As SNS have grown in importance, increasing numbers of organisations promoting and campaigning for social change have been experimenting and learning how to include them in their communication. Both SNS platform providers and agencies with an interest in health promotion have been part of this trend, actively exploring the role of SNS for health promotion and social-cause outreach. The following chapter offers a number of examples of how individuals and organisations are engaging with SNS as communication platforms. The examples draw mainly from the UK and US markets, which in many ways have been developing parallel to each other.

Large and small organisations are creating profiles and pages within Social Network Sites to raise awareness of their issues, to build their links with potential supporters or target audiences, and to crowd-source input into their work. By accepting friend or fan connections against their corporate presence within SNS, organisations build up an opt-in list of fans/friends who they can communicate with through status messages, shared media and using the messaging features on SNS. The communication can be two way, allowing organisations to use their SNS profiles and presence to get input from their constituency and to engage in dialogue. Some organisations are empowering their staff to use personal (non-corporately branded) profiles for work-related conversations and communication, creating a very personal form of online outreach.

For example, Oxfam Great Britain has both a corporate presence within SNS, and campaign specific SNS profiles. Through a Facebook page Oxfam GB promotes its existing multimedia content to an audience of more than 5,000 fans of the page24. Through the Fairtrade Woman Group,25 Oxfam campaigner Becs Gowland developed an audience of more than 1,800 group members following her fortnight-long campaign to promote ethical consumerism.

Both MySpace with MySpace Impact, and Bebo with Bebo BeWell and BeInspired are encouraging non-profits to create and actively use profiles within their networks. Many of the larger SNS sites will also form partnerships with specific organisations, groups or movements for social change. One of the best known is the very active RED partnership with MySpace with more than half a million friends (558,394 – 12/3/09).

There is of course absolutely no guarantee of SNS profile building leading to success. To build a community in the spirit of a given SNS needs consistent organisational commitment, notably: resources; training or recruiting expertise; and a degree of editorial freedom and flexibility. As Beth Kanter puts it, “Social media takes time to do well, a minimum investment of 5 hours a week to maintain”26 – as there is a need to update the pages, contact users, reply to comments and so on. Alongside examples of thriving non-profit profiles on SNS there are examples of untended profiles which have quickly become moribund.

Organisations are using the targeted and media-rich advertising features of SNS, including their standard online ad inventory. Because of the demographic data SNS hold on their users, some are able to offer advanced targeting features. The image below shows the options available for anyone choosing to create a self-service Facebook advertising campaign, and the approximate audience that such a campaign would reach.

The context sensitivity of in-site advertising offer interesting opportunities and is being exploited by social change and commercial organisations. Searching on MySpace for example, on HIV/AIDS brought these ads (generated by the Google AdWords search programme):

More information is available on SNS site activity than simply visitor statistics. There is information, especially through advertising functions, that shows how people react to advertisements and pages. For example, Facebook offers information on, “user exposure, actions, and behaviour.” However, this is a new area and there is as yet little consensus on what is successful.27 Gathering information and evidence on interaction is a more time consuming but vital process.

A number of networks offer product placement and home page takeover advertising – where an advertiser can significantly brand areas of the network for period of time.

As well as feeding standard ad inventory and campaigns into SNS, organisations have been developing campaigns specifically targeted at, and integrated with, specific SNS.

For example, the UK Home Office-funded28 anti-knife crime campaign It Does Not Have to Happen29 has used a profile within Bebo.com as its primarily website – regularly adding blog posts, videos and other interactive media content to the profile. Launched in the summer of 2008, the campaign has gained more than 9,000 friends on the network30, and the “'profile skins' (graphic elements used by other users of Bebo to theme their profiles), created by the campaign are being used by more than 200 individuals, further spreading the campaign’s message.

Organisations are developing content for SNS. The rise of SNS as key web platforms is encouraging organisations to create videos, images, widgets, games and other media content specifically to spread within SNS.  For example, www.Posornot.com  illustrates a social media aware approach: a challenging and fresh interactive website that challenges stereotypes of those living with HIV designed to integrate social media with its own Facebook application and a widget31 that can be embedded on a range of sites.

