Is There More to Slacktivism Than a Facebook Like?

Slacktivism A union of the words “slacker” and “activism.” Advocacy for a cause that come at a low cost to the user. The term often refers to actions on social media such as retweeting, liking, and following.

How many nonprofits and causes do you like on Facebook?

And to how many of those have you made an actual donation?

For most of us, the first number will dwarf the second. Critics point to this as evidence that social media advocacy is ultimately ineffective and serves more to boost the ego of the “slacktivist” than to contribute to the cause. The increasing reliance on social media, in both our personal lives and our nonprofits, has sparked research into relationship between slacktivism and concrete actions, like donations.

A recent study by sociologists at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed the activity of the “Save Darfur” Facebook page, which at one point had more than 1 million followers. They found that from May 2007 to January 2010, only 0.3% of the followers actually donated to the cause.

While this study is very limited in scope, it illustrates the chief criticism of social media advocacy: that it does not translate into real impact. But there is also significant evidence that slacktivism can benefit nonprofits and causes in fundraising and other actions. In this post, we will review some of the research into slacktivism and determine if and how it should be used by nonprofits.

Reasons for Hope

Some commenters have argued that slacktivism actually prevents people from taking concrete action because they feel like they have already taken action. A 2010 Study by Georgetown University, on the other hand, found that slacktivists were just as likely as non-slacktivists to donate to a cause. Furthermore, this survey online survey of 2,000 adults found that slacktivists were just as likely as non-slacktivists to donate to a cause.

So while engaging in social media advocacy didn’t make respondents more likely to donate, it did increase the likelihood of real-world engagement.

One paper from academics at the University at Buffalo and Arizona State University, offered even better news for nonprofits with a large online social network. In what they called The Social Media Effect, researchers explained that online donations were driven not by the size of the organization or its efficiency, but by the size of its social network (measured in Facebook followers). This paper suggests that slacktivism in the form of friends or followers could boost online donations.

So while slacktivism probably isn’t converting a huge amount of armchair activists into effective advocates, research suggests that it could have a positive impact on recruiting of volunteers, event participants, and online donors. Researchers at the University of British Columbia delved into the visibility of social media advocacy and how that affected the conversion to deeper engagement.

The researchers report that people whose initial action was private (e.g. signing an online petition) were more likely to deeply engage with a cause than those whose action was public (e.g. a Facebook status). The authors also suggested that emphasizing the underlying values of a cause was a good way to turn a slacktivist into an activist.

A Facebook user who believes in equality of opportunity, for example, may be moved to donate to a literacy program if the nonprofit emphasizes that every child deserves the chance at prosperity that education provides.

More Than Donations

We often talk about the effectiveness of slacktivism purely in terms of the amount of donations it generates, but that is not the only driver of social change. So-called slacktivists can easily and instantly spread important information, publicize an underreported incident, and start lasting conversations on race, sex, and other issues. While many people use social media to send cat memes and videos of babies eating lemons, others use the same channels to mobilize protests and impact international foreign policy.

The series of protests and revolutions called the Arab Spring is perhaps the best-known of use social media to impact government, policy, news coverage, and public opinion. Outrage spread when Youtube videos of violent encounters between protesters and police went viral. Twitter was a key means of communication for spreading news and mobilizing demonstrators.

In an article for the Huffington Post, Mark Pfeifle, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications and Global Outreach, wrote that “social media has reduced the cost and complexity of organizing mass numbers of individuals into a single, cohesive, political force.” Your Twitter followers probably won’t attract worldwide media coverage like the Arab Spring, but the period of protest and unrest shows that just because an activist uses social media, it doesn’t mean they are slacking off.

Don’t Stop in the Doorway

Last year, UNICEF Sweden addressed slacktivism head-on with a surprising marketing campaign distributed on several media channels, including online platforms like Youtube. On the very platforms that garner low-cost (and sometimes low-impact advocacy), they point out to supporters that “likes don’t save lives.” This campaign is an excellent example of using the power of social media as a stepping stone to eliciting meaningful action. It drives home the point that nonprofits must regard social media as a means to real-world impact, not an end in and of itself.

Organizations should think of these small actions on Twitter and Facebook as the first step toward turning a stranger into an active supporter.

Fortunately, making a small, symbolic commitment to the cause may make someone more likely to lend a hand. Research dating back to the 1960s supports the Foot in the Door Technique, which states that asking someone to agree to a small favor makes it more likely that they will later agree to a large favor.

So performing one of the small-cost acts that characterize slacktivism might actually create a better chance at deeper engagement. If a person chooses to “like” a nonprofit, they may be more likely to donate or volunteer. For-profit businesses use a similar principle called upselling. When they are buying a car, they have already committed to making a purchase so dealers ask “why not add seat-warmers for just a little more money?” Nonprofits can draw on these examples to think of social media engagement as part of a conversion process.

Slacktivist to Activist

Slacktivism will remain a point of contention in the nonprofit sector, but the research as whole points to social media engagement as a positive resource for organizations in both marketing and fundraising. The most important detail is that nonprofits must never lose sight of their mission in the pursuit these small actions. As one study suggests, organizations should encourage slacktivists to volunteer or attend an event if they aren’t ready to donate.

When someone likes your cause or follows you on Twitter, it is only the beginning of the story. Likes don’t save lives, but they do identify people interested in your cause. Nurture that relationship and you just might turn a slacktivist into an activist.

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Image Credit: Thomas Angermann

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