The Power of We: Using Transmedia for Collective Activism

Blog Action DayToday (October 15th) is Blog Action Day, and every year on one blog or another, I write about a different cause or try to call attention to something lacking or needing reform in the world. However, I think at this point I’ve become so overwhelmed with causes that I want to take a different approach to my contribution. So, in accordance with the theme of this year’s efforts, I’ve decided to share what I know as a Transmedia Producer to help teach you, the people, to harness the “Power of We” for whatever cause or activist movement you feel passionate about.

The real innovation of the Internet is other people, not just data.

- GMD Studio’s Brian Clark to Nick DeMartino, Many Paths to Audience Participation for Transmedia Talent

We’re all aware that the Internet is an over-saturated rat’s nest of content, much of it is valuable, and much of it not. A lot of truly important messages and campaigns for good get lost in the vast ocean of data. Well, then how exactly do you harness the “power of we” in this endless cyber wasteland, where the sheer quantity of content can swallow up your best efforts, making your time spent working for the issues you care about seem fruitless and frustrating? Through the power of running effective transmedia campaigns, of course…

SO – here’s the best of what I can give today: an overview of how to create, distribute and harness the rewards of a content-rich transmedia campaign around your particular cause. In short, I’m going to outline how to execute a solid strategy for creating and releasing cross-platform media as a means to spreading a message to many, engaging the audience (in this case fellow or potential activists) in helping your cause, and turning a supportive online participant into an active advocate for your cause both in digital and real spaces.

Before I start, just in case you’re not already privy to the term Transmedia, here is a quick and dirty definition: Telling stories across multiple media and platforms.

More and more, we are using a transmedia methodology to plan the creation, distribution and marketing of content in the entertainment industry, rather than just creating “the movie” or “the tv show.” In our cyber-utopian consumer fashion, those of us in developed worlds and increasingly even in less developed worlds are consuming content across multiple media and platforms, often simultaneously. We watch TV shows while surfing the web and texting. I know I use as many as 3 devices at a time, and I’m not alone. Those of us overpriviledged consumers are expecting to be more and more active, so activist campaigns should seek to do what the entertainment industry is doing more and more: engaging the audience on all fronts to bring them from a state of passive consumption of contant or information, into an active state of participation and contribution.

We do so by beginning with the development of a “story world.” A strong story world will then allow us to extrapolate endlessly interwoven narratives throughout this world. These narrative arcs and at times, fragments of narrative, are told across different platforms and media, from movies to games, web videos, eBooks, comics, podcasts, websites, blogs, social media, and everything in between.

See the diagrams below for some quick visual of Transmedia 101.

Transmedia Campaign Exemplary Diagram

The Aim of Transmedia in : AUDIENCE BECOMES PARTICIPANTS, PARTICIPANTS BECOME COLLABORATORS, AND COLLABORATORS BECOME PRODUCERS (Note: In transmedia campaigns focussed on collective action for change, we want to transition the audience to become activists, taking direct action of some sort). See another diagram describing this:

Levels of Audience Particpation

SO – Since the point here is to talk about USING TRANSMEDIA FOR COLLECTIVE ACTION, I’m going to supply you all with a transmedia campaign general tips & tricks to maximize audience engagement and participation:

1. FRAMING: Start with the World – Since most causes are set in the real world, so rather than building a story world from scratch, define or FRAME your story world. By this I mean define the field of vision, or the part of the world you are focusing in on. If your cause is clean water for developing nations, define what this world looks like as vividly and holistically as possible. What are the causes for the lack of clean water? What does living without it look like (how does it affect social, economic, political and cultural life)? Who are the people? How do they differ from those of us who do live with clean water? Every detail helps build a full picture, which then can be conveyed in the stories and messages you convey.

