There’s no doubt you saw many of your Facebook friends and fellow Twitter users make changes to their avatars last week as the Supreme Court heard arguments around Proposition 8 and marriage equality. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) launched an initiative that went viral encouraging people to change their avatars on social networks to a red equal sign to show their support for marriage equality. The effort caught fire and was undoubtedly a success based on HRC’s objectives, but this kind of movement points to a greater trend.
Activism Over Lunch
Social media has lowered the barrier to activism. Now, everyone can do something as simple as tweet or change their avatar to feel part of a movement. Yes, there are many who use social media to help organize large movements to initiate change, but that’s not the majority. Most people see their friends do something like update a profile picture and decide they’d like to do that too. Activism is done on a whim. It’s casual. Does that really mean anything?
The pessimistic point of view is that people partaking in casual activism are motivated more by communicating something about themselves than by helping a larger cause. Is changing your avatar about helping the cause or is it really about telling your social connections about yourself? The motivation shifts from being altruistic to selfish. There’s also the issue of people who take a casual action may feel like they’ve done enough when other actions such as emailing or phoning a representative are more effective.
The positive perspective is that social media allows people who wouldn’t be involved to become aware of an issue and take action to do otherwise. Instead of just a core group of activists like the members of HRC taking action, a whole new segment of activists is activated who wouldn’t have taken action before. Now, there are varying levels of involvement from heavy involvement to casual involvement.
Marketing in a World of Activists
For better or worse, brands now find themselves in a world in which everyone is an activist. This brings opportunities and risks. People are communicating more about themselves through the causes they align themselves with, and they maintain that self image through the brands they support.
There’s opportunity to align with causes fans care about to improve brand affinity, but this comes at the risk of alienating some customers. If your brand does participate, make sure it’s authentic and consistent with the brand’s past behavior to avoid being viewed as exploiting the situation.
Polarizing debates offer an opportunity for brands to become part of a conversation, but that comes with a certain degree of risk even though the reward may be high.