Organisations are using and commissioning applications to spread their messages within SNS. SNS applications can add features over and above those built in by the network provider – embedding new information, functionality, games, widgets and other content and interaction within the network. Whilst many of the most used applications built on top of major SNS platforms are focused on media sharing and messaging between friends -- or are purely-for-fun games – a number of organisations are looking at how applications can be used for education and communicating social change.

For example, The Facebook Causes application (www.causes.com) allows profile owners who add it to display their support for non-profit

organisations, to recruit other members of Facebook to support the organisation, and manage real-money donations to the organisations through the network. Any US registered non-profit organisation can use Causes for building a supporter base and for fundraising, such as these:32

UNICEF has created an HIV Quiz application available on Facebook. The application encourages users to complete a quiz and share the application with friends in order to compare their scores upon completing the quiz

UK public service broadcaster Channel 4 has re-allocated their education budget, formerly spent on schools TV, into online media,33 including significant investment in the development of SNS applications for Bebo and MySpace. Applications such as Dictum.tv and AlterEgo.tv take a light-touch approach to education messages – creating tools that integrate closely with the self-expression focus of social network sites -- whilst encouraging their users to reflect more intentionally upon issues of identity or ethics.  AlterEgo gained 1,600 users over its first four months.

Organisations are using SNS to get better metrics, to listen to and dialogue with supporters and to crowd-source ideas for their work or communications. Because SNS are spaces where their users actively share a lot of information in public or semi-public spaces, organisations can actively listen to those conversations and can track trends. In communities with a high level of SNS use it is reasonable to expect a successful communications campaign (online or offline), depending on its content, may end up being actively discussed on SNS. By tracking conversations and media-sharing in SNS, organisations can integrate a range of new metrics into their evaluation strategies. For example, tracking not only how many hits a website gets, or how many people respond directly to a print ad, but also monitoring how much of a ‘buzz’ a campaign generates through SNS.

Some organisations are also now turning to SNS to create, as well as to evaluate their communications campaigns – crowd-sourcing content and messages. Crowd-sourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones. These best solutions are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem.34
Organisations are using SNS for service provision and online outreach
Staff in both the voluntary and statutory sectors are exploring and using SNS profiles as key tools for communication, outreach and service delivery.

For example, the East Valley Clinic (California, USA) sexual health advice service set up a MySpace profile to promote their service and to provide advice and clinic bookings directly through the messaging systems of MySpace. In April 2008 23 percent of new clinic visits came through MySpace.35

Youth and community development workers employed by local governments and churches in a number of UK regions are using SNS to keep in touch with young people, to organise group activities and to provide mentoring and support.36  In some cases networking through SNS is being used as an active outreach tool to communicate with new groups of young people.

Organisations are using SNS as a locus for counselling, influencing and caring interventions – including facilitating peer-to-peer support. There are many examples of sites set up and used by organisations as a way to provide support, often as part of a larger scale campaign. From the UK, the Beatbullying and the FullStop (child cruelty) campaigns were linked to help lines, advice centres and other resources and supported by traditional cross-promotional activities such as print and broadcast media advertising.

Organisations are using SNS for coordination and team support. The group features of SNS provide tools for co-ordinating a community of volunteers. For distributed teams of employees and volunteers, social networking tools can assist in information sharing and maintaining good social interaction between team members. Organisations and groups are also adopting SNS as complete virtual office environments.

For example, the editorial group of a young people’s magazine in Norfolk UK decided that, instead of spending their budgets on transport to meet together physically, they would carry out their co-ordination by using word processor, photo sharing and discussions applications that they had added to Facebook.

Organisations are building niche SNS. Instead of, or alongside, engagement with the major SNS platforms some organisations have sought to develop their own online social networks using custom-built, hosted or white-label social network sites. Social networking features are increasingly being introduced into school-based virtual learning environments (VLEs) – and VLEs are increasingly widespread in schools, colleges and universities.

