When movements such as March for Our Lives inspire more than a million people across the country to get off their sofas and smartphones and take to the streets, the big question always is, How did they do it? How did organizers get so many people to participate?
The answer: Influence. Someone whose opinion mattered to them said or did something that got them to act.
In this new era of social movements and causes, it’s imperative we understand the remarkable power we all have to influence others. And it’s equally important we examine the approaches and techniques used by successful influencers – as well as the kinds of things would-be influencers do that leave indifference and inaction in their wake.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve all seen the impact that can be created by truly effective influencers. After Hurricane Harvey dumped forty inches of rain on Houston in August 2017, Houston Texans star J.J. Watt posted a YouTube video asking people to help him raise $200,000 for those who had been displaced or left homeless by the storm. His appeal raised $37 million from more than two hundred thousand donors in just a few weeks. A single tweet by actress Alyssa Milano with the hashtag #MeToo helped launch a movement to end sexual harassment in Hollywood that quickly became a global phenomenon and earned the "Silence Breakers" – all the women (and men) who found the courage to break their silence about the harassment they had faced at some point in their lives – TIME magazine’s Person of the Year honor. And after seventeen of their classmates were killed in February by a former student armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, a group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, called for a march in Washington, D.C., in support of tighter gun control laws that ended up drawing more than 800,000 marchers in D.C. and cities around the country.
None of these folks launched their movements with a wave of support behind them. Instead, theirs were acts of determination rooted in a deep belief in the rightness of their cause and a willingness to do what needed to be done.
But where Watt, Milano, and the Parkland teens succeeded, others have failed. Lots of people have inspired members of their networks to learn about an issue. But influence is about more than good marketing; it’s about getting others to act. And that can be a challenge when there are people working against your issue – and using tools you may not even be aware of. That’s why, in today’s digital world, it’s important for changemakers to understand how influence works.
Okay, maybe not. But if we want to understand how influence and influencers work, we need to go beyond simple data points. Here are a few things both individuals and organizations can do to ratchet up their own influence:
Monitor – Listen to what others are saying about your issue, both positive and negative, before you act. Using a social media monitoring app like Hootsuite or Social Mention to “listen in” on what others are saying is an important first step in making sure your own communication efforts are relevant and on point.
Follow the influence path – Identify the individuals responsible for sparking the initial conversations in a movement and how awareness of the issue spread outward from there. Time spent studying successful social movements will give you a better idea of the path your movement should follow.
Measure – As you begin to leern about other influencers, be sure to measure the quality and quantity of the activity they have inspired. Develop personas (profiles) for the individuals, and networks, that have had the most influence.
Talk with, not at – Try to develop an engaging, conversational approach to sharing information with the public, as opposed to simply declaring your notion of the way things ought to be.
Benchmark – Identify each spike in influence and/or activity and match it with the action of a specific influencer. After a while, you should be able to draw connections between different kinds of messaging and the impact they tend to create.
To be an influencer, you need to track, understand, and contribute to the conversations that drive the cause or causes you are passionate about. It’s a new era, one that demands we look at social issues and create social change in new ways. Knowing your issue is one thing but influencing action on that issue is another. The more time you spend studying the truly effective influencers of the past and putting those lessons to work for your cause, the better your chances of becoming an influencer in your own right.
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and the founder and lead researcher for the Millennial Impact Project.