I've spoken often about how people get involved in social causes. And despite the turmoil we experienced in 2020 and the competing demands on our attention, I believe more strongly than ever that social issue engagement begins and deepens in predictable ways.
The steps look something like this:
1. We hear about a social issue or cause that intrigues or moves us and get to work learning everything we can about the issue;
2. Energized by what we've learned, we take a small action to demonstrate our support for the issue or cause
3. Now fully committed to the issue or cause, we look to band with others — in the real world, virtually, or both — to pressure stakeholders, industry, and/or government officials to act.
Because they represent a natural progression from initial interest to full engagement, each step is both a destination and a link to the step that follows.
Let's take a closer look.
Social Issue Engagement
You become aware of an issue and what others are saying. The first step toward having a position on any issue is to educate oneself about the issue. Whom does it affect? What are the possible positions I could take? What are people in and outside my networks saying about the issue? Is everything people are saying accurate? Do I have enough information to form a sound opinion?
As we've seen in our Cause and Social Influence research over the years, the sources and veracity of the information young Americans use to educate themselves about an issue are changing. With the racial equity protests in 2020, for instance, Black Americans responded more to statements and calls to action from organizations they already followed online or to comments in online forums by their peers than from broadcast news or social media advertising. During the presidential election, on the other hand, young Americans reported being most influenced by social media — even though 87 percent of respondents to our survey agreed with the statement that social media platforms "often" or "very often" propagate false or misleading information and statements.
There are 3.8 billion social media users in the world, a number that's increasing more than 9 percent a year. Yet according to the Digital 2020 report from We Are Social, social media penetration (users per capita) is still only 49 percent. Which, fake news concerns notwithstanding, means social media as a go-to source for information is here to stay.
You take a small action because it's easy. I've said this many times: In almost any situation, our natural inclination is to do the easy thing. Even when our empathy is triggered and we feel we must do something to help, we're usually happy to settle for the small, passive action; it doesn't take much to feel good about and convince ourselves we are helping the cause.
Our research bears this out. The top three actions young Americans took in 2020 to help others were to shop locally more than they had In the past, post or share content on a social media platform, and sign a petition. By performing these small acts, many young Americans felt they'd made their voice heard.
Band with others to pressure stakeholders, industry, and/or government officials to act. Although this deeper level of engagement is not for everyone, it is an opportunity for movement leaders, community organizers, and others to bring people from different backgrounds together to actively work to advance action on an issue or cause. For folks on the front lines of an issue, this is where real change happens.
The biggest takeaway from the research we conducted last year (see Cause and Social Influence 2020 Year in Review) was this: Young Americans believe the best way to bring about social change is to vote.
We also found that a high percentage of young Americans were donating to the issues and causes they support. Indeed, the giving participation rate for this cohort, which had held steady at 9 percent from 2017-19, doubled in 2020, with especially strong support for:
- Animals/Animal Rights 34%
- COVID-19 26%
- Civil Rights/Racial Discrimination 25%
- Healthcare Reform 23%
- Climate Change 17%
Companies are on a similar journey
Companies and brands continue to take their own steps on the road to more robust civic engagement. Our finding that young Americans increasingly expect corporations to support issues and causes they care about and to be genuine in their support is echoed by the recent Social Trends 2021 report: "Being a purpose-driven brand isn’t something you can fake.... 60% of millennials and Gen Z plan on spending more money with businesses that take care of employees during the pandemic."
In other words, companies concerned about authenticity and transparency should look first to their own internal practices. Companies that want to be credited with socially aware and environmentally responsible policies should be sure they're walking the walk before they start talking the talk on social media or in their advertising campaigns.
After so many significant moments in 2020, some marketers began 2021 with lowered expectations; others are being extra careful not to say the wrong thing or strike the wrong tone. Nothing illustrates their concerns better than the decision by many brands to pull their Super Bowl advertising. Others, including teams at Pepsi, Budweiser, Ford, Olay, Hyundai, Coca-Cola, and Little Caesars, are starting the year with more of a corporate social responsibility mindset and planning to allocate some of their advertising dollars to boosting awareness of COVID-19 prevention measures and vaccination campaigns.
The more things change, the more they remain the same
Last February, before COVID was on most Americans' radar, I wrote about the many individuals who wished we could "return to a time when people knew right from wrong and were committed to liberty and justice for all." Little did I know what the months ahead had in store for us! But even then, I noted that levels of engagement shift based on a range of factors: individual perceptions of what is (and isn't) important, our understanding of the root causes of problems, and new ways to engage with issues and each other.
A year later, having witnessed any number of shattering moments and a fair amount of intense social upheaval, we find ourselves, in many ways, in the same place. Certainly, the way people engage with issues and causes hasn't changed. And the basic question remains: What have we learned from the past and how can we apply it to the future?
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence, and the author of The Corporate Social Mind. Read more by Derrick here.