Can Social Media Really Spark Social Change?

Ray Schultz
June 2, 2009

Taming social media to make a difference for kids and the people who are their champions: the Every Child Matters experience
Correction added June 4, 2009

First in a series of columns on social media from our partner, Child Advocacy 360

Elected leaders rarely get thanked for anything. But that's not true of President Obama.

Every Child Matters, an advocacy group devoted to making children a government priority, persuaded hundreds of members to congratulate the president on his first 100 days and on the "kid-friendly parts" of his budget. And how did it mobilize them? Through e-mail and online networks like Facebook and Twitter, among other things.

Welcome to the new way of communicating in the nonprofit arena. The Obama campaign used it brilliantly during last year's election.

But don't get too excited, Twitter fans. The real story here is the tie-in between e-mail and timely grassroots activism. The social media component, much touted by pundits, is still relatively modest and not all that useful to beleaguered child advocates—yet.

Every Child Matters

Take the case of Every Child Matters. The group had attracted 500 or so people to its Facebook group without really trying, and it had presences on several other social networks. But it recently decided to drop YouTube, Flickr and MySpace in favor of Facebook and Twitter.

"We thought it was a little too much," says Tony Larson, communications associate handling e-mail advocacy. "You don't have to do everything."

In addition, some networks had clearly fallen out of favor. "We stopped using MySpace because it's not as popular as it once was," Larson adds.

Facebook, which like MySpace allows users to create their own profiles, has several advantages, including that fact that is growing more quickly. There are more than 200 million active users, according to the site's own statistics.

"A lot of people from Facebook are responding," Larson says.

But consider the numbers: thanks in part to an e-mail reminder, Every Child Matters now has around 750 members in its Facebook group. Yet that's a tiny fraction of the 90,000 people Every Child Matters has in its database.

And Twitter barely figures at all. "It's not front-of-mind when I'm thinking about what needs to be done," Larson says. "Without pushing, we have a few followers—only 52 [as of June 3]. We're no Shaquille O'Neal."

For the Obama thank-you, the group included links to an action page on both Facebook and Twitter. The Twitter message read as follows:

"Dear President Obama, I want to thank you for the work you have done on behalf of children throughout the country. We still have work to do, but on this day, especially as part of Child Abuse Prevention month, I wanted to extend my gratitude to you for your efforts to ensure that Every Child Matters."

How did the social media pull, compared with e-mail? The response was "probably proportional, or even a little more," Larson says.

"At the time, we had maybe 600 people on Facebook and 20 on Twitter, and we got 30 or 40 action takers," he adds. But "that's pretty decent, when all factors are taken into account.

Larson figures that there might be some overlap with members who also saw the message via e-mail—roughly 10,000 people were contacted altogether. But the group has not yet figured out if supporters using Facebook and Twitter are different.

Why bother with these tools when e-mail is still the main game? (At least for adults.)

Because Every Child Matters has to update people on state and national issues—wherever they are and however they want it. To that end, it also has a blog on its home page.

"It's kind of basic right now, not quite as cool as zippy as lot of the blogs you'll see," Larson says. "But for us, it works."

Related Links

Ray Schultz has edited several marketing publications, including Direct, DM News, Promo, Chief Marketer and Circulation Management. He has also written for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and other publications.

Note from Hershel Sarbin, Child Advocacy 360: This is the first in a series of blog-style case studies and commentary on the use and impact of Web 2.0 technology—for the uninitiated, we mean interactive, user-generated content—in the realm of child/youth advocacy. On this editorial journey, we'll examine the use of new technologies to convey meaningful, action-inducing messages and inspiring real-life stories of who's doing what that works. Read more Communications as Catalyst columns from Child Advocacy360.