What makes a movement go big?

By Olly Buston

What do you mean?

An NGO client recently asked me “what makes a movement go big?”.

The first response of course is “what do we mean by going big?”.  Do we mean signing up millions of supporters on an email list?  Building a giant social media following? Creating a tipping-point moment which starts a national or even global debate? Becoming a household name through saturation media coverage? Relentlessly winning campaigns and having impact? Personally I’m biased towards the impact.  But there is no right answer.

My next thought was to look at other movements or campaigns that have “gone big” and to see what we can learn from them.  Here are 10 thoughts:

1. Harness grassroots anger at injustice

Huge movements including #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have sprung up, driven by a grassroots surge of anger in response to outrageous injustice.  These movements are loosely coordinated around hashtags with only limited organisational infrastructure.  They have a flat structure and avoid figureheads. They have created mass global awareness and are driving deep cultural shifts and generational changes in attitude. And they have forced individuals and organisations to change how they act.

All this is hard for campaigning NGOs to replicate. The whole point of these movements is that they are not manufactured, they are spontaneous eruptions from the people. The lack of structure and clear ‘asks’ of these movements are also unfamiliar and don’t sit easily with organisational needs for short term wins and medium term sustainability.  But we can learn from their powerful dynamics, starting by meeting people where they are, and the injustices they want to see addressed.

2. Be great at the science of digital campaigning

There is so much to learn from the relentless digital arms race between US political parties.  Over the years their digital marketing innovations have taught us (for better or for worse) about segmenting lists, profiling, micro-targeting, reducing friction, testing, focus grouping, polling, starting with the little-big wins, moving people up the ladder of engagement, low-fi small batch creative, using influencers (including micro-influencers), and organising online to deliver offline.

Deploying all of these innovations means steady growth for your online movement, but you need more than this to grow really fast.  And political campaigns are unique in their limited timeframes and guaranteed media coverage.  So we need more to really go big.

3. Use user-generated content (peer to peer recruitment version 1)

People can be a bit snooty about this one.  But the ice bucket challenge did raise $220 million for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and there were 2.4 million tagged photos on Facebook. If that’s not big then what is?

It was all about a mass activity but with individual expression. It was fuelled by competitiveness, social media pressure, low barrier to entry, and a good dose of celebrity promotion. It was low cost and it tapped into participants’ own networks as they peer-to-peer recruited the support and participation of their friends and colleagues and families.

Some people sneer that the ice bucket challenge was just a flash in the pan, that it lacked sustainability, and that it didn’t increase understanding of ALS. But I put a lot of that down to jealousy. User-generated content can be a great way to boost your movement. The problem is that for every ice bucket challenge there are a million imitations that didn’t take off and feel a bit lame.

4. Get creative

Never underestimate the power of a good idea. A brilliant creative concept can be a great movement builder.  Future Advocacy’s deep fake videos of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn went viral, got millions of views, and generated global media coverage.

The trick here is to create content that people feel compelled to share because it is so cool, new, unusual, shocking, or heartwarming. Content is king and great content will always travel.  A good shortcut is to jump on big cultural moments and memes that are taking off already.

The problem is there’s no guarantee that your content will go viral. One trap NGOs (and others) often fall into is focusing too much on creating a brilliant piece of content and not enough on distribution. It’s also not always easy to translate eyeballs into actions and sign-ups (this was certainly a problem with our Deep Fakes).

5. Be a platform (peer to peer recruitment version 2) boasts 463,628,455 people taking action. Now that is big. They’ve done this by creating a platform that individuals and organisations can launch their own petitions on. It’s the burning passion of the people who start their own crowd-sourced campaigns on the things they care about most that fuels the movement, tapping into their networks.

It’s harder to do this if your organisation is focused on an individual issue, although some have tried including Walk Free (now Freedom United) who created a platform that anti-slavery organisations from all over the world launched campaigns on. If you go down this route you also need to be prepared to give up a lot of control.

6. Follow the news agenda

Avaaz has 65 million members. They launch campaigns on issues that are in the media.  Their growth is fuelled by the fact that people are much more likely to take action on an issue that is dominating world attention.

Campaigning is all about seizing opportunities and good campaigns are always scanning for these opportunities and keeping a little capacity in reserve (in theory) to jump on them.  Jumping on every opportunity means being prepared to change plans rapidly though, and can sometimes confuse your audience.

7. Incentivise your movement

Global Citizen gives people rewards for joining or taking action. Most famously if you campaign hard enough you can get to see your favorite stars (Stevie Wonder!) perform in New York’s Central Park or at a venue near you. Their supporters have now taken 24 million campaign actions.  Everything is very targeted and gamified (see ‘be great at digital campaigning’ above).

This model works because everybody loves a freebie and it makes being part of the movement fun. Of course, if you are not careful it can feel a bit contrived and is open to the criticism that people are not doing it for the ‘right reasons’, but let’s not be too holier than thou about it.

8. Work with celebrities

By working with celebrities you can tap into their fanbase to reach a much wider audience.  Make Poverty History went from zero name recognition to being better known than Walkers crisps in the UK within one year, with over 3 million people signing up. MPH activities included A-list packed campaign films and the biggest music event in history (Live 8).

Celebrities can bring huge media focus to an issue. But for this to work in a sustainable way they need to have an authentic connection with it like Marcus Rashford does with Free School Meals or Jamie Oliver does with food.

9. Tap into corporate partnerships

Wouldn’t it be great if we could tap into the vast marketing budgets of major brands to promote our movement? This is what (RED) did, raising $600 million for AIDS prevention and treatment so far. They created a very cool award-winning brand backed by celebrities and brilliant creatives, with products that turn (RED) giving a proportion of their sales to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. They meet people where they are…buying things.

Of course there is a risk if the brands that most want to partner with you may be the ones that most need to polish their credentials, risking ‘Green-Washing’ or its various equivalents (Youth-Washing was a new one I heard recently). Similar schemes can feel high on PR and low on impact. But (RED) delivered.

10. Pursue media partnerships

What can we learn from the way Blue Planet transformed the debate around plastics in the UK? Well, for a start, it reminds us again of the importance of focusing on distribution (not just production) of content.

Blue Planet leveraged a huge mainstream TV audience which led to an explosion of awareness and created a window of opportunity for action. What if your campaign could have a big TV partnership (or a partnership with a major social media platform or even a newspaper)? The trick is converting the opportunity and ensuring the sustainability of your campaign.

Final thoughts

In reality the movements that go big and have impact combine many of these 10 elements.  If we can meet people where we are; work with the grain of the things they care about most; tap into their networks; seize opportunities; be smart at choosing our partners; and be brilliant at the science of digital campaigning while also being brilliant at the art of being creative, then we too can go big (whatever that means). Easy huh?