The Internet has been alternately characterized as participatory, conversational, and collaborative. By empowering its users to create (not just consume) content, it is by design a more democratic medium than any other. There has been plenty of discussion about how, by giving everyone a public voice, the Internet is upending conventional power dynamics and enabling a new generation of opinion leaders. These new voices will not be judged by the pomp of their credentials, but by the “character of their content.” What’s more remarkable, however, is the sheer volume of voices that arise as a result of this medium and how, when enough of them are in unison, they can successfully bring about social change.

This post is an outline of some of the opportunities and challenges facing communicators that seek to tap the Web’s grassroots potential. I’ll publish a second part in a couple weeks that will spotlight some examples of organizations and individuals who are doing this particularly well. In the meantime, please feel free to e-mail me if you’d like to bring my attention to a specific campaign. Also, check out Fenton Communications’ May 5 panel on “Social Media for Social Change” as well as Mike Rosen-Molina’s MediaShift post, How Charities Harness Social Media to Raise Awareness, Money.

In its simplest form, issue advocacy is about three things: defining a problem (e.g., social, environmental, economic, etc.), identifying and advocating a specific solution, and motivating action. The most effective advocacy campaigns have been able to weave emotional and rational appeals in a single-minded and salient way. It’s important to emphasize that these fundamentals remain mission-critical as communicators take their campaigns online.

Opportunities: Well Suited for Advocacy

The following traits make the Internet a natural venue for issue advocacy and cause marketing:

Interactive (vs. Informational): While most all other media are one-way modes of communication, the Web encourages direct response. With a few simple mouse clicks, your audience can sign a petition, make a donation, subscribe to a newsletter, or send a letter to an elected official. When social advocates communicate through other media, the goal is often to inspire a belief or attitude that will, at some point, instigate an action. Communicating online allows us to accelerate that process, and make the call-to-action much more immediate.

Syndicatable (vs. Confined): Content online often takes on a life of its own. Videos and social media widgets are equipped with features that allow bloggers to embed them into their posts, and enthusiasts to email them to friends. “Fair use” law and Creative Commons licensing has encouraged a culture of sharing online. Cause marketers are exploiting synergies when they integrate otherwise separate social media tools. For more on this, see Global Voices Advocacy’s guide [PDF file], “Cross-Posting for Advocacy.”

Permanent (vs. Disposable): If I wanted to refer back to my New York Times from two weeks ago, I’d have to go digging through a landfill or snooping though a recycling plant. And unless you’re an impulsive Tivo’er, you probably can’t exhume a news broadcast of interest after it’s aired. Content on the web, however, is immortal. It exists and is discoverable long after it’s published. As a result, social marketers who have an active online presence get more persistent mileage than those who shell out for a one-time ad in the daily newspaper, or finagle a placement in a TV news segment.

Challenges: Recognizing and Overcoming Limitations

When planning an issue advocacy campaign online, communicators should be aware and cautious of the following pitfalls:

Ego-centricity: Alongside the rise of social networking and micro-blogging websites, the Internet has become increasingly ego-centric. Twitter was designed on the premise that people want to broadcast their everyday activities to their friends. Articles have been written about building “personal brands through social networks.” People run vanity searches to see how their names appear in search results. This trend runs counter to issue advocates who want to tap people’s empathy online. One way of overcoming this obstacle is to present messages that are personalized and made relevant to narrowly targeted audiences online.

False Intimacy: It can be valuable to track and analyze user-generated content related to your issue or cause. This content can be used like an unfiltered focus group to gain insights into public sentiment. Yet, when listening to — or participating in — this conversation, it’s important to remember that there are limitations to the reliability of these interactions. Many people communicate anonymously and this gives them leeway to express — or commit to — things they might not in face-to-face interactions.

This is one reason why so many people “support” causes on their Facebook pages, but very few actually donate money. (The Washington Post reported last week that “only a tiny fraction of the 179,000 non-profits that have turned to [Facebook] Causes as an inexpensive and green way to seek donations have brought in even $1,000.”) My own profession hypes the strategic importance of forging “relationships” online. It’s not a bad tactic as long as one recognizes the inherent limitations.

Transferring Online Enthusiasm to Offline Action: David Vermillion, a former colleague who has executed a lot of successful advocacy campaigns throughout New York City, put it best: “The Holy Grail in issue advocacy is how to advance a public policy goal using the Internet as an organizational tool. How do you translate that [online activity] into offline action… how do you get people to act? How do you get them to physically show up?”

David acknowledged the Internet as an effective means of identifying and accumulating a large quantity of supporters, as well as soliciting opinions and feedback. But his concern with the “diminishing returns” of casual online activism (a.k.a. slacktivism”) is common in my profession. Sure there are examples of effective flash mobs and meet-ups that have spurred public policy campaigns, but communicators should be aware of this trend and make sure they have a sound strategy for transferring online support into offline action.

The new media environment presents considerable opportunities to communicate to, interact with, and spur action by supporters (both existing and potential). In the next installment, I’ll present case studies in which individuals and organizations are exploiting these opportunities for successful social change.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.