I had a long conversation today at NAMP with Erik Gensler of Capacity Interactive, one of the most ambitious and hard-working firms helping arts and cultural organizations of all sizes improve their digital communications and fundraising programs. We talked about a wide range of things, but one of the things Erik said has stuck with me, and I wanted to share it here.
Increasingly, Erik said, at Capacity Interactive we’re encouraging our clients to create mechanisms for their constituents and audience members to engage one another, rather than doing all the work of engagement directly. In this model (this is me talking, not Erik), arts institutions become enablers and facilitators of a positive conversation about their work that’s happening out in the world, rather than simply telling people what to say and hoping they say it.
I find that absolutely rings true, and the point applies across sectors, not just in the arts and cultural sector, but in any situation where bringing about the outcome you want depends on creating a large community of people who are talking about the thing you care about.
Think about issue advocacy campaigns, for example. The default tone of most advocacy is shrill and alarmist, and at times verges on the insulting: join us OR ELSE, you’d be helping us IF YOU CARED ENOUGH, be part of this OR IT’LL BE YOUR FAULT, AND DON’T SAY WE DIDN’T WARN YOU. (Full disclosure: in the early 1990s, I helped write just this kind of alarmist copy for issue-oriented direct mail targeted to senior citizens who were terrified of losing their Social Security and Medicare benefits. What can I say? It’s a living.)
Fine; we all know this stuff works. But increasingly, some innovative organizations are turning to a new paradigm, a paradigm built on possibility and hope rather than fear and apprehension.
Freedom to Marry, a BSD client for 6 years, is closing down this month, because they won; with Blue State Digital’s help, they secured equal rights to marry for gay people across the United States. And they did it with just the kind of possibility campaign I’m talking about. As Michael Crawford, FTM’s Digital Director, tells it,
We made a deliberate decision. Our campaign wasn’t going to be angry and argumentative; we were going to tell the real stories of people whose lives were being impacted by state and federal discrimination laws, and where we could, we were going to help those people tell their own stories.
That’s what they did. In a series of over 50 mini-campaigns they produced with BSD over six years, Freedom to Marry helped American gay families tell their stories: of not being able to get married in their own church with their own family and friends around them; of being treated differently by the U.S. military, despite being legally married, because the Defense of Marriage Act required it.
They gathered stories from across the 50 states, formally and informally; they made videos and shareable graphics by the dozens; they used hashtags like #LoveMustWin to create momentum for organic sharing, which reached millions. They created the environment in which a groundswell of energy coming from hundreds of thousands of people could rise and spread, and in doing so, they changed the face of America.
On a smaller scale, every community or cause institution can do likewise. The point of social media engagement is not to “get your message out”; it’s to get other people’s messages out about you, to the people they know and influence. That’s how real change is made.