The science of slacktivism

Online advocacy has a bad name.  Specifically: slacktivism (or clicktivism).  Seth Meyers put the prevailing opinion into funny words on SNL:


“Look, if you make a Facebook page we will “like” it—it’s the least we can do.
But it’s also the most we can do.”

This frames the debate well.  Some think that online activism is a prelude to future action — a way people signal they are interested in your cause and are working to do more.  Others think it is a way for people (and here they will often say Millennials — check out my posts from a couple weeks ago as to why this is bull) to feel good about themselves while doing very little.

So what does science say?

I’ll give you the TL;DR version now: campaigns that are good help future action; campaigns that suck don’t.

OK, perhaps that wasn’t all that satisfying.  But you wanted to read about the science anyway, right?

There are three interesting studies on this that I wanted to highlight.  The first is from Lee and Hsieh here.  They found that people who signed a petition were more likely to donate to a related nonprofit afterward.  This makes sense given what we know about the importance of consistency in persuasion.  

The more interesting part of the study is that they also found that people who didn’t take the advocacy action were more likely donate to another unrelated nonprofit thereafter.  They call this moral balancing.  The idea is that people feel a bit guilty that they didn’t take a pro-social action, so they want to balance this with an unrelated prosocial action.  I’m not sure yet what practical effect this has (unless I can rent a list of another nonprofit’s non-petition signers), but it’s interesting and it shows that people perceive an online petition as a positive thing that they generally should be doing.

The second study I would recommend is from Kristofferson, White, and Peloza. They come right to the question of whether a token action leads to greater action in the future with five different studies.  My favorite, and the easiest to explain, is one where had three groups: one who were given a poppy to wear in honor of veterans, one who were given that same poppy in an envelope so it would be for private support, and one who were given nothing.  At the end of the hallway, the groups were asked to donate.  Those who showed private support (poppy in the envelope) gave an average of $.86, public supporters gave $.34, and the control gave $.15.  They further refined this study in other ways and found that generally, people who gave private support were more likely to support in the future; people who gave public support were either no more likely or less likely to support the cause than those who did nothing.

The third study, from Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich, found similarly — that Facebook activism (perhaps because it is public) doesn’t often translate to any further activity.  Looking at a Save Darfur campaign, 99.7% of people did not make a donation and 72.2% didn’t recruit anyone else.  Of those who donated, 95% did only once and of those who recruited, 45% recruited only one other person.  Hardly a sustainable effort.  The authors hypothesize that this is because Facebook is full of both strong and weak social ties, so you want to advertise your best self to this group.

However, there was a committed group of people on Facebook: it was just very small.  The top one percent of advocates made the 80-20 rule turn away in shame, responsible as they were for 63% of membership recruitment and 47% of donations.  The study also found that recruits were more likely to donate and donors more like to recruit.  So once you got someone over a very high threshold, some people would work wonders, but these were unicorns in a world of horses.

So here are the implications that I see for advocacy campaigns:

  • Do them.  A properly run advocacy campaign can increase the likelihood that someone will donate and take other actions for your organization.
  • Make them private.  Public petitions appear to satisfy a person’s desire to manage their reputation, so they were less willing to take other actions.
  • By extension, don’t do them on social networks.  Not only are they not public, but you do not have the easy wherewithal to communicate with them to get the first gift or convert to other activities.
  • Make the ask.  It can be as easy as having an ask for the donation on the confirmation page or receipt for a petition.  Folks who take private actions want to help and are in a mindset of helping.  I personally have seen advocacy campaigns with a soft ask after taking the petition raise more money than a hard ask to a full list.  Crazy, but true.

Hopefully, this has given you the data to incorporate advocacy into your campaigns the right way.  For the rest of the week, I’ll be talking about how to incorporate in the mail, acquiring online advocates, and converting advocates to donors.

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The science of slacktivism