By Kassidy Johnson and Andra Searles
We frequently see effective campaigns in the work that we do, but never before have we seen social media platforms prove to be so compelling to direct social and political change. We’re seeing now the beginning of what has been dubbed an era of “hashtag activism.”
As digital marketers and public affairs professionals, we are trained and equipped to present and promote content in a compelling fashion. When it comes to crafting a hashtag activism campaign, there are three important tactics to consider:
- Identify a unifying factor;
- Invoke popular culture; and
- Capitalize on viral imagery.
After Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in 2012, a groundswell of activist leaders took to Twitter when the shooter – George Zimmerman – was acquitted of the charges. Fast-forward to 2014, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement has become something that EVERYONE has talked about. When news broke surrounding the murders of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Eric Garner in New York City, the online community rallied around #BlackLivesMatter, as evidenced by the substantial spikes in engagement.
(*Graph depicts number of tweets under #BlackLivesMatter)
Similarly, the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter developed to convey a popular opinion in the wake of the recent murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, NC.
On the day this post was written, #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted more than 11,000 times. By continually capitalizing on news of the day, what started out as a slogan effectively morphed into an international campaign focused on curbing police violence against people of color, enacting legislation to protect both police and citizens, and – in the effort’s own words – to “(re)build the Black liberation movement.”
These efforts capitalized on the reach of social media to provide a platform to those who may not have felt empowered to voice their opinions and experiences otherwise, organizing communities in the process.
Award season is exciting for actors and audience members alike. The dresses, the hair, the makeup…the movies! The 87th Academy Awards this February drew in a 36.6 million total viewers from around the world, and taking advantage of such a huge audience to build a platform around an important issue is not unprecedented.
At this year’s Oscars, the spotlight was decidedly on women’s equality. #AskHerMore, a campaign started by The Representation Project last year, uses “film as a catalyst to inspire individuals and communities to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes, so that everyone—regardless of gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation or circumstance—can fulfill their human potential.” The campaign took center stage at the Oscars, with prominent women like Reese Witherspoon stressing, “This is a movement to say we’re more than just our dresses.”
The Representation Project’s effort paid off – #AskHerMore trended throughout the Oscars, and there was a marked shift in the types of questions that were asked of women on the red carpet. The success of this effort shows that tying your hashtag to popular events has the potential to launch your campaign into the view of a wide, and likely, most engaged, audience.
Catchy images have a way of taking off online, as they are often recycled and repurposed for new and diverse campaigns. A good hashtag campaign utilizes the best of what has gone viral and tweaks it for its own purposes.
As such, viral imagery is the third component of what makes a “hashtag activism” campaign successful. We saw the impact of viral imagery when a question surrounding the color of a now notorious black and blue dress made its way onto everyone’s social media feeds, spurring people from all walks of life to begin weighing in on what color they saw when looking at the contentious dress. (…it’s white and gold!).
(See: “The Science of Why No One Agrees on the Color of this Dress,” WIRED)
The drama around #TheDress became such a phenomenon that the Salvation Army in South Africa ingeniously leveraged the significance of the image to shed light on the pressing issue of domestic abuse. What was initially a light-hearted controversy became a critical rallying point for the Salvation Army’s campaign, “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?” The campaign draws attention to trafficking of women and children, which is a critical issue in South Africa and has been linked directly to domestic abuse in the country.
(Source: The Salvation Army creates anti-abuse ad using ‘the dress’, Mashable)
The campaign’s initial tweet has since amassed 17,000 retweets and 8,200 favorites. Picked up by publications and activists alike, the campaign went worldwide in a matter of minutes, and, over the course of just a few days, the campaign under #StopAbuseAgainstWomen was tweeted by 55,000 Twitter users, yielding more than 101 million estimated impressions.
(*Graph depicts number of tweets under #StopAbuseAgainstWomen since the launch of the Salvation Army’s campaign.)
While viral images are often used for fun, the Salvation Army’s example shed light on a topic that more often than not is avoided. THAT is what hashtag activism does for movements, organizations and activists. Imagery helps convey the message when words may not do the job.
So what’s in it for you?
Learning to create and execute a hashtag campaign will take your advocacy efforts to the next level. Right now, hashtag activism is largely grassroots, connected to the activist and not-for-profit organizations; an opportunity for them to reach their constituents without breaking the bank. Tying your content to a unifying factor, giving a voice to widespread opinions, attaching your story to what is timely and trending, and connecting your content to viral imagery will create the biggest splash and guarantee the most eyeballs on your content.