Blog Post

#SXSWinteractive: Igniting a Movement

Most nonprofits seeking the holy grail of social marketing – a social movement that brings mass awareness to an issue or cause – are doing it all wrong
April 6, 2016
That’s not my opinion; it’s the opinion of nonprofit leaders behind some of the most successful social movement campaigns of the last decade, such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the Human Rights’ Campaign marriage equality initiative and #BlackLivesMatter.
A group of these leaders visited South by Southwest to discuss the one strategy they felt turned their work into a social movement. And it’s not just another marketing campaign.
It all came down to these organizations’ approach to audience definition and activation.

It’s all about the people.

There are really only three levels of people who engage with cause marketing and social movements: Belongers, Believers and Owners. These groups define not who the person is, but how connected they are to the issue or cause. In other words, a person can be an Owner on one issue and a Belonger on another.
Each audience type (Belonger, Believer or Owner) will more-or-less only engage up to a certain level. Successful social movement campaigns become movements because the organizations behind them provide multiple types of actions that are commensurate with each audience’s willingness to engage, and they activated the audiences in the right order.
This the key that unlocks a movement.

Owners: The smallest, but most valuable group

Owners are the spark that ignites the movement. Social movements start with them. But don’t think that you can fire up a social movement tomorrow; it takes months or even years of pre-work to build that Owner base.
Owners are often personally affected by the issue – either directly or via someone they know. They own the issue because they have a stake in the outcome in a way that Belongers and Believers do not.
In the case of the all the successful movements of the past, Owners worked behind the scenes to get the movement going.
Owners engage friends and family. They reach out to decision makers. They organize teams. They lobby elected leaders. And not just once, but again and again.
One thing about them that is consistently true is that despite any organization’s best efforts to steer Owners in a certain direction – by giving them campaign messaging and materials – Owners will do it their own way. And that’s the biggest difference between them and other audiences.
Social movements happen when Owners are allowed to create a narrative of their own and run with it, and the organization sponsoring the movement gets out of the way. 
To sum up the strategy with Owners: Give them materials to craft their own narrative and then get out of the way. Empower them to activate their personal networks.
  • Tip: If you haven’t already identified and built your base of Owners, start now! Your CRM data and your frontline staff can help you quickly identify the top candidates. 

Believers: Interested enough to stay engaged, but don’t expect too much from them

Believers make up most of your grassroots community. They’ll casually engage, perhaps even regularly, because the issue intersects with their values and beliefs. However, they most often are not personally affected by the issue and therefore are unlikely to ever own it.
Convincing them that the issue affects them directly in an effort to move them to become Owners isn’t hopeless, but it typically isn’t particularly fruitful.
So, while some Believers may eventually become Owners, it’s important to temper your expectations on how far they are willing to go and how much effort they’re willing to give to your cause. Don’t dump tons of resources into trying to turn these people into Owners. There is a lot of value in having a group of people who will regularly engage if that engagement is easy. Also, don’t alienate them by trying to squeeze every last drop of activity out of them in a quest to convert them into Owners. Respect their boundaries and limits and they’ll keep giving again and again.
To sum up the strategy for Believers: Keep Believers active and interested, but don’t burn them out trying to get them to own the issue.
  • Tip: You may be spending far too much time trying to turn Believers into an Owners. (Focus instead on building you base of Owners and support their efforts to create their own narrative.) Develop a communications plan that keeps Believers active, engaged and interested, but don’t push them so hard that they tune out. 

Belongers: Engaging because it feels good in the moment

Most people are Belongers. They don’t ask questions. They aren’t interested in details. They engage for one of three reasons: because it’s the trendy thing to do; because they want to enhance their personal brand by showing the world they’re a do-gooder; or because you’ve made it stupid-easy for them to take action.
Think of how many times you gave a dollar at the checkout line to an organization whose name you can’t even remember. At that moment you were a Belonger. You did it because it felt good or because it was stupid-easy to do (all you had to do was press one extra button during checkout). You are pretty likely to never engage again because you just don’t care that much, and aren’t ever going to care – at least not at deeper level.
Liking something on Facebook, sending an email to a policymaker, or even texting to donate $5 are all examples of actions that they’ll complete – but the difference between Belongers and other audiences is that Belongers are only going to engage once. 
To sum up the strategy for Belongers: Give them actions they can do once without an ongoing commitment. And make sure those actions are easy to do and deliver the greatest value back to the organization.
  • Tip: As you’re planning your campaigns, spend more time thinking about and building micro-actions, such as social sharing, that align with Belongers’ desire to feel like they are part of something. 

In conclusion

Audience segmentation and activation strategy is more nuanced that can be described in a blog, but hopefully this provides a new framework that you can try with your next campaign movement.

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