Once upon a time, running a campaign meant knocking on doors, picking up the phone and taking out ad space — anything to alert the public to your cause. More often than not, the time, effort, and money invested in traditional campaigning methods far outweighs the results, and the capacity of a group or individual to instigate change depends largely on the resources at their disposal.

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Enter the age of the internet — and social media in particular — and this is no longer an issue. Today, a message, movement, or debate can go viral in minutes, and it’s not only politicians and corporate brands that are using the internet to further their cause. Social media is increasingly being used to establish and drive humanitarian initiatives, showing just how the digital world can effectively translate into real-life social change.

Campaigning in the Internet Age: What’s New?

Never before has the world been so connected. With free social media platforms, an open blogosphere, and ready-made templates such as these making it possible to create a website in minutes, the internet is an open forum that virtually anyone can be a part of. Essentially, it has established a global community, defying geographical borders and opening up a universal channel of communication. This has significantly changed the way we interact with our peers — not only our friends, but also far-flung communities — and ultimately, the way we approach important issues.

Prior to the internet, awareness of an issue or cause was very much restricted by physical location. Unless particularly newsworthy, something going on in a specific town in India, for example, may not ever have reached the ears of those in America. Equally, someone living with a rare health condition would have found it extremely difficult to raise awareness beyond their immediate friends and family.

The accessibility of the internet has completely changed this, meaning that news can be shared, spread, and brought to people’s attention quicker than ever before, with very little effort and at no financial cost. Whilst this can have its downsides, it no doubt presents plenty of opportunity when it comes to driving social change. In short, the internet and social media have got the world talking.

Of course, Facebook and Twitter are not the magic solution to the world’s most pressing issues. In fact, you might argue that social media makes it all too easy to appear to back a cause without actually requiring any genuine engagement. As Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith (authors of The Dragonfly Effect) point out, there is the potential to “create a perception of action or participation where there is, in fact, inaction.” However, just like traditional campaigns, supporting a cause is not necessarily about taking physical action.

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Sharing, liking, and hash tagging are the modern-day equivalents of signing a petition, and both have the same goal: to spread the word, raise awareness, and create a chorus of voices loud enough that those in power have no choice but to sit up and listen. Sharing a Facebook post may seem like the laziest way to get involved in a cause, but the sheer scale and speed of the online community makes it a far more powerful tool than any traditional method.

Social Media in Action

But still the question remains: are likes and follows just meaningless numbers, or do online campaigns actually translate into real-life social change? In a word, yes — and there is no shortage of case studies to prove it.

One prime example is the story of Sameer Bhatia, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who used the power of the internet to beat cancer. Upon being diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), Bhatia embarked on a mission to find a matching donor for a bone marrow transplant that could save his life. Usually, this is where the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) would come in, but only 1.4% of its registered donors were South Asian; given that tissue types are inherited, Bhatia’s chances were even slimmer than usual.

What’s more, India — where his family was originally from — had no such registry. Through a simple yet compelling email campaign, Bhatia was able to extend his search beyond geographical proximity, reaching over 30,000 people within 48 hours — something that would not have been possible without the internet. Not only did he manage to find a suitable donor, he also raised awareness of the condition in the process, using social media platforms to set up bone marrow drives nationwide.

Bhatia’s story is just one example of how forwarding, liking, or sharing a post online can yield real, offline results. Far from being a one-off case, social media has also been known to play a critical role in politics — from the Arab Springs to the Israel loves Iran initiative, which saw an Israeli couple use Facebook to launch their very own peace campaign.

What Makes a Successful Social Campaign?

The sheer scale and accessibility of social media — and the internet in general — gives online campaigns the capacity to reach not only a vast amount of people, but also an extremely wide range, not just those who are politically engaged or happen to be in a certain place at a certain time. Social media usage is not limited to any particular age group, gender, or country, and therefore acts in many ways as a rare meeting place for citizens all over the world, from all walks of life. In this respect, it is incredibly effective at raising awareness and generating strength in numbers.

However, popping up on someone’s news feed is one thing, getting them to actually engage with the cause is something else altogether. We’ve all been guilty of giving that charity worker in the street a wide berth, so what stops us scrolling past those calls for help on social media?

As previously discussed, the ease of participation no doubt plays a part —clicking “like” or “share” is a lot less time-consuming than engaging in a discussion. Another possible reason could be that such posts reach us via those already in our network, perhaps creating an instant sense of connection to the cause at hand; sometimes, the knowledge that our peers are doing something is all it takes to get us on board.

This is especially true of dynamic campaigns that see social media users taking part and nominating their friends to do the same. The ice bucket challenge brought an element of fun to charitable giving while raising $115 million for the ALS Association — topping the previous year’s $13 million in such a way that would most certainly not have been possible without the internet.

However, this certainly doesn’t mean that every worthwhile cause launched on social media is guaranteed to meet with huge success. According to the Dragonfly Effect, a powerful social campaign needs not only to tap into social media, but to also draw upon marketing strategy and consumer psychology. In doing so, an online initiative should simultaneously focus, grab attention, engage, and take action, with all four elements working in harmony — like the wings of a dragonfly — to achieve one goal.

One of the most remarkable things about social media is that it enables everyday people to be just as powerful as corporations and governments; an online campaign for change can be established by just about anyone with the desire to make a difference, regardless of financial resources or social status. Of course, there is nothing to stop political bodies — or individuals — employing the same techniques and strategies for less altruistic means, but there is no denying that, when used as a tool rather than a weapon, social media is one of the most powerful methods at our disposal for driving positive change.


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