New research offers 5 tips for engaging with slacktivism

Armchair on red backgroun

Since it was coined in 1995 by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark, the word 'slacktivism' has inspired passionate debate in the nonprofit world.

The presence of slacktivism is a threat to traditional marketing models of engagement, which suggest that a Tweet or a Facebook like are first actions on a ladder of engagement that will eventually lead to donating, volunteering or another act of significant effort to enact meaningful change.

Some have hit back at slacktivism head on, as UNICEF Norway did with this campaign:

Highlights from the research findings

Researchers from the University of British Columbia have reported in the Journal of Consumer Research that public token support does in fact lead to a lower chance of subsequent meaningful engagement than private token support, supporting the slacktivism narrative.

Through five different experiments with 469 people the research team invited participants to engage in acts of token support, including joining a Facebook group, signing a petition, or accepting a poppy. This was then followed up with a request for more meaningful support.

Those whose initial act of support was public, and highly observable, were no more likely to provide subsequent meaningful support than those who had not engaged with the cause at all. However, those whose initial act of token support had been made in private were more likely to answer the call for further support.

The researchers suggest that the reasons for this lie in the initial motivations. Private commitments are more value driven and therefore likely to be followed up with more meaningful support, whereas public commitments are driven by the motivation to be seen to be good people, or 'impression management'. As this motivation is satisfied by the initial token act of public support, subsequent follow-up support is unlikely.

This is because when people are focused on the private self (vs. the public self), their internally held attitudes and beliefs become salient, and inconsistencies among these beliefs become aversive. In other words, engaging in a token display of support in a private setting activates both a sense that one's values align with the organisation's values and a motivation to behave in a consistent manner, namely by subsequently providing meaningful support to the cause in the future. - Kristofferson et. al.

However, another key finding of the research was that those who did make an initial public level of token support could be galvanised to more meaningful sacrificial support through focusing on the alignment between self and cause.

The news is different for how the role of token support gestures impacts existing supporters. The research found that for individuals with a high level of affective involvement with the cause, displaying public token support can lead to higher subsequent support than when the token support is made in private.


Encouraging public tokens of support, such as joining Facebook protest groups cannot therefore be written off as easily as some would suggest, emphasising the important yet often forgotten role of social media in creating a community of existing supporters. Public token acts of support do work in pushing people up a funnel of engagement – but only among those who are already interested and invested in the cause and perceive a strong sense of alignment between the charity or cause's values and their own.

Implications for social media policy

It's time to move beyond chasing Facebook likes in the hope of gaining more financial supporters, and to engage strategically with these research findings, designing social media policies accordingly.

If social media practice is undertaken with the knowledge that it needs to emphasise the alignment between supporters and the cause, and engage existing supporters in social media, it can both embrace slacktivism and yet still foster social media as an important tool of engagement.

The introduction of a Facebook Donate Button for nonprofits may herald a new age for social media where linking interactions with donations becomes more than a matter of speculation - and those who are already at the forefront of social media will be the ones who benefit.

Tips for implementing an educated approach to slacktivism

Here are five suggested ways to implement an educated approach to dealing with slacktivism, in light of this research:

1) Offer private ways of showing token support

If you're investing all your time in social media and other public-facing tokens of support, you're missing out on encouraging people to make private tokens of support which are, according to this research, more likely to result in additional, more substantive actions of support.

Think about how you can categorise the actions available to your supporters, and make sure you are promoting private token actions as well as public.

2) Target existing supporters

Social media and other tools for increasing token actions of support play a key role in galvanising those who are already connected with and committed to your work.

What's your strategy for connecting them with social media and providing them with multiple ways of engaging with token actions of support?

3) Don't just count likes

Tie your social media metrics in with your overall Marketing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). If getting more likes and RTs aren't the final goal, what is?

Don't chase social media metrics in the belief that they will one day result in increased donations – chase them because of attributable goals tied to your overall KPIs.

4) Embrace learning

There's a lot to learn from engaging with your supporters through social media – and there's a lot they could learn from your charity too.

Why not include a section in your strategy for learning from your supporters and create educational targets to be achieved through social media?

5) Speak about the values behind your work

The research showed that increasing the perceived alignment between cause and self facilitated increased support.

Drawing attention to the values the organisation stands for, and how these align with the supporters values can be done in numerous ways, through social media, e-marketing, and face-to-face interaction when supporters accept physical objects of support from volunteers (eg. ribbons).

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18 February 2014
Mary Mitchell