Activist as Social Marketers: Fighting for limited online attention

Although the specific role of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in recent social movements has been heavily debated in the Communication of Social Change (CfSC) literature, it has undoubtedly become an essential tool for many movements and activists. The commodification of user generated data on these platforms is ironically tying many social movement organizations (SMOs) to the very systems they oppose. The value of these platforms lies in its ability to create “crowds of individuals” or viral flows of information between physically disparate populations (Kavada, 2010). Both private enterprise and SMOs are attempting to harness this power by extending their causes or products to new audiences through the sharing of information in hopes of ultimately influencing behavior.
Digital marketers view this potential as a competition of online space and attention. Marketing is based on the premise that a certain amount of attention is necessary before a consumer will invest in a product or service. Marketing attempts to bridge the gap between the amount of attention available and the amount of attention required for action by either entertaining consumers so that they voluntarily pay attention or by reducing the amount of attention needed to generate action (Teixeira, 2014). People are increasingly spending more time online which further justifies the online presence of marketers and activists.
Much of the CfSC literature has been critical of the use of social media activism, often referring to the falling transaction costs to engage in activism as “slacktivism”. The singing of an e-petition or the following of an online campaign should not be undervalued but instead understood as a step within a larger process. Like marketers, activist must begin to understand the steps potential supporters make before engaging in a more meaningful way. The Resource Mobilization Theory (McCarthy et al., 1977) attempted to identify the various types of supporters as either adherents or constituents. What is now missing is an analysis of how digital platforms are changing how people transition between these two fundamental types of supporters and how SMOs’ use of digital media can facilitate the growth of social resources.
Much can be learned from the private sector since companies are investing vast amounts of financial resources into exploring these relationships through targeted campaign advertisement. While social movements do not have the capital to do such campaigning, they can arguably still benefit from marketers. Marketers will be increasingly exploring low-cost digital advertising strategies as costs continue to rise. It is these projects, many of which require user-generated material, that activist should closely study for potential adoption.



Kavada, A. (2010). Activism transforms digital: The social movement perspective. In Joyce M (ed) Digital Activism Decoded. New York, NY: Idebate, pp.101-118.

McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N. Zald. (1977). “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 82: 1212- 41.

Teixeira, T. (2014). “The Rising Cost of Consumer Attention: Why You Should Care, and What You Can Do about It.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-055.

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