Understand social media. Change the world.

Social media success stories hold many lessons for those looking to crank up their social media efforts. Isabelle de Grave explores the approaches of social media superstars in the world of social good.

From Facebook fuelled revolutions in the Middle East to a viral ‘drum-off’ between dopplegangers; Red Hot Chilli Pepper drummer, Chad Smith, and comic actor, Will Ferrell, the power of social media to spread, connect and engage is immense. Most organisations understand this now.

There are even predictions from social media consultant, Mark Kaigwa, that in the next five years we’ll see the age of the social media director at board level, as more and more people across the world get access to mobile technology and start engaging with organisations on social media.

In an increasingly interconnected world, what can we learn about social media from those who do it best?

The beauty of social media

The key to a success on social media is to remember it’s “two-way”, says Laila Takeh head of digital engagement at UNICEF UK. It’s not as simple as tweeting what you think is interesting, or constantly pushing out your own news. You might as well be standing alone in a crowded room reeling off anecdotes. “Listen first and learn from your supporters - they tell you what your strategy should be,” she says.

UNICEF UK don’t use an agency for their social media campaigns. Instead they make it “a team effort across a number of offices,” Takeh says. Excellent coordination and a package of messages strategically linked to blogging platforms and other media meant UNICEF’s hashtag #Sahelnow, which spotlighted an unreported food crisis in Sahel was tweeted 95,000 times. 

Ashoka, a worldwide support network of social entrepreneurs, ranked second on the Guardian’s most influential Tweeter list, uses social media as an instrument for movement building. “We use social media to mirror our work on the ground,” says Tsega Belachew, global digital media strategist at Ashoka. The aim, she explains is to make people feel part of the work Ashoka does and grow support: “we tell a story that people can join,” she says.

“The beauty of social media is that it’s an excellent tool for advocacy, for giving out information, for fundraising, it’s a brilliant research tool as well to find out what your audiences want from you as an organisation,” says David Girling, director of Research Communication and lecturer on social media and international development at the University of East Anglia.

But “for social media to be taken seriously someone at board level has to take it seriously and make sure it is resourced properly,” he says.

Content is king and queen

If you want to be succesful on social media it helps to understand that “content is king and queen” says Girling. And charity:water are a great example of this. Charity:water, which started out in 2006 has 1.42 million followers on Twitter. They are one of the top 16 Instagram accounts you should follow according to lifehack. And their social media presence helped to generate $33 million from supporters last year.

Exceptional visual story-telling, through film, photography and design is at the root of charity:water’s successful social media marketing according to Girling. This direction comes from CEO Scott Harrison, who abandoned a cushy career as a nightclub and fashion events promoter to set up the non-profit.

After volunteering in Liberia, and photographing people without access to clean drinking water for Mercy Ships, he began making plans for charity:water. He brought his tools from the world of event promotion and left the booze and late nights behind. “I wanted to build the Apple of charity,” says Harrison in an interview with the Great Discontent.

A visually engaging digital presence has allowed charity:water to generate a whopping 75% of donations through social media and digital platforms. A summary scroll through the charity:water twitter feed is a visual journey through the work they are doing. Crucially, the images don’t inflict guilt but engage supporters in the work they do. “They’re photographs are beautiful, they are considered and they are not poverty porn,” says Girling.

“They understand design and imagery,” he says, “they understand the power of digital and social media” and they understand what their audience wants to see.

Create and innovate

Investing in films and photography can help to build a brand and engage people on social media. But it’s not just the professional films that share. There are a good few popular videos on social media with marketing goals that “anyone with a £300 digital SLR could have shot” says Girling.

The key is to be creative and innovative on social media and digital platforms. If you’re short on time and creative inspiration, Girling suggests hiring an intern or social media manager from an art school."Their whole degree is about creativity and thinking out of the box.”

“You don’t have to be outlandish, but sometimes outlandish works,” he says. Midia Ninja, an independent journalist collective in Brazil that spotlights protests and political discontent in Brazil through Facebook, Instagram, Medium and other channels, use striking visuals to tell the stories of an undereported world.

A woman participating in Brazil's SlutWalk

At Sao Paulo's SlutWalk (Marcha de Vadias) protesting against sexual offense. 911 likes on Facebook.

Midia Ninja's use of creative imagery to connect people with life in favelas, Brazil’s SlutWalk and the recent spat of protests ahead of the World Cup, hosted in Rio de Janeiro this year has helped accumulate a Facebook following of 265,399 people since March 2013.

Morro do Papagaio, a favela in Belo Horizonte

Morro do Papagaio, a favela in Belo Horizonte from the Midia Ninja flickr stream

But sometimes content doesn’t share organically. To maximise the reach of content on social media, Girling recommends making a list of people you want to share it and ringing them up.

Successful social media is also about generating conversations and creating the opportunity for people to share ideas and experiences. Ashoka routinely creates spaces for discussion around events by creating hashtags. But people can be shy, so they think outside the box to ignite twitter conversations.

To coincide with Ashoka US’s Future Forum last year, Ashoka asked their audience to share their personal social missions, and tweet them in six words. They got a high response, generated a pre-event buzz, and great micro-stories, which they exhibited at the venue.

Ashoka's six word stories

Ashoka's six word stoires: a space to share theories of change

Ashoka’s creative idea worked because it has its roots in a tried and tested technique for engaging audiences: user-generated content. The successful use of customer-generated content to drive consumer engagement in the beauty industry is one reason top brands are posting on social media less but getting higher engagement.

Time, money and ownership

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about social media is that it's not free. It needs time and that is “what is expensive,” says Girling. Social media will never thrive within an organisation unless there is ownership of it. UNICEF UK empowers everyone in the organisation to use social media. “We train people as part of their induction and also embed it in internal comms for campaigns,” says Takeh.

"It's something we believe in heavily. We integrate social media into all that we do, from answering everyday questions to mobilising support and engaging decision makers and the press,” she says. 

The number one rule for Girling is to hire someone that is “addicted to social media.” This was his first move in taking over UEA’s social media channels, and it went from one of the worst universities on social media to one of the best.

Belachew doesn’t think her team is addicted to social media, but says social media is taken seriously because “people are passionate about connecting, having an impact and reaching an audience in a very tangible way”.

If you’re going to invest time and resources, it has to be worth it, “make sure you prioritise and measure well. Sometimes it’s better to be in fewer places but doing a better job,” says Takeh.

It can be more effective for smaller organisations to grow a strong presence on fewer platforms. If Ashoka had to prioritise, it would be Twitter hands down. With 437,000 followers, “it’s our strong suit,” says Belachew. And if Takeh had to abandon all platforms apart from one? Instagram, because “a picture really is worth a thousand words.”

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