“Is this really worth our time?”
It’s a question I get a lot when talking to fellow global development professionals about how they might be able to use social media. In my previous role in the world of youth-led political advocacy, social media was not just a tool for our work — it was often its lifeblood. So, imagine my shock when, after making a career change into global development, I encountered a new type of person: a social media skeptic. This person generally knows how social media works, and might use it personally or for news, but would not consider it an important tool to advance their organization’s mission.
Of course, this mindset is understandable. Social media — think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etcetera — is often portrayed as something for millennials to post pictures of brunch or cute puppies. But a closer look at the ways leading global development organizations have tapped into social media to advance their causes shows that ignoring social media may mean missing out on having a greater impact. Here’s why:
1. Social media expands your reach
Social media is the present — and at least in some form, the future — of mass communication. Over 2.3 billion people are on Facebook, 336 million people are Twitter users, and more than 1 billion people have Instagram accounts. Although these numbers have begun to plateau in developed countries, Pew Research Center’s recent study on social network adoption shows no signs of slowing growth in developing countries.
What does this mean for global development professionals? Having a presence on these platforms expands the reach of your work to new audiences that may not be engaging with older forms of media.
Too often, I’ve seen development professionals think that their only audiences are just an email away, or in other words, already directly involved with the work and in your Rolodex. But while that inner circle of people may well be your primary audience, in reality, key secondary audiences likely are slightly more removed.
Imagine you are trying to drive a shift in thinking among global health practitioners. While people you’ve met from global health organizations may already hear about your perspective through your monthly email newsletter, doctors and community health workers operating in developing countries — audiences that are just as critical — may actually be more likely to come across your report on social media.
The global development community widely recognizes that progress requires reaching outside our echo chambers to build partnerships in unexpected places — see SDG 17. You never know who your next partner, funder, or colleague could be!
2. Social media allows for collaboration and real-time feedback
As the name implies, social media is social, meaning that it’s ideal for two-way interactions — not just as a megaphone for press releases. Listening to people on the ground is critical to development work, and through social media, engagement with target populations can happen virtually.
While this does not replace the need for face-to-face interaction completely, it is one powerful way to build more permanent networks of people who can provide ongoing feedback on your projects and serve as long-term ambassadors for your work.
Social media can also open the door for real-time feedback. Let’s say you’re hosting a three-day conference on access to health care in sub-Saharan Africa. After the first day, you notice a lot of the participants are posting about the convening but expressing a desire for more unstructured time to network with each other. That kind of immediate feedback could spur you to adjust the next day’s agenda and expand time for informal networking.
3. Social media can humanize development work
This may seem counterintuitive; how can technology actually bring people closer to the communities their work aims to reach?
Global development professionals know that communities in developing countries are complex and each has its own unique features, strengths, and challenges. But too often, the public and press don’t see this texture. For many people in the global north, communities in developing countries might as well be on another planet. The photos they see can be harsh, desolate, or even what some call “poverty porn.” Unfortunately, these stereotypical images become attached to entire communities, hiding the humanity of those who live there.
With social media, rather than having to rely on others for pictures, communities around the world can show who they really are. Take Omar Imam, a refugee who is breaking the stereotype of what refugees look like through his photo series. Check out Radi-Aid, an organization committed to changing perceptions of poverty and global development. Or, scroll through Everyday Africa’s Instagram feed, which shows daily lives in Africa, not the extremes the general public is so accustomed to seeing. Without social media as a powerful tool, these initiatives would not be able to as effectively counter pervasive stereotypes.
Newer forms of social media, including Instagram stories, are breaking more barriers in storytelling, allowing people to go beyond the 280-character limits of traditional social media and tell complete narratives using photos, audio, video, and text. This kind of visual storytelling brings peoples’ unique voices and experiences right to your phone, forging a level of understanding and connection unprecedented in this work. It also can break down the complex issues involved in global development so any audience can understand, and relate to, the challenges and solutions we’re working on.
4. Social media critical for building any personal or organizational brand
One of the first things millennials look to when learning about a new organization or individual is their social media accounts. I am immediately skeptical when I search for a company or organization and they don’t have a presence on social media.
Evidence backs up this feeling: Edelman’s research found that over a third of all respondents “were unlikely to become emotionally attached to a brand unless [they were] interacting and communicating via social media.” Additionally, 84 percent of respondents said they used social media “at least occasionally” to follow news about organizations in which they have an interest.
Given that social media channels are often a person’s entry point to a new organization, it’s critical that social media accurately portrays the organization’s values and key messages. When it’s done well, social media can be the reason people invest — emotionally, financially, or otherwise — in a brand.
Some may be wondering at this point: Aren’t there risks to being on social media? It is true that mistakes on social media are broadcast far and wide, and just one screenshot can make them live on forever. While having a social media presence does introduce some risks — see the Red Cross debacle — the rewards, which include wider reach, increased collaboration, powerful storytelling, brand affinity, far outweigh the risks. Having an experienced social media professional at the keyboard can also lower these risks — and cut down the time spent crafting content for your social media channels.
With social media skills becoming a prerequisite for any communications professional, getting the right person at the helm of an organization’s social media channels is becoming easier and easier.
And remember: Engaging with social media does not mean you have to be active on all platforms. Choose which platforms are the best fit for your intended audiences and your organization's capacity. Something as simple as creating a Twitter account for a conference appearance can lay the groundwork for a permanent new channel of communication.
From global development giants such as the World Bank and the United Nations to innovative newer entities like the One Acre Fund and Global Citizen, organizations are proving that social media can be a powerful tool in global development. These results are not only powerful for a specific organization or individual’s growth, but can lead to increased impact in this space — the real bottom line for any global development professional.
Ready to take the plunge into social media? Start with Twitter, which has some of the lowest barriers to entry for social media newbies. Check out this WIRED article for some of the best tips in getting started.
And remember: The best ways to learn are by looking at your peers’ social media accounts!