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How to better engage slacktivists – and turn them into activists

How to better engage slacktivists – and turn them into activists

By Weh Yeoh & Marie Cusick

We’ve all thought about it. We’ve probably all dabbled in it. Some of us do it often, from the privacy of our own homes and even right out in plain view. We are talking about slacktivism.

The slacktivist is a widely misunderstood creature and one we prefer to think of as an activist just waiting to be properly engaged.

There are many examples of successful campaigns that depend on the slacktivist. But many miss the mark entirely. One such campaign was #bringbackourgirls, which was created to demand that Boko Haram return the more than 270 schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria in April 2014. However, while the campaign was well-intentioned, its message was oversimplified: Boko Haram also abducted boys who receive Western education, but that fact didn’t sit well with the underlying theme of the campaign (this was about girls and education).

Students at Thompson Rivers University hosted a #bringbackourgirls event.
Students at Thompson Rivers University hosted a #bringbackourgirls event. Photo from Thompson Rivers University.

Despite the temptation to view slacktivists sceptically, there is some good evidence that shows slacktivists in fact aren’t all that slack.

While some online efforts are certainly only token, it is possible to engage slacktivists in ways that produce tangible change. Take the Ice Bucket Challenge, for example. It was an incredibly viral attempt to raise awareness and money for ALS, which ultimately raised more than $100 million–that’s an incredible four times as much as the organisation had raised the year before. However, how many of us know the name of the organisation that ran the campaign? Or what ALS stands for? Or what the debilitating disease actually is?

What determines whether people even get involved in a campaign? A 2014 Chicago Journals study on slacktivism found that the way in which organisations initially engage slacktivists determines how effective their support is in the long term. Asking individuals to commit to a small act of initial support could lead to larger forms of support in the future. And critically, this works more successfully when asking for private rather than public support.

The study showed that if the initial act of token support was high in social observability (such as publicly wearing a symbol of support or “liking” a post), individuals were less likely to commit to further engagement with a cause. However, if the initial act was low in social observability, they were more likely to contribute further.

It is reasoned that when slacktivists position themselves as outwardly supporting a cause, they are often viewed favourably by others thereby activating impression management. If this truly is the case, it means the slacktivist who publicly supports a cause cares more about how they appear to friends and family than about taking meaningful action. Think about the “pink washing” that occurs the month of October in support of breast cancer. Wearing pink is a token gesture high in social observability, and it may detract from the actual goal of fundraising for cancer research.

So, since initial token acts of support can make or break how you engage a slacktivist, we’ve put together a list, with the help of the Chicago Journals research, of ways your non-profit organisation can engage them better (you’re welcome!):

1. Engage people in private token support, rather than public.

Although relatively low in impact, a private token act could kickstart more meaningful contribution at a later stage. An example could be asking them to write a message of support to someone the organisation supports.

2. Draw attention to your values as an organisation.

It has been argued that people act on values, not on self-interest. If your organisational values align with those of your supporters, they’ll go past slacktivism to meaningful support.

3. Rely on people’s desire to be consistent.

People were found to be more likely to put up an unattractive sign on their front lawns promoting safe driving if they first agreed to put a small sticker in their home windows. This is due to the desire to be consistent. Therefore, if the initial private token support is consistent with the meaningful support you want later, you may have more success the second time.

4. Make sure you have a call to action!

Make sure you are asking people to do something concrete and that it is easy to follow. Asking people to do something gets them used to you asking, and more importantly, gets them used to responding. When the time comes to ask for something meaningful, it won’t come as a huge surprise. Hopefully they’ll be ready to give.

Rather than dismissing slacktivists, let’s think of them as beginner activists who are poised to embark on a lifelong journey to support your cause–if they are engaged the right way. Having a clear plan to engage these individuals from the start will ensure your campaign or cause gets the attention and support you are seeking.

Marie Cusick is a Volunteer Communications Officer with OIC: The Cambodia Project and an advisor to the Cooperation for Social Services and Development in Cambodia. Marie is also a certified massage therapist, and she holds an M.A. in Health Communication.

Featured image shows employees at the University of Central Arkansas participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge. Photo from the University of Central Arkansas.

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Weh Yeoh

Co-Founder & Board Member at WhyDev
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived, volunteered and worked in Cambodia for the past 3 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed an MA in Development Studies. He has a diverse background, having travelled through remote parts of Asia, volunteered in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, and studied Mandarin in Beijing. He is an obsessed barefoot runner and connoisseur of durian.

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