How to Get the Social-Media Generation Behind Your Cause

For Young Adults, Activism Can Be Hitting 'Like' on Facebook, but Brands Can Use This to Their Advantage

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NEW YORK ( -- Once social activism meant protest marches, civil obedience and sit-ins. But for today's 20-somethings -- sometimes called "slactivists" -- supporting or denouncing a cause is as simple as hitting the "like" button on Facebook or posting a hashtag to Twitter. And that's often where it ends.

But that can also be where it begins, if marketers use social-media tools widely to get young adults more heavily involved in their cause-marketing efforts. For this demographic, sharing information about causes and social issues they feel passionate about is the first step to getting involved in a more concrete way, such as donating money or time, according to a study by ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day.

Social Causes that Move Young Adults chart

Social causes that move young adults
"Young adults are changing activism, redefining it," said Eliza Esquivel, planning director of TBWA and author of the study. "Knowing and talking about social issues to them is now considered a form of activism."

TBWA's study, which was done with research partner companies Flamingo and Changing Our World, explores what social causes are top of mind for young adults and outlines how marketers can devise programs that successfully engage this group.

Adults born between 1982 and 1992 came of age during a decade that promised an "embarrassment of riches," said Eliza Esquivel, TBWA's planning director and author of the study. "They were told that the future was theirs to win, and they've been very empowered, very educated, and as a result this is a very optimistic group."

At the same time, they are a group that witnessed spectacular failures of institutions and corporations, having witnessed the scandal at Enron and now being bombarded with news of misdoings by Goldman Sachs and BP. Thus along with their optimism, this is a group equally prone to cynicism about corporate efforts.

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So how can brands engage them? The study offers 10 ways:

Take the time to understand what motivates them. Among the reasons young adults gave for taking up social causes are feeling like they can do something to help; knowing their involvement will make a difference; actively seeking out involvement; receiving information that prompts them to act; and the fact that getting involved feels fun and social.

Be the source of information that prompts them to act, and seed it in places where they go for news, online news sites; 78% try to stay informed about the causes they care about.

Make it social. Figure out how your cause-marketing effort can fit in to conversations with their network. A great example of this is to employ "mobile philanthropy" like the recent text-donation number set up by the Red Cross following the Haiti earthquake that raised over $30 million.

Use what you've got. A full 75% of young adults believe corporations have the material resources to help, and 60% think corporations have the knowledge to support social causes.

Make sure your program has a way to prove to this group that their involvement made a difference. Sixty-four percent of young adults say they would get involved with a marketer's program if they believed the involvement was large enough to make a difference.

Overcome the barriers. The top three reasons young adults don't get involved are time constraints; skepticism their involvement will make a difference; and lack of opportunities to get involved. Thus cause-marketing programs need to make involvement easy, convince participants they count, and make it accessible.

Don't underestimate the element of surprise. Brands can lose standing through inaction. Nearly half of young adults surveyed feel that companies are morally obligated to help support social causes, but fewer than 5% believe brands are best positioned to solve problems related to poverty, human rights, health and education, even though they have the knowledge and resources to do so. By making the effort, brands can gain good will.

Consider starting an L3C, staffed by young adults, as a real surprise. Many states, like Vermont, Illinois and Michigan, are now allowing the formation of L3Cs, low-profit limited liability corporations whose aim is to offer significant social benefits.

Ignite their creativity. Technology and creativity can play a large role in social activism. Tap into this group's tech savvy by creating cause marketing platforms that allow them to show off their digital photo, video and gaming skills.

Consider going open source. Young adults' passion for information and sharing can create a platform for open-source activism. The possibilities are endless: digital sit-ins, homegrown edutainment campaigns, and glocal iReporting of issues.

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