For example, as describe above Savvy Chavvy is a closed SNS for young Gypsies and Travellers based on the Ning.com hosted SNS platform. The network, designed to provide support for this marginalised community based across the UK, grew to 500 members in its first month and now has more than 1,250.

MYMysta, a Love Life initiative, is a mobile social network that “provides a way to connect young South Africans to opportunities while at the same time helping them to define their identities through focusing on the empowerment of youth around HIV / AIDS and the social determinants of high-risk behaviour.” Launched in June 2008, it has a registered user base of 16,000 (Feb. 09) without any above-the-line marketing. Its primary objective is to create links to opportunities and links with Love Life's face-to-face network of peer educators. MYMysta allows users to interact with peers by joining groups, posting forums and making comments about news stories. Users are also able to manage their own user profile and ask questions to and get advice from professional counsellors who monitor and moderate the network.

Organisations are using SNS to identify problem issues and to carry out targeted interventions. Searching through the information shared publicly by SNS users has been used by both law enforcement and support services in targeting interventions.  For example, UK police officers in Glasgow have trawled SNS to identify images where individuals are in possession of offensive weapons. Officers have then sought to identify and speak with the individuals in question, making arrests where the photo shows people carrying of weapons in a public place illegally. (January 2009)

A US-based randomised control trial in summer 2007 found that 54 percent of profiles belonging to 18-20 year olds referenced sexual behaviours and 83.5 percent referenced substance abuse. An e-mail from a physician to the owners of these profiles led to a statistically significant change in profile owners behaviour with respect to displaying information about risky behaviours on their profiles.

Organisations have been established to address risks to young users of SNS. In the UK the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has been established as a clearing house for reports of child abuse online. It is part of the ‘Virtual Global Taskforce’ of similar organisations across the world.  Organisations such as ChildNet International have been actively developing resources, education materials and programmes to educate young people about the potential risks of SNS. Local providers of services to young people in the UK have been encouraged to appoint e-safety co-ordinators who will ensure young people are aware of, and able to aboid, the risks presented by SNS.

It’s not just organisations. So far we have looked at organisational responses to SNS, but virtually all of the approaches to SNS engagement listed above are fully within the means of individuals. Lone individuals or small un-constituted groups are responsible for many more of the interventions on SNS than established organisations are.

For example, the first image to the right shows a Brazilian based HIV/AIDS community on Orkut. The group, which has over 5,000 members and a predominantly gay constituency, provides a space for discussion and for media sharing – and for individuals with share interests, issues or concerns to connect.

The image opposite shows a series of profile pages created on Piczo, a SNS used predominantly for home-page creation by young teenagers, which are returned when searching for HIV/AIDS. These pages have been created by a man who has been living with HIV/AIDS for 20 years – and are intended to provide advice and support. The pages mention unsuccessful attempts that their creator has made to get support from formal agencies.

It has been pointed out that one of the key differences between the generation this report focuses on, and older generations, is not that this generation have access to multiple media channels and platforms – but is that this generation does not need to ask permission to publish content.37 The organisational gatekeepers of media have been sidelined. This creates significant challenges for organisations to identify how they should engage with individual created content and campaigns – to support individual efforts, but to also encourage accurate and strategic communication.  The following case study is of a user generated mass campaign in Facebook and how larger organisations can build on individual energy.

Principles for social-network-aware Communication

Drawing on evidence from the examples above of different approaches to communication through SNS, and on the user behaviours outlined in chapter two, we have set out a series of key principles for social-network-aware communication. We believe that attention paid to these principles will enable more effective communication in social networking spaces.

Be social

These environments are social spaces, varying mainly in how public or private they are. Operating effectively within them takes the same amount of time, sensitivity, reciprocity and commitment as corporeal social spaces. Organisations and groups therefore need to develop strategies that enable their staff and supporters to engage as individuals and to respond to interested individuals and groups personally.

