Social media is the perfect tool for mobilizing your friends and colleagues to take action on a cause you care about -- sending a letter to a legislator, signing up to attend a rally, or spreading the word through their own social channels. But -- in a world of high-priced consultants and slickly-produced viral videos -- how can an individual make a difference online?
You can start by keeping three goals in mind. First, you want to use your time online to stay informed and connected to the organizations you care about -- the animal welfare group, the folks taking action on despotic dictators, the people providing malaria nets, and more. Second, you'll want to build your relationship with legislators or key opinion leaders you'll ultimately need to influence. And third, you want to build robust online connections with your friends and other like-minded individuals, so you can leverage their collective power when the right moment comes.
Here are some specific actions you can take.
With 800 million users, if you're remotely interested in this topic, you probably already have a Facebook page. Now you can use it to help the causes you care about.
• Start by "liking" the fan page of causes you care about. This will keep you informed about their activities and will also show up on your wall, perhaps encouraging your friends to check them out, as well.
• Next, when your cause posts something of interest -- time to take action on legislation, for instance -- you can re-post it on your own wall by hitting the "share" button.
• Now "like" the fan page of your legislators, and begin commenting and interacting. (Not surprisingly, they especially like it when you praise them.) You want them to know who you are, so they'll take you more seriously when it comes time to take action.
• Deploy your "tagging" function. When you tag someone on Facebook, they will (usually) be notified -- and elected officials watch like a hawk. Mention them to build your relationship, and mention your cause to keep your friends informed.
Twitter has a smaller user base, but they're devoted. Your elected official may or may not be on -- but almost all major candidates are (such as for statewide office), and they'll be monitoring it closely. Here's how you can make a difference.
• As with Facebook, sign up to follow your favorite causes and also your legislators.
• Frequently retweet (RT) their messages; they can (and do) track these statistics, and will be impressed if you're seen as a player.
• Build your follower base and show activity. On Twitter, no one is that impressed with a near-dormant account -- you want to demonstrate vitality by having a lot of posts and a lot of followers. You can start by searching for people in your area and/or who are also interested in your cause, and many will follow you back.
• Deploy your @ symbol. Just as you can tag people in Facebook, you can do the same in Twitter with an @ symbol. This lets people know you're talking about them, so be sure to use it if you're mentioning your electeds or your favorite cause.
It's old-school by comparison, but still a valuable tool. People generally still pay more attention to personal emails rather than social media, because they're more targeted and viewed as more effort. If you want friends to reach out to legislators, for instance, ask them personally. If you make it clear it's a message to them and not a general e-blast, that will increase your response rate -- they'll view it as granting a personal favor.
Online videos require a pinch more work and technical sophistication than Facebook, Twitter or email -- but not much, since most smartphones now allow you to take beautiful high-definition video, which you can edit with free software like iMovie. The goal isn't to become the next James Cameron, but instead to create something simple yet highly targeted and relevant. Specifically, you can:
• Make a personalized video to share with your legislator. Most people aren't doing this yet, so it will make an impact. You could talk for 30 seconds about why you're urging them to vote a certain way and why it makes a difference to you as a constituent. Just film your snippet, upload it to YouTube, and send them the link. Be sure to put in appropriate keywords, such as the name of your town, the name of your legislator, and the name of the bill you want them to vote on. You can make the link private if you want, but it's even better if it's public.
• If you're ambitious, you could even become a "video maestro" and have a house party where you invite neighbors to give their testimonials on a certain issue, which you then upload and send to your legislators. Ten or 12 of those and they will be impressed!
Finally, I'm leaving blogs for last because they require the most ongoing commitment -- but are very much worth it if you're willing to invest. Here are some ideas:
• You can reach out to your local weekly, which almost certainly has a blog, and ask to post a special article for them. Depending on your cause, you may even be able to wheedle a regular column, because they're desperate for content.
• Alternately, you can create your own blog -- either about general topics, or (even more helpfully) about your cause. Just be aware you really need to post at least weekly, and preferably three times a week, to keep it current.
• When you write a post, be sure to email the link to legislators (especially if you mention them) and to the PR person working for your cause, so they can spread the message further.
Thanks to the wide variety of online communication tools, there are good ways for any individual to get involved and take action on causes they care about. How are you taking action? What ideas do you have to add?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.