No Babble Interviews

Using social media for positive change

Ex-Facebook employee Alexander Mäkelä recently launched a web booklet entitled Social Media for Change – Ideas, Tools and Best Practices for Civic Engagement and Elections with the help of Alberto Alemanno’s The Good Lobby.

I sat down with Alexander to discuss his background and experience in social media, as well as exploring just how the booklet came about and who and what it was meant for. This is the second part of two articles covering the interview.

DK: Turning away from the more global copyright debate, you’ve talked about how social media is a very difficult thing to understand and to use and that a lot of money goes into it. Is that what ended up motivating you to write the booklet Social Media for Change or how did that come about?

AM: Originally, I was volunteering for Alexander Stubb’s Spitzenkandidat campaign and I thought it might be interesting and useful to just create a small 8-pager that gathered publicly available resources in one place to aid the campaign. Eventually, even though he did not win, I had this in my hands, my time at Facebook was up and I thought about how I could make it even more useful.

For me, in Brussels, and more generally speaking when it comes to European affairs and the use of social media, there are two main issues: 1) A lot of the things that we talk about on social media is always about announcements and self-promotion. We see NGOs, consulting firms and politicians making online content, saying: ” I’m at this event. Or I just released this report”, or “these are the results of a consultation” and the line of communication is very one-directional. There is no engagement with the audience, it is more along the lines of just saying: “Hey, look at me, I’ve done this!”

I thought that was very problematic, because I think social media works best when it is a conversation with people. A lot of people make the analogy of social media being an amplifier or a megaphone. For me it is more along the lines of a traditional phone call. You are actually having a conversation with your audience.

Relating to that, the second issue is, when it comes to EU-related issues, we put out so much content that most people will never care about. I mean, let’s not diminish people’s work. There is a lot of interesting stuff that comes out of the institutions, whether it is insights, research, results etc. But if that is not made contextual and valuable to the audience, they are not going to care.

The EU is already a very complicated thing to discuss and communicate about.. It requires, what, a university degree to understand the complexity of the European Union?

DK: And even then…

AM: Ha, ha, yes, probably a university degree and several years of work experience as well.

Adding to this complexity is producing content that the average person doesn’t really engage with – it is a recipe for disaster.

The idea behind the booklet was to 1) try to encourage people to see social media more as a means of having a conversation and creating more engaging content and 2) to see social media as a way to create value for the audience, because that is the only way you are going to retain and grow an audience.

That is also one of the biggest failures of the European civil society space, in the sense that NGOs are not necessarily engaging audiences as effectively as they could. In the political space, we have a lot of social-media-savvy MEPs, but the majority of them could still improve their game a bit.

So that was the thought behind it. It is also the reason, why I decided to completely distribute it for free and openly, because with the European elections coming up, it is very important that these discussions happen online, as well as offline. But online, for people our age, young-mid adults, social media has quickly become the main source of our information and we use it as a platform to talk about political issues. We all have friends on Facebook or Twitter, who post political articles and we are having discussions with friends and so forth.

How many people go out to a pub and discuss politics nowadays? Maybe some people do, but social media has become very important for this discourse in our generation. Stakeholders that are trying to engage with people about European elections are missing a key demographic. That’s why I wrote it and want to disseminate it as broadly as possible.

DK: Why do you think certain groupings are more successful in utilising social media for elections and other are less successful at it or less savvy in its usage?

AM: I am not going to point out names here, but let’s just say that some of the grass-roots movements manage to instil this sense of community and interaction. I believe there is a difference between political actors that focus on themselves and self-promotion and those that actually encourage people to join a cause, something that is bigger than themselves. They manage to create a sense of urgency and belonging at the same time, something that self-promotion can’t.

There is also an age difference. Younger people who grew up with the internet, might have a bigger tendency of also thinking of social media as a cool tool for communication and engage with people, while older political groupings might generally see social media as an extension of what was working before: print media, television and all the traditional marketing methods. So those that see social media as a medium in its own right, are more successful in using it. They see it as something more unique, not something where you just copy-paste content from existing media. At the end you have to adapt to your medium and some of the smaller and younger groupings are more successful with that.

DK: So would you argue that social media is its own thing, but that other traditional media still have their place in communication?

AM: Absolutely. Believe it or not, a lot of people still listen to the radio, a lot of people still read evening newspapers. Television advertisement and televised debates still have their place. Of course, all of these media outlets now all have their YouTube channels now, but social media definitely has its own place as well. You should treat each media as its own thing that has unique demographics and different ways of creating good content for it. A 60-minute television slot should be treated differently from a 2-minute YouTube video, right? It would have a different feel to it, it would have a different format.

DK: Are you targeting anyone specific with the booklet?

AM: Hopefully, every single MEP. I would really love to see the European political actors, who are supposed to be representing Europeans communicate more with young people interested in Europe.

I am also interested in involving NGOs, who are working on different issues and perhaps have not considered using social media to a larger extent.

DK: Do you have any suggestions for NGOs or Civil Society Organisations out there that are trying to communicate their efforts better?

AM: First of all, download the booklet, it’s free!

DK: Ha ha.

AM: Frankly, for anyone who is looking to create some kind of consistent type of content, you should first establish what is the main stuff you want to get out? What is the deepest, richest content that you have? If you are an NGO, maybe you are working on, let’s say, deforestation. You have a documentary that you created and you want people to see it. This is your main content. It is going to be very difficult if you just release it and then expect people to see it. From that main content, you need to create off-shoot content. You have to have trailers, photos with quotes, something that makes it a bit more interesting. Once you have that, you can release your documentary, and release all the things that will direct traffic to it.

Second of all, you don’t need to hire expensive consultants or big firms to help you with this. A lot of the things that will help you with the things you can do, are already available for free, super easy to use and you can even do it on your smart phone. Don’t expect that it will be this kind of dying climb; it is easier than you can imagine. That being said, creating an audience does take time. It might be months or years until you get the level of visibility that you want, but the only way to achieve this, is to create good content, having a strategy in mind and using the tools at your disposal.

DK: Thank you so much for the interview. One final question: What’s next for you?

AM: I am currently helping out with This Time I’m Voting, which is an excellent campaign from the European Parliament. I am doing training for NGOs and a few consulting firms that are interested in using social media more effectively. Generally speaking, right now I am just looking to have an impact before the European elections. Anyone who is interested and would like to have a chat on how to improve their social media game, I’d love to help out. That is essentially what I am up to now: just supporting actors to ensure that communication is as good as it can be before the European elections.

Dominik Kirchdorfer
Dominik is a European writer and entrepreneur of Austrian and Polish descent. His passion is storytelling and he wants to do everything in his power to give the story of Europe a happy ending. He is currently the President of the EFF - European Future Forum, Editor In-Chief of Euro Babble and EU Adviser to the Austrian Savings Banks Association. Dominik recently published his first SciFi novel, The Intrepid Explorer: First Flight under the nome de plume Nik Kirkham. Twitter: @NikKirkham

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