Accept decentralised, peer-to-peer organisation

Organisations seeking to engage with SNS struggle with issues of control and access since the most effective forms of organisation and engagement mirror the nature and culture of the networks: self-organising, empowering, anarchic, fast-moving, peer-to-peer and susceptible to sudden, random surges of interest in the moving, surreal or amusing. Organisation and groups therefore need to develop strategies that are flexible and to have the resources to respond to unexpected developments in a campaign. Organisations also need to be able to trust and empower their supporters to be partners in a communication campaign.

Respect the personal, informal, playful culture in SNS

HIV/AIDS and sexual behaviour are profoundly important and serious subjects. However, while there is a lot of socially active and positive activity in SNS, communicators need to learn and adapt to the often playful culture pervasive within networks. For many users, their SNS is their space, and mainly a leisure & friendship space. This creates both challenges (organisations may not be welcome in this space) and opportunities (for building on personal, informal atmosphere to talk about topics of sex, or other HIV/AIDS risk behaviour such as intravenous drug use). Organisations need to be ready to assess and engage with the culture in the social network spaces they target.

Weaving together online and offline

Effective communication has always moved easily between electronic or digital media and physical spaces. SNS offer new opportunities for communicators to engage activists in campaigns at all levels. SNS are particularly suited to local level communication. Organisations and groups should seek to integrate SNS in their offline activities, rather than to treat it as a separate ‘virtual’ communication medium.

Be interesting, support content, support remixing

Interesting, useful, engaging content is the one of the main means of exchange in SNS. It is also a place where people delight in creating new content, either original or re-mixed. Those institutions that are successfully negotiating such spaces are experimenting with new forms of content – short, mixed, open to adaptation and copying – and, crucially, inviting people to co-create their content.

Take advantage of media alliances

SNS users are still consuming significant quantities of professional produced content in these spaces. Large entities such as the Murdoch group, music publishers and distributors, and TV channels are all investing heavily in social media. As part of their multi-channel approach AIDS communicators need also to consider how they can engage with the huge resources and groups of specialists these companies can command.

Snapshot 03: one person, viralocity38  and mass protest39

Johnny Chatterton was a volunteer activist for the Burma campaign. As the monks protests in Burma escalated early in 2008 he started the Facebook group above. The campaign rapidly went viral, doubling in size every day, culminating in adding over 100,000 per day for 2 days. At its maximum it had over 400,000 members.

The UK Burma campaign engaged Johnny to work with them and as the campaign grew, and through their links, Amnesty UK became involved and with a number of other groups, began to organise for a day of protest.  Avaaz, a global online campaigning group also got involved and the Facebook group became the key organising tool for a series of coordinated demonstrations worldwide. On October 6th, protests were held in 30 countries and nearly 100 cities worldwide. It also helped promote the www.avaaz.org petition, which eventually gathered over 840,000 signatures.

Throughout the process the team worked with established groups globally, gathering hundreds of thousands of new supporters. However, in a telling instance of the uneven spread of the technology, the Tactical Technology Collective, (www.tacticaltech.org), was working with groups of displaced Burmese people who were unaware of the global protest.

Snapshot 04: Sexual Health Targetted SNS Applications - Saliva Trail40

In response to Channel 4 commissioning of SNS applications for education, Neontribe, developers of the Alter Ego SNS application mentioned above, put together the following proposal geared directly towards using SNS for sexual health education in a UK context. Whilst this application was not commissioned this year, the proposal below illustrates some of the opportunities that the SNS setting offers for innovative and creative communication on sexual issues.

The Need:

The UK's Health Protection Agency believes unsafe sexual behaviour among young people is increasing. They suggest “All those interested in the sexual health of sexually active young people should use their particular communication skills to relay the following key messages:

  • Have fewer sexual partners and avoid overlapping sexual relationships.
  • Use a condom when having sex with a new partner and continue to do so until both have been screened.
  • Get screened for chlamydia every year and whenever you have a new partner.
  • If you are a man who has sex with men, then always use a condom and have an annual sexual health screen, including an HIV test. “

The Approach: 'Saliva Trail' - a SNS application.

