What can activists teach us about social network strategy?

Tom Liacas —  November 16, 2012 — 2 Comments
I recently came across an article by the venerable Tim O’reilly  (Founder and CEO, O’Reilly Media) on LinkedIn. Aside from laying down some core cultural wisdom around the social media gift economy (which I think very few marketers understand), O’reilly mentioned the fact that, in his company’s early days, they hired a campaigner from the Sierra Club to do their marketing and PR and have stuck with the ‘activist’ approach ever since.

O’reilly’s words resonate with my personal experience as a former activist cum social media strategist. Since the mid 90s,I have continually seen social change movements at the forefront of the innovation curve when it comes to digital media. Here are a few cases from past and present:

  • Indymedia.org: In 1999, activists on the ground at the WTO Summit protests in Seattle got financial support from Rob Glaser, founder of RealNetworks, and many, many hours of coding from some highly motivated geeks.  Indymedia was the first open publishing portal that allows citizen journalists to upload text and video reports of protest happening as they witness them. Still active to this day!
  • Adbusters.org: Founded in 1989, this alternative media powerhouse channels the energy of millions of fans, designers and activists, who are disenchanted with consumer capitalism. Building online networks since the late 90s (when I was Campaigns Manager), Adbusters has assembled an online following of 96,885 advocates who spread their content and campaigns well beyond this number. Adbusters, by the way, catalyzed the #Occupy Wall St. movement!
  • Greenpeace and its Mobilisation Lab: When it comes to forcing corporations into very uncomfortable spaces using digital tactics, Greenpeace wrote the book! Notable success stories include their multimedia campaigns against Dove and Nestle over Palm oil and deforestation. Greenpeace has recently put together a full time digital innovation unit called the Mobilisation Lab, to further develop its social media prowess. Polluters watch out!

Why are activists so good at social media?

Here are a few reasons.

  • Activists gain power by building large social networks of like-minded people united by, or against, a common cause. Companies and institutions, on the other hand, have to start from scratch and work hard to create a social following.
  • The social networks around activist causes bind people together with strong bonds, meaning that these people will be much more active in sharing, promoting and contributing content to a network. Commercially-driven networks are built on flimsy foundations and need constant incentive to keep people from dropping off.
  • Most importantly, since activists have little money for advertising, they are driven to learn what their following really cares about deeply and orient their efforts to appeal to this as much as possible. Businesses and institutions, though they continually claim to be focused on the client’s interests, still stick largely to brand message online, which gains very limited social traction for them.

But don’t take it from me! Go back and read Oreilly’s great think piece:  It’s Not About You: The Truth About Social Media Marketing. And, as always, I want to discuss all of the above with you. Bring on the comments!


Tom Liacas

Tom Liacas

Posts Twitter Google+

An M.A. graduate in Media Studies, Tom Liacas is an experienced Social Network Strategist who first cut his teeth creating and managing advocacy campaigns as an activist.
  • Maxx


    Excellent readings as usual. I couldn’t help throwing in my musings.

    I once heard that running a successful business doesn’t have to include being an inventor or innovator, but to simply make people’s lives better(how did housekeepers or dog walkers become occupations?).
    Outright, therein lies a common thread between activism and business – to improve people’s lives.

    Social activism is often spurred by individuals with a shared lack of resources(financial) so the ‘movement/revolution’ is sustained by raw determination and collective will to effect change(in extreme cases to overtake the oppressor/exploiter).

    Social activists literally amplify message(megaphone) to promote awareness of the cause and the group’s image and to influence the behaviour of followers.
    Social media is utilized as their platform for airing/dealing with complaints & confusion, to clarify their message, to represent the group & increase ability to galvanize the collective.
    They use social media to understand their group better, to improve the list of demands, changes to laws, etc. The followers help position the cause more effectively.
    Finally, social media activism generates EVANGELISTS who act as ambassadors to promote the cause across the networks.

    Emotional stories bind the collective, as they resonate within the group. The Occupy movement compelled people to get out on the street, away from backlit screens because they wanted to connect PHYSICALLY, in the real world, to tell their stories. Shared experiences increases ‘brand loyalty’ – as businesses should do. Similarly, online music ‘pirates’ will pay money to attend concerts in order to share collective enthusiasm.

    Business: the social media revolution could not be making it any easier for them to understand consumer desire. Listen, take note and deliver! Customers are highly motivated, passionate and eager to be heard, share, to be leaders, experts, advisors. Marketing ought to mobilize these advocates to ‘their cause’.

    Traditional marketing teams should think less like business folks and more like activists; abandon strategies based on the premise of having to convince their public to buy something they don’t need(manufacture ‘desire’), and choosing their product vs a competitor’s.
    It’s a lot cheaper to harness the power of their brand’s advocates via social media than investing in standard ad campaigns.

  • Pingback: What can activists teach us about social network strategy? | social disruptions | La communication asymétrique | Scoop.it()