It’s a pretty safe bet that the Internet is the most innovative tool in our free-market economy since the steam engine gave us the Industrial Revolution. In the two decades that I have toiled in the business world, I’ve watched the Internet grow from a collection of Usenet discussion groups into an indispensable means of commerce. Commercial enterprises, motivated by the almighty dollar, take great pains to ensure they are getting the most out of the Internet, making a science out of key words, meta tags, click throughs and hyperlinks.
But what of those organizations driven not by profit, but by compassion? A recent article in Mother Jones parses the results of the magazine’s annual survey on student activism. One result is that more and more activism in moving onto the Internet.
Indeed, no matter what you’re advocating, cyberactivism allows you to do it with the three E’s: extensively, economically and expediently. Fortunately, it’s also pretty easy, so activists can take advantage of the business model countless companies have shown to be effective without being an expert in HTML code.
It’s all about communication, and what works for profit-driven businesses can be applied to non-profit organizations or grassroots activism.
1. Get friendly with social networking sites. In business, networking with like-minded professionals can be even more effective — and certainly cheaper — than advertising. Businesspeople even use sites like LinkedIn to expand and nurture their connections. Social networking sites work to connect Internet users who have the same goals and common interests. Using social networking sites for activism is as simple as establishing profiles on as many of these sites as possible. For the Y generation, networking sites like Facebook, Orkut, Friendster and MySpace are second nature. Baby Boomers and Generation Xers may need a little help, but they’re learning that social networking allows them to use mass-communication tools for distributing information throughout an informal group of people. It’s also a great way to recruit more activists. And don’t overlook specialty sites like GoodReads, which targets book lovers, and VeganWorld, which brings together vegans and vegetarians. Remember to keep your profiles fresh with updated information and images. For a list of the top social networking sites in the world, click here.
2. Become your own media. Back in the day, companies relied solely on public relations firms or in-house PR staff to churn out press releases sent to news editors in hopes of getting some ink or air time. While PR is still important, more and more companies are using the Internet to garner their piece of the media pie. The Internet also levels the playing field for non-profit campaigners, allowing them to post news, opinion pieces and articles around the world. Here are a few things you can do:
· Blogs. Starting a blog costs nothing, and you can use it to post news about campaigns, upcoming actions and more. Remember to keep the content of your blog fresh. Though your blog can focus on your cause, you might also consider a blog on another subject, and then occasionally post blogs relevant to your activism topic. For example, an animal activist might create a blog site devoted to travel and then find opportunities to post blogs on vegan-friendly cities, trips to cruelty-free entertainment venues or hotels that allow companion animals. Learn how to start a blog at BecomeABlogger.com.
· Video. Video sites such as YouTube, Google Videos, Photobucket and even social networking sites allow you to post videos. Earlier this year, the Humane Society of the United States posted an undercover video of slaughterhouse workers abusing downer cows in California, leading to the largest recall of beef in U.S. history. It’s doubtful the United States Department of Agriculture would have acted so quickly if the Internet hadn’t given HSUS the power to post their footage. Videos are the currency of viral marketing, and when you post one that people want to share, these people are doing the work for you. For a quick search of available videos and places to post them, visit Metatube.net.
· Photographs. Images are powerful tools, and with the Internet, activists can share pictures around the world. Flickr, Photobucket and other photo-sharing sites host images that you can send links to. For example, my friend Marji has a Flickr account with images of animals she’s photographed at Animal Place, a sanctuary where she works. When posting images to your own site, be sure to name them; that way, search engines will pick them up, adding another layer of visibility to your efforts.
3. Score with social news sites. Social news sites like Digg, Reddit, Propeller, StumbleUpon, Technorati, Del.icio.us and many others encourage people to promote your blog or Web site through bookmarking and social media. Become an active community member on these sites, encourage fellow activists to do the same and ask them to vote for your posts. Votes result in higher visibility — and more attention on your cause.
4. Use corporate best practices when designing action alerts. An action alert is an email message or Internet post asking for a specific action to be taken on a current issue (e.g. “Please ask the Governor to sign this bill banning foie gras”). This would be sent to an existing database of like-minded advocates. To make the most of your action alert, follow the same guidelines businesses use for email blasts:
Effectively label your issue. Professionals understand successful online marketing begins with a short, attention-grabbing headline and a strong subject line. Avoid using the words “free,” “help” and “reminder” in the subject line, as they trigger spam filters.
· Create a compelling message. Help people understand the issue and why they should be involved. Don’t assume they already know about it. Keep the paragraphs short and break them up with blank space.
· Vivid images help, but use them sparingly.
· Include a call to action. Tell people what you want them to do. If you have an online petition, link to it.
· Ask people to post your action alert where appropriate. This will broaden the alert’s readership.
· Proofread before sending! Make sure your facts and spelling are correct and that any embedded links work properly.
· Track your success. The for-profit community tracks “click throughs” to measure an email campaign’s success. As a grassroots activists, ask recipients to “blind cc” you on emails sent in response to your alert so you’ll know roughly how many activists responded and what action they took (phone call, letter, etc.). This will help you evaluate the effectiveness of your action alert.
5. Exploit Google. For better or worse, Google is the indispensable online partner for many businesses. That may change tomorrow, but for today, companies spend countless hours working to increase their page ranking on this particular search engine. A higher ranking, so the theory goes, equals better business performance. Google offers free tools that an activist can take advantage of too.
One of Google’s greatest features is its ability to deliver specific news stories right to your email in box. And not just news stories, either: you can receive blog postings, videos, Web pages, group postings — just about anything covered on the Internet. Since Google essentially catalogs all this for users, you can ask Google to email content to you whenever something relevant to your activism is posted. It’s called Google Alerts, and here’s how it works. Let’s say you have a passion for protecting wildlife, and you want to be sure your elected officials know about it. You go to google.com/alerts and, for example, type “endangered species act” into the search terms field. Type in your email address, select how often you want to receive alerts and be sure to choose “Comprehensive” as the type, so all your Internet bases are covered. Then every time a media outlet, blogger or other online user posts a story about the Endangered Species Act, you’ll know about it, and you can contact your elected officials to voice your concern, for example, if the Act is being threatened.
This is also a great tool for letters to editors. Using search terms like “factory farming,” “vegan” or “animal rights” in Google Alerts, you’ll know when a newspaper has published a story on the issues you care about, and you can respond with a letter to the editor, furthering your cause. You can use the same tool to find out if your letters have been printed; just type your name in the search terms field and links to letters signed by you and published in newspapers that are searchable on Google’s news page will be emailed to you automatically.
Google Maps are another excellent resource. Activists in the animal rights community, for example, are using Google Maps to locate animal enterprises like fur farms, and this function can obviously be used for environmentalism and other types of activism.
The largest animal protection groups in the world, including Animal Aid, HSUS and PETA, have staff people devoted to Internet marketing. They’re investing energy into online efforts like those above because they work. With even a little time, grassroots activists can take advantage of many of these same tactics, bringing awareness to their cause.
One more thing: Businesses that succeed do so because they take the time to do things right. Whether you’re a volunteer for a group or just someone at home who wants to make a difference, make your activism successful by devoting time to it. Shut off the television, video games or whatever else may distract you. Do whatever it takes to carve an extra hour or two from your day to dedicate to your cause. It’s a good feeling.