Saliva trail builds upon the potential for rapid spread of an application on a social network and uses this to spread sexual health education. The application encourages users to state which of their friends they have snogged, and identifies such contact after a confirmation from the friend in question. Users may block unwanted confirmation requests, and may recant their confessions at any time. Unconfirmed snogging is shown, but in anonymised form. It is likely that a large userbase will quickly develop.

The project uses this apparently light-hearted social network activity to provide a platform for the delivery of sexual health education messages. Alongside delivering core sexual health messages, the application can use real-life statistics to suggest chances of infection had the “snogs” led to various kinds of sexual activity, particularly unprotected sex.


The application increases:

  • understanding of the spread of disease using a clear metaphor familiar to young people – the spread of an application on a SNS.
  • understanding of the risks of having multiple sexual partners – by showing statistics for chances of infection.
  • consciousness of the effects of numbers of sexual partners – users who report high numbers of sexual experiences may find this a salutory lesson, whether those reports are truthful or not.

The application increases the chances of a young person going for screening – both by reminding them that such services exist, and by showing statistics for chances of infection.

Snapshot 05: Talking about sex in a traditionally conservative society.

In contrast to the previous example this project focuses on trying to build a community and provide a service to teenagers through a standard website.

Love-Care-Station for Chatty Teens
by Programme for Appropriate Technology in Health (Path), Thailand

Www.lovecarestation.com was launched with the objective to engage with youth aged 14 - 25 years old in Thailand and to “converse” with them about sexuality issues that are raised by them. There is a live-chat room mediated by medical workers. Topics occurred in the chat room and members' questions are constantly updated to FAQs. The newly created blog lets members initiate topics and post information to their interests. To make this space  teen-friendly, all medical information and knowledge are transformed into simpler and more direct language. And one way of expanding the use of the site is hire some youngsters to “lure” more “friends” here.

By launching www.lovecarestation.com, only nine months after the successful launch of the sexuality teen-edutainment site www.teenpath.net for the adolescents, PATH Thailand is keeping abreast with the predominant communication technologies (or channels) their teen communities are using. The new website is intended to embrace the principles of social networks, but PATH is aware of its need for more decentralization in the next phrase of development. Its bold and bluff language, like masturbation, is a sharp contrast to the conservative Thai culture in which sex topic is still considered a taboo.41

This communication style PATH Thailand is undertaking is to confront two challenges in the communication environment in Thailand. One is that there is no information and communication space in mass media carved out for teens. The message amidst available information about sexuality is either prejudicial or is about moral preaching, hence have pushed Thai adolescents to other sources. In addition to websites, PATH Thailand uses other digital and tele-tools including online games, short films and a call center. They've been tuned in to the channels that adolescents use and they provide an adolescent friendly space for teens to explore sexuality topics, including entailing myths and reality, without the cultural and attitudinal rejection and adults' judgment.

An insight into the potential impact of this open and frank site was demonstrated when the website was shown to an 18-year-old male, studying in Thai public school (matayom 6), who has declared his queer sexual orientation. Below is his murmuring during browsing and case-study author observations, in short-hand writing, are in round brackets. Star signs indicate his viewing time.

--- At www.lovecarestation.com ----

*oh, this is about health information * (at FAQ). Oh, this is naughty.* after-pill? * this is about sex problem * girld with HIV disease can have oral sex.. Wow, and wheather man will get HIV from her, and the answer is... * this is sexual problem about after-pill, condom * and about HIV victim temple * some man reflection on HIV/cheating and peeing problems, he said he wouldn't cheat anymore * (At video) lovecare is a club. It has activities. They provide education about sex, this is very good. * Oh blog, (about this site) it's impressed /this will be interesting to teens like 13 to 14 years old"

(Author asked him his opinion about this website)  It's really an active website. But need to control. Someone posted her telephone number looking for boyfriends. "lonely" someone responded to her. it feels comfortable about learning safety sex * Parents and teachers will be interested in this site. * also about drug campaigns. Activities news. * (at "teenguide") some boy worried about the color of their balls and the use of cream... (giggle) (Again, he clicked on the "naughty" topics and text. Because of his sexual orientation, he clicked on and communicate (with the author) on the topics surrounding male sexual organs, sex activities and problems and maybe rare problems. The kind of words that he singled out and/or wanted to share with me were: penis, sex, bitch, scam etc that were provocative in nature.)