2. Determine the goal of your campaign – Figure out what the end goal is. If you want the developed nations of the world to collectively work together to provide clean water for underdeveloped nations lacking this basic human need, you probably have several goals, amongst them funding, human resources, political lobbyist support, international governmental support, etc. You’re going to need to break this down into a modular plan made up of many parts and determine the best way to reach each goal. However, if your campaign is simple, like funding the rebuilding of a church in yoru community, then your task is a bit simpler. You want people to donate, and possibly lend a physical hand in building. Your campaign will also be more narrowly focused to target people in a specific region or community (see next item).

4. Know your Audience. Who is most likely to work with you to further your cause or campaign? Is it niche or is it broad? Even if you are trying to create a broader awareness of a particular cause or issue in the world, you also must want your audience to DO something. Because ultimately only a small percentage of people will take up the banner and actually act out for your cause. Knowing who these people are and what they like, what their lives look like, what their abilities are in terms of putting time in is ESSENTIAL to understanding what the barriers are to action, as well as the key hit points that will resonate. We call this “demographic profiling” in business, but that just resonates wrong with me in this context. It sounds awful to be honest. But ultimately familiarizing yourself with the people who are most likely to work with you, to fully immerse, and care enough to give of their human capital (ie. Sweat equity or time investment into your cause) is key to engaging them with the right approach.

5. Create the “Stories” (or messages) and distribute them across different media and platforms. It is important to note that not every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end here. Stories can be told in fragments and distributed across the web and other media. For instance, setting up Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, websites, blogs, releasing eBooks, creating and releasing content regularly to a YouTube, sending out a regular email, and sharing media in a decentralized manner is key. But the stories must be engaging. And the release timing is important, as one story begets interest for the next, and so on. You don’t want your audience to get distracted by some other cause, waiting for the next interesting content release, blog post, news article, or call to action. Keep them engaged following media around the web. And don’t let the trail go cold.

6. Make it spreadable. Your campaign must contain elements that are, by design, spreadable – i.e. Possess the potential to “go viral.” Contrary to many misinformed marketing personnel I’ve come across, you can’t make something go viral; an audience grows exponentially as people view your content and share it, expanding the reach exponentially. But you can aim for spreadability, by which I mean putting something out there that is engaging, designed to capture peoples’ attention and will ultimately lead to them sharing your message.

So, what makes content spreadable? Here are 4 tips:

  1. Keep it Short – Requires no time commitment
  2. Easy to understand – doesn’t require a niche knowledge base on behalf of the viewer,
  3. Make it entertaining or thought provoking – can be funny, unusual, interesting, etc.
  4. Use Photos / Videos – because we are increasingly a visual-based global culture, pictures and videos grab us faster than text based media and messages. Stories engage, but pictures make us look in the first place. The YouTube embedded video with a clever title will get the play button pressed.

Here is an example of a campaign I thought was especially effective in its clarity, brevity, and entertaining yet thought provoking nature:

5. Market the hell out of your campaign on many fronts – Search Engine Optimize the hell out of your website, promote your Facebook page, your twitter feed, etc. – Not only should you pollinate the web with a smattering of spreadable messages, memes, photos, and videos, but you need to get eyes on it. That means learning how to keyword things, tag them, tag specific people (on Facebook) in photos or videos to get the message out – cross pollinate between the different social tools available – if you post a new video to your YouTube channel, then tweet about it, post to Facebook about it, put it on Tumblr, or whatever other social tools are available.

6. Be a Person Among People, A Friend Among Friends, A Worker Among Workers – Don’t be the aloof and faceless manager of a campaign (unless there’s a good reason to stay anonymous). Be an active participant and make yourself available to the best of your ability. Engage with your friends, followers and co-activists. If you don’t have a big budget, start at the grassroots level and get the conversation going – talk to people via comment threads, discussion boards, retweets, respond to peoples’ tweets, Facebook posts, and other social shares and commentary. Link your blog posts to other blogs and individual articles/posts that you found interesting, comment on other peoples’ blogs who share similar agendas, and build your community by engaging with those who would be your best allies.

Collaborate with other activists of same or similar agendas. To put it into corporate speak, conglomerate – consolidate. Create a monopoly by bringing together all the disparate groups that share the same wants, needs and hopes for change.

