Wednesday, February 12

Social Change Starts Long Before The Message.

One of the biggest promises made by social media is that it can affect social change. There is some truth to the idea. I've developed social change projects, online and offline, on more than one occasion.

People really can change the world, but it's almost never the way marketers or social media pros think. It takes significantly more effort than a single disruptive advertising campaign. It requires a bigger outcome than asking people to sign a petition. It deserves more than a single direct outcome.

All those things help, sure. But real social change happens at a deeper level. 

There is growing evidence to suggest that the foundation for social change — the decision to share a campaign, sign on with support, or take sustainable action — is made long before any marketer sits down to write a message. According to a new study by Walden University, if social change engagement is modeled to and started at a young age, it will lead to more involvement as adults.

The concept isn't new. While working with AmeriCorps, we placed significant value on engaging a legacy of service, which was defined as a lifetime commitment to volunteerism and philanthropic service that is passed down from one generation to the next. Not all social change is accidental.

The study from Walden University provides some proof of concept. People largely agree.

• 80 percent of social change agents say they have done something to engage in positive social change because they want to set an example for their children.

• 75 percent of adults who attended college or a university say they participated in social change activities while they were students at the college or university.

• 73 percent of social change agents say they engage in positive social change because it is how their parents and family raised them to be.

• 73 percent of adults consider education to be one of the most important positive social change topics today, citing awareness and knowledge as the biggest barrier to participation.

• 70 percent of adults who attended high school or secondary school participated in positive social change activities or volunteered while they were students in high school or secondary school.

There are six prevailing types of change agents. Each one has unique needs.

The survey responses tell part of a developing story. Social change happens early, often, and with the intent of establishing a legacy. In effect, the decision to support a social change effort is largely based upon how early, how often, and who or what inspired the initial engagement. And, according to the study, these factors produce six different kinds of social change agents to identify, reach, and engage.

Change Makers. People who commit their lives to positive social change and may be involved in many different causes. They believe strongly in their ability to make a real difference in their communities, feel happy as a result of their involvement, and prefer to be directly involved. 

Faith Givers. Faith inspires their desire to support positive social change and feel there is a moral obligation to affect the community. They consider giving back to their communities an important part of their faith, do so to set an example for their children, and prefer making contributions in person.

Conscious Consumers. These individuals demonstrate social change though behavior, such as seeking out products and services from companies perceived as behaving responsibly toward people and the environment. They promote social change by example, are proponents of social justice (anti-discrimination, civil rights), and are generally supportive of the environment. 

Purposeful Participants. These are people who are more pragmatic about social change because they see it as a means to support their own educational or career goals. As such, they are more likely to be motivated by recognition, clearly defined objectives, and specific commitments. They are also more likely to take on higher levels of personal sacrifice and risk in pursuing social change. 

Casual Contributors. This group is the least likely to adopt a lifelong commitment to positive social change but more likely to become involved in a specific community need over the short term. They see social change as important but tend to take action as one-time responders to protect or provide assistance to their community.

Change Spectators. These individuals have been involved in social change at some point in their lives but may not be active now. They are not motivated by a personal commitment to social change, do not recognize their contributions as impactful, and are more likely to support a friend in favor of social change than be motivated by change.

What this means to organizations that develop campaigns to support social change.

We found that the study has two primary takeaways for organizations and agencies. The first reinforces a need to invest in the development of legacy change agents — elementary school students who will become active in social change by the time they enter high school or secondary school as well as their parents who are more likely to lead by example during this stage of development.

The second takeaway is as challenging as it is important. It requires the communication plan to consider how different levels of interaction or touch points could better align with each change agent type and thereby maximize their level of support.

For example, while short-term need-based communication can shore up support from casual contributors (provided the ask isn't too frequent), change makers are more likely to need frequent opportunities to provide continual support. If you leave them idle too long, they will start looking to change the world with a different organization.

The net benefits are twofold. The latter ensures you reach more than one-sixth of your potential supporters while the former is a long-term investment that has some immediate benefits along with dividends that pay off in as a little as four years. Specifically, it costs significantly less to engage someone familiar with a need than it does to convince them that a change is needed.

As a side note, Walden University has attached a quiz to the study. The intent is to help define which of the six categories you are most likely to fit. I found the test to be a bit wonky, mostly because of one shortfall. Some people might fit in more than one of the categories identified.
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