Snapshot 06: Social Networking and the Obama campaign.42

The campaign set a new standard on how to integrate traditional media with new media. They identified a key challenge as reaching young people who were critical to an Obama presidential victory.  It was critical to talk with youth in their vernacular while remaining true to Brand Obama. They achieved this in a number of ways, developing communication using the idiom and techniques of new media such as:

  • The use of vernacular video: “when you make a video of a presidential candidate with his webcam you’ve made cinematic history”;
  • Building on this through using user generated content (UGC) videos and blogs of people saying what the election, or brand Obama, means to them
  • Employing the youthful fascination with street art, they “set artists free to make posters in their own styles” and crowd-sourced ideas for the text of the campaign messages, as well as encouraged people to make their own posters.
  • Integrating virtual and physical in a variety of ways, including this real-time, dynamic, advertising projection that displayed ordinary people’s messages sent by text 

We enabled people to make the campaign their own

“The trick was pushing Obama’s positioning out to voters, literally every minute of the day, for 21 months, through the most aggressive, measured and successful social media strategy ever seen in politics, or consumer branding.” This was also the most expensive political campaign in history. This cash advantage enabled a micro-targeted campaign with many more messages aimed at different constituencies – ads about healthcare, the economy, Iraq, voting – with one consistent look and feel, all tagged with the same messages about hope and change.

The two most significant parts of the campaign were the website and the niche SNS my.barackobama.com:

  • The website offered up-to-the-minute top-down content, such as speeches, position papers, news releases, volunteer opportunities, training videos in text, audio and video
  • MyBO is a social networking, community-organising engine that communicates ideas and connects people in a peer-to-peer sense based on interests and locations.

Importantly, MyBO facilitates action both online and off. MyBO does this by making it fun and easy, but also by incentivising supporters with points for taking real-world actions that helped the candidate win: making phone calls to voters, hosting house-parties and donating money. During the U.S. presidential campaign, there was an official Obama presence on virtually every social network beyond MyBO (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, BlackPlanet, Fanbase, Eons, Flickr, Glee, Digg, MiGente, Twitter , MyBatanga, Eventslut, AsianAve, DNC, Partybuilder etc) and a vast up-to-date video library on the Obama YouTube channel.

Social networks exponentially magnified the scale of the Obama grassroots political campaign by connecting with young supporters where they live online.

  • Example:  Through Facebook Connect, the Obama campaign was able to let supporters provide their Facebook friends with updates on the campaign activities that they recorded on their profiles on MyBo43

The Obama campaign strategy was based on leveraging learning from previous experience in using both conventional and social media: about how young people live and communicate.

Social Media does not mean exclusively Digital Media

  • Online SNS are not the exclusive province of human conversation
  • The campaign facilitated Social media tools can be used to facilitate conversations both online and offline, such as using videos with celebs to creating tangible assets to be shared, like palm Cards (small cards to be used in campaigning or recruitment) or customisable posters.
  • The work to get Despite the success of mybarackobama.com, work to get youth vote out was substantially offline, using street art, palm cards, posters and interactive billboards to spread the word. ”By creating a collectible set of artwork campaign leadership encouraged discussion, swapping and exchanges about the campaign, both online and off.”

Balancing control and empowerment

  • The campaign “knew the difference between conversations among voters, which need to be respected, and the campaign for voter conversation which must be controlled and directed from the top.”
  • The campaign earned young voters’ trust by respecting peer-to-peer conversation and making sure not to interrupt it or interject the Obama brand inappropriately.
  • As well as promoting an idea it was promoting meaningful personal action, using merchandise, making phone calls, registering, turning out, etc. The aim is to turn this group into peer influencers for the future.


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