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Social Networks and Getting People to Act

June 22, 2009

Bullseye Last week, my pal Bruce Trachtenberg, executive director of the Communications Network, wrote a terrific post about social networking in which he asked, How is it making us better (if it is)? And how is it helping us do a better job of communicating (if it is)? Bruce flattered me by including a few of my thoughts on the subject in his post. My main point: Social media, while labor intensive ("high touch"), is powerful precisely because it fosters extended networks based on one-to-one relationships.

But later, after reading the post, I began to wonder. In what ways are the relationships forged through social media different than the relationships we establish in the offline world? Are the friends and acquaintances I make through social media more likely to be persuaded by something I say or write than members of my extended family or my college buddies? And at what point does the law of diminishing returns kick in? A hundred? A hundred and twenty (the optimal size, according to anthropologists, for primitive social groups throughout human history)? More? Fewer?

I was getting confused, so I decided to check back in with Bruce. It all depends on your reasons for seeking out those connections in the first place, he said. Low levels of network engagement may be perfectly fine for some things; for others -- persuading friends or supporters to sign a petition, to contact their elected representatives, to donate to your cause -- the level of engagement may have to be higher. The most important thing to remember, however, is that it's not about how many people you know; it's about who you know.

That point is underscored by a terrific 2006 report Bruce pointed me to. Written and researched by the Communications Leadership Institute and Spitfire Strategies, the report, Discovering the Activation Point: Smart Strategies to Make People Act, argues that the number of people needed to make a difference is usually smaller than you think and is rarely "as many as possible." The key to creating change, the authors write, is in persuading the right people at the right time to take a specific action.

Who are the "right" people (i.e., your target audience)? They're the folks you actually have a chance of persuading -- either those who already support your cause or those willing to give you a fair hearing. And, for obvious reasons, you're likely to find and connect with more of them through your social networks than through other channels.

The report is full of strategies, tips, and good questions to help you get to the "activation point":

  • What do you need to persuade people to do?
  • What is the smallest number of people you can activate to get what you want?
  • What does your target audience already know (or think it knows) about your issue?
  • Does your audience need more information or more reason to care or act?
  • How can you phrase your ask so it sounds like a suggestion rather than a command?
  • Do your messages show you respect your audience?
  • How can you acknowledge that your audience is pressed for time and/or resources?
  • What would make your efforts more timely?
  • How can you showcase the benefits of your audience taking action?
  • When you follow up, how can you make it personal?

You can download a free copy of the report here.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Archana  |   June 27, 2009 at 10:29 AM

This is very interesting, especially for us at the South Asian Philanthropy Project - where we're trying to build an on-line community of South Asian Americans interested in giving and volunteering. Because our ethnic community is spread out all over North America, a virtual medium is a good way to start out for us... your questions are really on-point and will be one of our discussion topics in an upcoming team conference. Thanks!

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