7. Learn From Your Metrics, And Be Agile (but don’t let numbers discourage you) – Keep an eye on how your “user base” is growing (or not growing) and adjust your campaign strategy and time / capital efforts to reinforce what is working and refine what is not working.

If you can’t figure out why something isn’t working, and you’ve tried everything, maybe you should ditch it for a while and refocus your resources on the elements of the campaign that are the most valuable in building a captive audience, engaging them in participation, collaboration, and empowering them to action.

For example, let’s say your Tweeting nonstop, but if no one is following your Twitter account, but there are 20,000 likes to your Facebook page and each post gets a ton of comments and likes. It’s obvious – you’re not getting your message out through Twitter. First, try to buff up your Twitter campaign – use more common hashtags, use Facebook to encourage new Twitter followers, and respond/retweet and be an active user on Twitter itself. If this doesn’t work, Tweet regularly but put most of your efforts into building and maintaining a constant flow of traffic and participation on Facebook.

8. Don’t Lose Sight of Your Goals – if you are fundamentally trying to get people to get out there and spread the message, take to the streets or donate, don’t get lost in the social exchanges. Just because a lot of people “like” your posts on Facebook or RT@you, doesn’t mean they are an advocate. Find ways to get people involved. Supply them with the tools and TELL THEM what they need to do to affect change. Don’t just “grow your network” – get your network to collaborate and ultimately to act on their beliefs.

9. Encourage and Teach your participants to become “ACTIVE” activists – Once you have a large enough audience, the message is out, and a significant portion of your supporters are participating either by way of discussion, blogging, Tweeting, posting comments, donating money to your campaign, and sharing content to spread the message, you need to recognize that it doesn’t end here. Now that you have a collection of supporters who would be activists, the key is to turn them into COLLECTIVE ACTIVISTS.

You want your participants to feel like they are invested in your cause. Show them they can become leaders in effecting change. This is achieved by providing each individual with a sense of ownership and responsibility for making change happen. People need direction. Directors need to teach others to take a leadership role, in turn expanding the network and enlisting others to work for the cause, so they can become regional and community leaders. The world’s a big place, so to really see change, we’re going to have to get out of cyberspace on occasion and act collectively to make change occur.

In the digital age, too many of us have become complacent, thinking of ourselves as activists when we “like” a cause, donate a few bucks, or share a video to help spread the message. However, we ultimately want to affect change in the real world, right? So, unlike Hollywood, where the goal is often to “get butts on seats,”

AN ACTIVIST CAMPAIGN IS ONLY AS STRONG AS THE ACTIONS PEOPLE COLLECTIVELY TAKE.

So teach your audience to get their butts out of their seats and mobilize – take to the streets, serve the community, interface with people outside of the fleeting and easily made connections of Internet. That is of course unless you’re a hactivist, in which case, build your army by educating them in how to hack effectively for change – without getting arrested that is…

***As a disclaimer – No, I am not “officially” condoning illegal activities for change, but I will say this: rarely does revolution occur without collateral damage, and unfortunately, this includes human collateral, meaning butts in jail (or worse). The ACLU and other similar organizations would be pretty darn bored if this were not the case.

The most effective course of action for changing the world for the better will vary on a case by case basis, but ultimately, you want your audience to become supporters, you want your supporters to become participants, and your participants to become ACTIVISTS who are emotionally and physically invested in WORKING COLLECTIVELY as a force for change.

So with that, I bid you, Happy Blog Action Day!

NOW GET OUT THERE AND ACT – AND HARNESS THE POWER OF WE!

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  • http://www.fastcompany.com/user/sam-ford-0 Sam Ford

    Appreciated your post, Lauren, and especially your point about the agency people have in deciding what they want to share. I think this is something that is too often known but not really top-of-mind for content creators…They have to think about what their audience might do with content, how it fits into their communication with others, etc., if they expect it to spread.