 April was guided by MSNBC’s Richard Lui, and featured:
- Erik Wirkensjö, Project Manager for Midwives4All
- Dayna Geldwert, Digital Producer for Girl Up
- Maggie Forster Schmitz, President of the US National Committee for UN Women
- Sam Huxley, Global Lead for Digital Crisis & Senior VP at FleishmanHillard
Digital campaigns are fascinating even if one does not run an online campaign for his or her organization. By now, millions of people are aware of the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign. Nearly 7 million people have watched Emma Watson’s powerful speech on YouTube and close to 300,000 men around the world have committed to stand up for women’s rights via the campaign’s webpage.
As individuals who frequent the Internet, we regularly see campaigns and organized hashtags trending on Twitter or other platforms. Upon seeing these we might stop for a moment to figure out what the campaign is all about. We might click the link and maybe even sign an online petition if the topic seems important or re-share the content with our friends or followers. But for most people that is as far as the engagement goes.
Even if close to 300,000 men have committed to HeForShe, how does UN Women get men to actually stand up for women’s rights in their everyday life? The biggest challenge to successful social change driven by social media is to get people to act, to do more than merely retweet or re-share.
A core focus of the discussion was the involvement curve. It is great that people are aware of campaigns and choose to Tweet or post but the challenge is to foster and inspire direct engagement. Perhaps engagement leads one to write their representative in Congress to raise awareness or drive potential impact. The abundance of noise in social media makes it increasingly difficult to keep people engaged beyond a click here or a share there, but successful campaigns aim to do just that – drive actions which make change.
How do you measure the success of a digital campaign? The panelist agreed it is dangerous to have just a single metric measuring engagement. Number of followers or retweets gives you some indication of the direction you are headed, but it is not the whole story.
Erik Wirkensjö, citing his experience working on Midwives4All, explained it is important to have a full range of supporters including high level commitment. Having one visible and active supporter of the campaign might be more impactful than thousands of latent followers on Twitter. In addition, sometimes the most important discussion could happen around a kitchen table instead of a town hall meeting or on social media. The conversation cannot exist in a digital vacuum.
For UN Women the actual goal and most important measurement of HeForShe’s success is achieving gender equality, noted Maggie Forster Schmitz At first this sounds almost too colossal to be true, but then again what is the point of mobilizing millions of people if you do not have high hopes for the future.
HeForShe is a solidarity movement that urges people who are outside the system to speak up. On the other hand UN Foundation’s Girl Up focuses on engaging girls to become youth advocates. The girls are encouraged to become, what the panel called, “philantroteens” meaning teens who drive a cause, raise funds and awareness about issues they care about.
In order to create social change you need to get many different kinds of people engaged. You need the active social media users, the people who are outside the system so you are not just preaching to your own choir, the ‘philantroteens’ and those who sit across the commitment curve – those who Tweet and share, and those who are willing to step-up on the commitment curve and commit to physical action.
As we have already seen, digital campaigns can be hugely popular and raise both awareness and funds. But to create substantial social change we all need to step-up our game and do more than just retweet. When we come across topics we really care about, we need to mobilize and take action – take the digital cause into the real world.