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What online advocacy campaigns can learn from protest marches and parades: 9 integral components

March 2, 2010

Marchers in Phoenix, AZ in January 2010

All this week, New Orleans is celebrating Mardi Gras. Later this month, immigrant rights organizations and community groups from around the country are planning to march in Washington for immigration reform.

This got me thinking about why marching either in protest or pride is such a popular advocacy activity and how this can be replicated online. Don’t get me wrong: I’m NOT calling for end to in-the-flesh marches, parades and rallies. Each of the street events I’ve participated in were uniquely beautiful and inspiring.

Instead I’m interested in discussing how these large collaborative “actions” can inform and shape online campaigns. I often find myself looking for metaphors to help organizations and coalitions understand the vital components of social campaign design. Sometimes organizations think that an online strategy is distinctly different from other activities and work they do. Many don’t realize that they’re already doing lots of things that can be reconfigured, repackaged or redirected to make the most of social media technology.

Below are nine components of marches that I’ve observed and how I think they could relate to online activity (I welcome your comments/feedback below):

2006 March for Immigration Reform in Los Angeles

1. Planners schedule the march according to campaign goals. Organizers often plan marches to coincide with political objectives at key junctures: demonstrating collective support or opposition to a cause, urging legislators to pass legislation or raising awareness. It goes without saying that, in addition to these goals, marches and parades benefit participants themselves by forging unity, building their enthusiasm for a campaign and fueling its momentum. Such movement building can also be the basis for creating a sense of ownership and an effective part of fund-raising. Many online advocacy campaigns are designed with the specific goal of changing policy or passing legislation that will create systemic change. But these campaigns are equally important to your constituents and supporters. In much the same way that marches are reliant on people to show up and make their presence felt, what are we doing to foster the same online? Instead of using social media as just another broadcast (or one-way) communications tool, let’s think about creating interactive spaces where people can also make their presence felt digitally.

Map of the recent CA Trail of Dreams

2. Planners chart the route. Except in spontaneous protests, most marches are the result of extensive planning and negotiation with localauthorities.  For example, planners need to decide where participants will rally at the beginning and end of the march, as well as the best street route for both maximum impact and security. The same could be true of online advocacy campaigns. Instead of letting the worry about people being “off message” hinder you, advocacy groups can chart the path for online participants. By creating an online platform like a blog or social network group, campaign planners set the norms for participation. Sure, some people might stray outside the parameters onto the sidewalk or have “unfortunate interactions” with police but that doesn’t impact the overall success of the march.  You can outline the values your organizations believes in and the type of interactions you welcome.  The blog God’s Politics by Sojourners Magazine cites Scripture in its rules for commenting on blogs (see Comment Code of Conduct at bottom of post here). Stating values and codes of conduct upfront can help people understand what sort of participation you’re looking for. At the same time, be open to spontaneous and unplanned directions that might catylse your campaign.

Interactive map: March for America

3. People sometimes need help getting to the march. Many community groups go out of their way to help their members physically participate in marches. They hire buses and organize carpool to drive several hours. Others buy plane tickets for members. But for online campaigns, are we failing to do the same? The Digital Divide is a reality in many communities in the United States. Of course, younger generations are more web savvy but do they have the resources and access to participate in online spaces you create? We should all see support of a National Broadband Plan and technology access as integral to our advocacy work no matter the issue. Campaign managers need to constantly ask the question, “Who are we interacting with in this online space?” While this is rapidly changing, it’s not enough to merely assume that your constituents are out there somewhere in cyberspace, reading your content. We need to figure out ways to facilitate participation.

Texas action for "Dignity not Detention" campaign 2/10

I’ll explain more concrete steps below:

4. Individuals make posters and costumes beforehand. If marchers are going to bring their handmade work to marches, they find the time to prepare in advance. Many communities organize poster-making parties so people who can’t participate in the march due to work or other commitments can come to lend a hand. In online advocacy campaigns, it’s important to separate content creation from online engagement.  Your constituents can create content without necessarily participating in online spaces. Think about it: writing, taking pictures, drawing and videotaping are all done offline and are only later posted on the Internet. While our ultimate goal should be ensuring constituents’ ability to participate online, campaigns can benefit from content created by folks who don’t have easy access to online spaces. Media making is a powerful educational tools that develops leadership and teaches collaboration skills. Advocacy groups need to think more about developing trainings or structured learning that results in effective content that campaigns can use. I often joke that community organizers are in love with butcher or flipchart paper: no training is complete without sheets of paper covered with writing or drawings made by small groups of people with magic markers. Why can’t we do the same with media creation? (And no we don’t have to abandon butcher paper).

