Even if, unlike me, you don’t actively seek out organisations and individuals working and speaking about gender equality, it is likely that you heard some coverage of International Women’s Day last Saturday. Mainstream news sources, politicians and public figures were all getting involved, either by celebrating the day itself or using it to highlight issues and inequalities that still need to be tackled. A huge amount of this coverage occurred online, particularly on Twitter, where #IWD2014 was trending throughout the day itself and in the preceding weeks. So could this be an opportunity for charities? And how can they capitalise on it?
A lot has been written in recent years about the rise of feminism, particularly among young girls and young women, and the role of social media as an incubator for its development. The growing strength of International Women’s Day, which this year saw 1,363 official events across the UK, is perhaps the clearest example of the strength of the women’s movement.
A year ago I conducted a study into how different women’s charities and NGOs were using Twitter to engage with International Women’s Day. My aim was to see whether charities dealing with women’s issues were capitalising on the potential of IWD to raise awareness of their own work and reach out to potential supporters.
Both the joy and the pain of social media is that there are very few exact rules about how to use it. For organisations, this is particularly challenging, as a single badly-thought-out tweet can result in a huge amount of the wrong kind of attention. We’ve all seen examples of social media gone wrong, one of the most recent being David Cameron’s ‘on-the-phone-to-Obama’ selfie. But the advantage of this flexibility is that charities have the opportunity to adapt these new mediums to suit their own needs and budgets.
The results of my study perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me, yet they did. A large number of organisations had to be excluded because they did not have an active Twitter account at all. Some tweeted only once or twice in the month-long period. Others were using their account for what I considered ‘inactive’ activities, sending out occasional tweets promoting an event or other aspect of their work without any attempt to direct these beyond their existing followers.
For a Twitter user such as the Fawcett Society, with 1696 followers, this might not be such a drawback. But for many smaller charities, such activity is significantly hampering the potential of Twitter and the time or resources spent on it are essentially wasted.
On the other hand, there were a huge number of charities that used their Twitter accounts to great effect. Below are a few lessons from my observations both last year and this. Hopefully they can help charities use Twitter to unlock the potential of an event like IWD.
1. Show your appreciation of your members, supporters and followers
Some organisations used the celebratory nature of IWD to send messages directly to their existing support base. For smaller charities in particular, using Twitter in this capacity can be a relatively cost-effective way of ensuring those in your existing support base feel appreciated and keep their support going.
2. Connect with other charities, individuals or corporations
One of the most significant patterns I witnessed was charities using social media to reach out to other charities. This was done by promoting the events or work of others, sharing events or simply wishing one another a ‘Happy IWD.’ Whilst this raises obvious issues of competition, charities that tackle complementary causes or services can benefit from reaching out to one another on Twitter, if only by widening their audience.
Similarly, reaching out to prominent individuals or corporations can help charities break out of the echo chamber that can occur when your tweets are only received by those already supporting you.
3. Reach out to others who might use your expertise
The outpouring of articles, informatics and videos on IWD provides another space for charities. Tweeting facts, quotes or links to stories and case studies in the run up to the day can provide another way to access journalists or others and raise awareness of your work outside traditional PR.
4. Utilise the power and potential of your followers
At a recent CharityComms conference on PR in the digital age, I listened to a presentation by Chris Cox, digital communications manager from Mind, on the recent Twitter-storm of responses to Asda’s ‘mental patient costume.’ The idea of using a selfie to showcase a user’s own ‘mental patient costume’, with people photographing themselves in their everyday clothes, was originally started by a single user. Mind’s support then hugely amplified its effect, leading to Asda withdrawing the costume and making a £25,000 donation.
Chris spoke about the importance of charities performing the role of a megaphone for their supporters, focusing on amplifying their voices, rather than prescribing what these followers say. Sometimes the most successful social media campaigns are those that develop organically among those most affected by the issues.
Watching the coverage of IWD on Twitter, I saw the huge potential that such a massive global movement has for making some serious noise about issues that people care deeply about. The ability of charities to transform this noise into real change depends on many things, but tapping into the potential of Twitter is a brilliant start. With almost 700 million registered users, the power of this dynamic should not be underestimated.
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