THE BLOG
08/06/2013 05:32 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2013

Time for Progressives to Get Serious About Social

If your social feed is anything like ours, it includes a handful of links to interesting articles, one or two rants about the news of the day, a few articles shared as "must read," some funny pictures, and at least one list of animated gifs.

It may not look like much, but this force -- social sharing -- has already revolutionized the media industry, and it's completely changing how we encounter information online. Harnessing it will be crucial to the future success of progressive social change organizations.

BuzzFeed, the social media giant that reached 40 million unique monthly views last December, credits social with driving the majority of its traffic. Upworthy has been described as the "fastest growing media site of all time," with more than 10 million unique visitors a month only a year after launching. Nearly all of Upworthy's traffic comes from social sharing.

Chances are, in fact, that you are only reading this because of a friend's decision to share, and a bit of teaser text that convinced you to click.

Social hype has been around for years. What is new is the sheer size of the growing networks, combined with the ability to use data to test approaches and concretely measure success. Instead of false promises to make something "go viral," we can design pages and craft headlines based on hard metrics. We can run tests and apply best practices to reach an audience of billions of people, young and old, all over the world.

In other words, the powder-keg combination of big data and sharing is finally delivering on social's long-fabled potential.

In May 2013, CREDO Action recruited 24,000 new activists on a single petition through social sharing, in a large part because they optimized their social headline using the ShareProgress platform. Veterans of the 2012 Obama campaign point to the operation's targeted sharing tool as one its shining technological accomplishments that married big-data targeting with social recruitment. Upworthy, the fast-growing social site, tests up to 16 headlines on each piece of content.

The massive scale of social makes it a potent force. ARTSTRIKE, a recent collaboration between Rebuild the Dream and CultureStrike, generated 11 million impressions on art, poetry, and music about the December 2012 budget battle. The most-shared works were, in turn, prominently featured in follow-up promotions. Petition giant Change.org has grown to 40 million users worldwide, in part because they pay attention to which petitions get the most signatures from social and promote them widely.

Unfortunately, as Rebuild the Dream President Van Jones has said, the "do-gooder playbook is getting stale." Most charities and non-profits still rely too heavily on policy papers instead of more creative content. Few optimize their online content to make it shareable. Fewer still incorporate social into their communications strategy. Using analytics to evaluate results remains the exception, not the rule.

Marrying analytics with social sharing will not turn boring content into a giant hit on the internet. But it can put a compelling video in front of new audiences and enlist new people in a cause. It can make sure the stuff that truly makes us laugh or cry will rise above the din.

Conservatives, rarely lacking significant resources, can afford to drop big money on paid advertising to get their message in front of millions of people. Progressives will need to get the most out of social if they want to compete.

Social change organizations need to hire talented writers and designers, and empower creative staff members to tell amazing stories. They should embrace new tools that use data to reveal what people find most compelling, instead of attempting viral videos by committee. They should invest in social-optimized content as a way to put their issues on the map, instead of focusing all their attention on winning a throwaway mention in the traditional press.

Sharing is already reshaping how people consume information. The only question is whether progressives tap this force to create change, or whether they leave a powerful tool lying in the toolbox. There is a fierce wind ripping across the media landscape. Smart organizations will build some windmills.