For all the great benefits of building a strong presence on social media, what if the best is yet to come?
It makes perfect sense that the online world would make us better consumers, employees, and entrepreneurs. It does those things very well, because that’s mostly what it was built to do.
But how does it help us function better as citizens, neighbours, and members of face-to-face communities?
The Social Web as We Know It
Regular social media users and practitioners can rhyme off all the usual gains from the social web as we know it: We go online to gain knowledge, find products, develop business relationships, enjoy a rip-roaring game of Scrabble (uh, right), connect with family and friends, and build our professional and personal networks.
And the calls to action for online products and services are pretty obvious: You click a link to buy a product or service, download a document, play a game, stream a video, or connect with a friend or colleague.
Those are all good enough reasons to go online. They’re certainly the main selling points we hear from social media promoters.
But we also live in geographic communities where we work, learn, play, and interact.
We depend heavily on services that have to be delivered to our doorsteps and street corners, not to our digital mailboxes.
And if we want to assert ourselves as informed citizens, the decisions we seek to influence take place in the face-to-face world.
From Digital to Doorstep
The connection from digital to doorstep isn’t new. But it’s all about implementation, and too often, the implementation is still flawed.
The most common mistake is to assume that if we raise our voices online, the job is done. Blogging is an excellent way to start a conversation. Retweets and Facebook ‘Likes’ feel great, and they’re a fine measure that a message is starting to spread.
But without organized follow-through and a lot of shoe leather, none of that activity shapes policy or shifts broad public attitudes.
It’s hard to find a social media presentation that lacks the mandatory reference to the Arab Spring, the iconic example of a mass movement that received a critical boost from online networks. And there’ve been other examples of smaller social media campaigns that went viral, caught the attention of traditional media, and created some degree of lasting change.
But beyond the hype, there’s some debate on whether social media played that important a role in the Arab Spring, and little evidence that there’s been enough thought about how to build effective bridges from digital to doorstep. More often, online campaigns start strong, but lack the time, the skills, or the funds to sustain their momentum and build a wider community.
The Ingredients of a Win
Then there’s the experience of an organization like 350.org, whose campaigns against the Keystone XL pipeline and in favour of fossil fuel divestment continue to build profile and momentum. They haven’t won—yet—but here are some of the ingredients that make them a better bet:
- A consistent, hard-hitting message
- Clear, compelling, definable policy demands
- A daily stream of content that combines 350’s own advocacy with news, facts, and arguments from a wide variety of other sources
- Smart use of social media channels to amplify the message and identify supporters
- Deliberate links between social channels and face-to-face communities, all pointing toward policy- and decision-makers who have the authority to take action.
All of which makes a digital to doorstep campaign several steps more complicated than collecting Facebook ‘Likes’ to boost a brand. You’re not just pushing consumers to retweet a blog post or buy a product: you’re asking citizens to think about a problem, weigh its complexities, make a decision, and take action.
So digital to doorstep will always be challenging, whether your next campaign is about greenhouse gas reductions, infrastructure financing, or the social determinants of health. This may be the highest, best use we ever come up with for social networks. But even if the most effective digital campaigns make it look easy, they only succeed with careful planning, smart messaging, and a whole lot of consistent, hard work.