If you’re interested in the elusive “viral”, take a leaf from some of the US’ recent social movements.
These are the campaigns that have gained massive traction and inspired global participation. Some of them, like #IAmTrayvon have even become points of comparison for descendent movements.
Here, we highlight a few social movements with remarkable success and reach, and how they happened.
1. Pride – accomodate a diversity of followers and allow them to define the movement
A bunch of queers met oppression with loud resistance
Gay Pride was started by queer and transgender patrons of the Stonewall Inn Bar in NYC, when they rioted for days following a police raid. These were the Stonewall Riots credited for the birth of the Pride movement.
In 1970, the first Gay Pride march in U.S. history covered the 51 blocks to Central Park in memory of the Stonewall Riots. Since 1970, Pride has gained momentum throughout the US and inspired other Pride parades worldwide.
Thriving on visibility and difference
Pride enjoys phenomenal success because it thrives on individuality and diversity. It doesn’t have a uniform look or meaning, but every Pride is defined by its participants.
You can take it to anywhere in the world and it will accomodate cultural differences. And it requires nothing of its participants except to be visible. Its politics is simple and universally relevant.
2. ALS ice bucket challenge – stand on the shoulders of celebrities
No elaboration needed on the Ice Bucket Challenge’s success, just this chart by Forbes:
A celebrity-studded success
Whatever the naysayers say about water wastage and hashtag activism, it’s impossible to argue with the Ice Bucket Challenge’s staggering, celebrity-studded success. It was already spreading quickly when it first started out. And then celebrities, politicians, and entrepreneurs came on board, and the Internet pretty much lost it.
Nominees feel important without looking self-important
The challenge is really clever. It allows you to perform honorability and philathropy by ‘stepping up’ to the plate. Simultaneously, you get to look important for being a nominee in the first place. Most importantly, you don’t look like a self-important attention seeker because you’re just responding to a challenge.
And if you don’t want in, you could just very kindly write a check like Sir Patrick Stewart did. By flattering their participants from every angle, the challenge is so much more enticing and contagious.
3. The HRC’s Marriage Equality social media campaign- an easily actionable campaign you couldn’t miss
Early last year, the Supreme Court was debating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Most people wouldn’t fully understand the complexity of the debate, and most wouldn’t have the patience to follow every argument raised, anyway.
Just change your profile picture
But the Human Rights Campaign pulled a brilliant campaign in support of striking down DOMA. The premise was simple – if you believed in equality, just change your profile picture to that sign.
Read next: 7 examples of ‘foot-in-the-door’ marketing
Equal sign was social proof
You couldn’t avoid it – as long as you had a few friends for marriage equality, you would’ve learned about the HRC campaign. And if your social circle was overwhelming liberal, the sea of equal sign boxes was intoxicating social proof.
It was fairly uncontroversial (emphasis on “equal” rather than “gay”), easily actionable, and very visible. And unless you wanted to be read as anti-gay, you felt the pressure to participate.
Read next: 26 examples of social proof in marketing
4 & 5. #WeAreAllTrayvon and #Ferguson – push a compelling narrative
#IAmTrayvon and the iconic hoodie-wearing teen
Long after the buzz was over – hackathons were organized for black youth to design apps “that could’ve saved Trayvon“. Trayvon Martin continues to be the most-referenced case of unpunished violence against black men, especially following #Ferguson.
Many black youth identified with Trayvon, in particular the fact that what he was wearing and holding made him a target of violence. They adopted the hashtags #WeAreAllTrayvon, #MillionHoodies, and #skittles, and organized a million hoodie march.
Hoodies and skittles everyday objects were the things that made the campaign so sticky – they’re easy to identify with and mobilize around.
#Ferguson and the hands-up gesture of solidarity
This is an interactive chart showing us how #Ferguson has exploded in the various US states, and also around the world.
There is plenty of excellent writing on institutional racial violence. But the genius of #Ferguson was that it focused its message on police brutality. The tagline “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” has inspired a similar protest in Russia. Even Palestinians in Gaza have identified with #Ferguson because “The Palestinian people know what it means to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity”, and tweeted advice on how to deal with tear gas.
6. Obama’s reelection – Obama was re-elected by AB testing and social media spend
The Obama 2012 campaign has been analyzed to death, but it’s worth revisiting – never before had a Presidential campaign spent so much on social media. The Obama digital campaign spent $47m for Romney’s $4.7m, and logged twice as many Facebook “Likes” and nearly 20 times as many re-tweets as Romney. Also, never before had a Presidential campaign been so data-driven and A/B tested.
It tested its email campaign to death
“We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines—often as many as 18 variations—before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers. (Source: Bloomsberg Businessweek)
It mined big data for campaign ideas
“The backroom number crunchers who powered Barack Obama’s campaign to victory noticed that George Clooney had an almost gravitational tug on West Coast females ages 40 to 49. The women were far and away the single demographic group most likely to hand over cash, for a chance to dine in Hollywood with Clooney — and Obama. Obama’s top campaign aides decided to put this insight to use. They sought out an East Coast celebrity who had similar appeal among the same demographic, and chose Sarah Jessica Parker.” (Source: TIME)
7. The sharing economy – naming is more than semantics, it’s your brand
While Obama 2012 looked like a socio-political movement taking notes from growth hacking, the sharing economy is the perfect example of a booming industry branding itself as a social movement.
And it’s working. Not only is participation rate in the sharing economy growing rapidly (and most rapidly among millenials), so are its investment funds – in 2011-2013 the sector raked in $67b.
Not technically sharing
Most of its critics point out that only a small part of the “sharing economy” is technically sharing. That’s true, it’s really more micro-selling small units of time and space. Besides, the (literal) sharing economy has been around for a long time – really, really free markets, to name an example. We just didn’t call it “the sharing economy” until poster children Airbnb and Uber showed us that it could be monetized.
Emphasis on trust and goodwill
But kudos to Rachel Botsman, who coined the term “collaborative consumption”. She, together with pioneers like Jeremiah Owyang, evangelized the sharing economy expertly, with taglines such as “We are wired to share”, and “The currency of the new economy is trust.” They also gave the sharing economy its anti-materialistic slant that appeals to millennials – that “possession” is passé, but “shared access” is in.
Social movements fight ideas with ideas. Businesses can learn from that.
Social change is definitely so much more than an email campaign, more than a trending hashtag and student demonstrations. Most social change involve a much more complex strategy of political lobbying and engaging ideological opponents, that businesses are typically able to avoid.
Still, they make worthy case studies for their lessons in selling ideas exceptionally well. When it comes to the front line work of inspiring a massive following, social activists are winning at persuasion and conversion.