UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake in Kenya. The U.N. children’s agency has been increasingly using social media to boost awareness and support for its campaigns. Photo by: UNICEF Česká republika / CC BY-NC-ND

On the last day of this year’s Social Good Summit, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake asked everyone participating — whether in the audience or online — to sign a pledge to do everything they can to end child deaths from preventable causes.

Lake also unveiled some findings of the U.N. children agency’s under-5 child mortality report, “Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed,” through an online- and graphic-heavy campaign — the second of its comprehensive series of social media campaigns to publicize the report, which was published Sept. 13.

The campaign is timed meticulously — every tweet, infographic and data visualization rolled out over the past two weeks was planned, written and well researched — and focused on informing, engaging and building a new generation of digital supporters for UNICEF. Social media is not always sure to raise funds instantly, the agency’s social media experts say, and it does need a longer-term strategy that integrates direct marketing and other digital tools.

“We rarely put forward a direct request for fundraising on Twitter or Facebook and if we do, it doesn’t work tremendously well, as the nonprofit sector has generally been experiencing,” explained Gerrit Beger, chief of UNICEF’s social and civic media section. “People are just not used to direct fundraising asks on Facebook or Twitter. There are better ways to do this, including using digital marketing strategies that work hand in hand with social media.”

But Beger believes UNICEF — a leader among development-focused groups on social media — is on to something by putting more effort and time into detailed campaigns to support “A Promise Renewed.”

Young social media communities, as they mature, may become pledge donors down the road, he said. And the buzz around UNICEF’s social media work helps create traditional media interest that might otherwise be lost, and build a solid base of new digital supporters for the organization.

Following the launch of “A Promise Renewed,” UNICEF’s daily new Twitter followers doubled from 1,500 to approximately 3,000; the #promise4children hashtag has been tweeted at least 32,000 times since it was launched. UNICEF has counted about 447 blog articles on the campaign as well. UNICEF’s current Twitter followers grew to nearly 1.3 million and its Facebook page now has more than 2.1 million likes. Its work to gain visibility across social media platforms bumped the U.N. children’s agency up 11 notches this year on the Dachis Group’s Social Business Index, placing it ahead of top brands like Heineken, which normally can sell their products with little prodding.

For the #SahelNow campaign earlier this year, the agency first looked to social and digital media as a means to jumpstart support and attention for the Sahel drought and malnutrition situation in Western Africa for a global push with many offices involved. Staff convened a working group during a side meeting of a global UNICEF forum in Prague at the end of March 2012.

“[We] said ‘nobody is talking about this and it is going to get worse and we need to do something now’,” Beger explained.

The team set a deadline of 10 days and put together a social media plan and strategy. The end result was social media packs with tailored Sahel social media content for a period of two weeks in advance, allowing all UNICEF offices to disseminate similar messages and hashtags at the same time.

It was a major move for UNICEF, a fairly decentralized organization. While a $304 million shortfall in the $888 million requested for the United Nations’ response to the Sahel crisis persists, Beger noted that the traditional media attention that the systemized Sahel social media campaign — structured mainly through the hashtag #sahelNOW — harnessed helped raise “substantial funds” to tackle the malnutrition crisis.

#promise4children is #sahelNow’s larger, better thought-out successor. UNICEF’s packaged videos, images, tweets and infographics all support the evidence-based campaign the Child Survival Call to Action, which was announced in June, and so far has the support of 138 governments, 174 civil society organizations and 91 faith-based organizations from 52 countries. The plan looks beyond a post-MDG agenda and onto 2035.

The campaign, together with other initiatives, which Beger anticipates will help to almost double UNICEF’s global community on Twitter and Facebook by the end of 2012, follows the general model the organization’s ongoing analysis of UNICEF’s social media work and what works best.

“Our assessment shows that positive content works better than negative and images work best because of shareability and easiness to view on mobile devices,” he explained. “So a photo of well-nourished child with a mother in a feeding center will work better and we feel more comfortable with that rather than showing a kid who is suffering from malnutrition. We have always been a defender of ethical imagery.”

UNICEF has concluded that its Twitter and Facebook followers feel more comfortable and eager to share those sorts of images as well, even if a good chunk of them aren’t quite ready yet to take the next step and pledge money through social media sites.

Stay tuned for more coverage from this year’s Social Good Summit, and check out our conversations with other global development luminaries attending the event.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.

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