March in Van Nuys, CA 1/10

5. Individuals bring their posters and wear their costumes. Marchers don’t need to be reminded to bring their own posters or wear something special to marches and parades: it’s understood that this is welcome. Without these handmade expressions of individuality, what would journalists photograph or show on the TV news? For online campaigns, we should design spaces that encourage the same instead of worrying about controlling the message. Online, this activity could include creating a Flickr or Picasa photo pool, inviting guest bloggers to write for your blog, posting videos made by supporters explaining why they care, sharing audio of asong or chant someone wrote for the cause. For some community members, you might need to post content on their behalf (i.e. like bringing posters someone else made to the march). Pioneering projects like VozMob in Los Angeles are exploring ways to facilitate posting content online via mobile phones. Content that’s off-message often gets lost in the crowd online. Of course, there’s the chance that opponents might find this “outrageous” content and use it against you. But, at the end of the day, you can’t control everyone and you can’t let fear dominate your campaign. Off-message content doesn’t represent your campaign as a whole but demonstrates real people that are involved. To me, the bonuses far outweigh the negatives.

6. Selective uniformity shows our connections. While individual expression is important, labor unions and community groups often bring mass printed posters or wear similar t-shirts or colors. This shows group affiliation, our strength in numbers, which is a good thing. Online, similar uniformity shows solidarity. Last year on Twitter, many users changed their profile photos to have a green hue to show support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran. DREAM Act students often include a badge reading, “I support the DREAM act” on their profile pictures. In online spaces, this shows solidarity and shows the reach of your campaign (see more on the benefits of this in #9 below). You can use tools like Twibbon for Twitter and Facebook so supporters can add overlays to their profile pictures. A lengthier (but equally important) process would be getting organizational members in a coalition to add a button or image to their websites and social media accounts.

Longtime activist Dolores Huerta at the Phoenix Day of Action 2010

7. Inspirational speeches and music get the crowd moving. Marchers need inspiring speakers and musicians to rile them up and getting them excited about making the effort to participate in the march. Sometimes these community leaders or celebrities are important to getting people to show up. Online, I see this as modeling content creation and engagement. To get any participatory campaign off the ground, you’ll need to inspire users and show them what sort of content you’re looking for. Ghostwrite blog posts from your organizational director (with his/her final approval), videotape statements by key supporters, share broadcast media related to your cause and take photos of everything you do that shows the campaign in action. Your supporters will then have a better idea of what you’re looking for when you ask for their input.

Madelu & me in Phoenix 2/10

8. During marches, people interact and build relationships. One of the great things about participating in marches or parades is the people you meet along the way: people from other cities/states or long lost friends. We make new connections, forge new bonds and strengthen existing ones. Translating this to online spaces is often a challenge for advocacy campaigns. Commenting on blogs or listserves seems to be most common. But design content creation workshops or events to introduce people to each other. Allow commenting on your Facebook fan page and encourage people to share what they’re doing to support the campaign so they can connect with others. Create lists on Twitter so supporters can follow and interact with each other. Spontaneously-created groups or teams via online tools will make a big different to your campaign.

The dove I created for the 2002 Montreat, NC 4th of July parade

9. Participants continue “marching” even after its over: One of my favorite parts of marches or parades is when everyone disperses and slowly goes about starting their normal lives. One of my favorite memories of Brooklyn’s West Indian Carnival is seeing plumed and vibrantly dressed participants waiting in line at Wendy’s. When your supporters demonstrate their support through unique content creation (# 4 and #5) and/or uniform solidarity (#6), their friends and connections in online spaces will see this activity and ask questions. And isn’t this what you want, in the end? As Michael Hoffman of See3 points out, “stop focusing on making a viral video and start focusing on making a viral cause.” The foundation of a viral campaign is encouraging supporters to share their own stories and content that connect to the campaign goals through their own social networks. Let’s face it: I’m going to actually watch a video with my family members or friends in it over something from a top-down organization. To create the right conditions for an “outbreak of support”, your constituents need to be able to add to your campaign and share that through their own networks.


So with all this in mind, here’s my challenge to anyone planning or participating in a march in the near future (like the 3/21 March for America):  observe the event, think about the points above and consider what it would like translated to online spaces. What would happen to your online campaign if people showed up with the same energy and enthusiasm? Just as you would with an offline event, take steps to make online participation a reality.

What do you think of these ideas? Are they feasible? What did I miss?

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