The Digital Activism Technology Stack

What are the technologies you need to harness in order to be effective at digital activism? There are a few components you’ll need to implement and the combination of tools you choose is what we call a “technology stack.” In this post, I’ll talk about what those components are and how to use them.

Intro

If you’re looking to become more effective at digital activism, you need at least to be proficient in the “digital” part. That means getting your arms around the technology. It does NOT mean you need to become an expert or learn to write code or become a tech guru. But you do need to get comfortable with it at the very least. 

I frequently – and you probably also – hear people joke about how terrible they are with technology. They laugh it off and sometimes even wear it as a badge of honor. This is not acceptable in 2020. With every single passing year, the role of tech and social media in marketing and political discourse increases. You can’t hide from it and if you’re one of those tech-averse activists, the news gets even worse; You can’t hire someone else to do it. But that’s a topic for another video.

In the meantime, you need to become proficient in the basics. You need to understand, implement, and utilize a basic technology stack for your digital activism. So let’s start by talking about what the components are and then we’ll discuss how and why to implement them.

Domain and Website

The first two components go together. The hub of every digital activist should be their website. Of course, in order to have a website, the first thing you’ll need is to register a domain. A website is absolutely critical because it is one of the only digital assets you truly own. You don’t own any of your social media profiles or the content you put up there. It can all be taken away from you in an instant by a secretive, unaccountable algorithm. A website gives you many advantages that you simply can’t get anywhere else.

You don’t need to be a web developer or a programmer to have a solid, functioning website. There are lots of affordable tools out there that don’t require a lot of technical expertise. I always say, “If you can create a Word document or a PowerPoint presentation, you can build a website.” You just need to learn the tools.

Email Provider

The second digital asset that you own is your email list. A high-quality email list has been and remains the single most valuable digital asset any marketer can have. But I few very, very few candidates and activists truly focused on building their lists. In fact, many of them outsource it to campaign consultants and rely on the lists that they bring from one campaign client to the next. These lists tend to be of very low quality and not very useful.

In order to build your list, you need to sign up with an email provider and then provide incentives and value to your subscribers. There are lots of email providers but the two most common in the digital activism space are Mailchimp and MailerLite. They both offer free versions for 2,000 and 1,000 subscribers respectively. If you have a larger list than that or you need to utilize some of the more advanced features like automations, you’ll need to pay for a subscription but they’re pretty affordable.

Building your email list takes time and effort but the investment is worth it. Once your website is built, you’ll want to add a subscribe function that allows visitors to sign up for your email newsletter.

Social Media Accounts

Having a social media presence is important. They’re the spokes in your hub and spoke digital strategy. All roads lead back to your website where people can consume your content, subscribe to your newsletter, make a donation, etc. 

The question becomes, “Which social media channels?” Facebook is unquestionably at the top of the list. A lot of people won’t like to hear that and I understand. But the numbers don’t lie and the reality is that Facebook blows away all other platforms in terms of regular, active users. Nobody else comes close. There is a high danger of censorship and so you’ll need to use some caution. I don’t blame you if you want to avoid it out of principle but you have to ask yourself what’s more important, taking a principled stance or achieving your activism goals. 

After Facebook, the second most important channel could vary depending on what type of content you plan on producing and the audience you’re trying to reach. It could be Twitter or Instagram or YouTube. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each.

Twitter is a jungle. There are a lot of trolls, people tend to be extremely rude and it’s just plain toxic. However, the fact of the matter is that journalists spend a lot of time – almost certainly too much time – on Twitter. If you’re looking for earned media, you have a greater likelihood of getting in front of a journalist on Twitter than any other social media platform. In addition to the other challenges I already mentioned, Twitter takes a tremendous amount of care and feeding relative to other channels. It requires very regular publishing and interaction if you want to grow your audience and find the right influencers. It supports a wide range of content media including text, links, video, and graphics. It’s one of the easier platforms in terms of publishing content.

Instagram is entirely focused on images and videos and its audience is a much younger demographic than most other platforms. If you’re going to be producing lots of visual content and are looking to connect with a younger audience, Instagram is a good option. 

Finally, YouTube is obviously for video content. Building a following on YouTube is quite difficult and takes a lot of time and effort. Most channels take years to develop any sort of substantial subscriber base. But as I’m fond of saying, the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago but the second-best time is today. If you’re going to be producing video content, there is no reason not to post it everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Of course, there are lots of other social media channels and I won’t get into all of them in this post. The reality is that you probably don’t have the time and resources to grow all of those channels simultaneously. You’ll need to prioritize one or two of them. As I mentioned, I think Facebook is non-negotiable and then after that, it’s going to depend on the type of content you produce and the audience you covet.

Analytics

The most ignored component in the technology stack is almost certainly analytics. These are the tracking codes on websites that everybody is so freaked out about. And while they’re under constant assault by privacy laws and browser blocking, they’re still effective and extremely valuable. There are two types of analytics I want to mention.

The first is web analytics. This software monitors the traffic on your website and tells you two important things: where people came from and what they did on your website. Understanding where they came from is valuable, especially if you’re advertising. You can track how many people came from search engines, from your email newsletters, from your social media posts, or from your paid ads. It’s important to understand what the mixture of those different sources looks like and how they’re trending on your site. 

Once people arrive on your website, analytics will also tell you what they did. What pages did they visit? How long did they spend? How many subscribed to your newsletter? How many made a donation? Again, it’s important for you to understand not just the quantity of these metrics but the direction and trends.

Google Analytics is free to use and install and it’s quite powerful and relatively easy to use. It’s the go-to solution for web analytics. 

google analytics

The second type of code to install on your website is tracking codes. These tracking codes are similar to web analytics but they are specific to certain platforms and they allow you to do something very important and very powerful; They allow you to create audiences and then target those audiences with advertisements.

Each social network has its own tracking code you can install on your website. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Pinterest, etc. They all have their own version and I recommend you install at least Facebook, Google, and Twitter. It doesn’t cost anything and you don’t even necessarily have to use them for anything. This is definitely one of those situations where it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

So how exactly do these tracking codes work? Well, I’ll have other posts that go into more detail on each one specifically. But at a high level, you need to create the tracking code on each platform and then install the code on your website. The exact method for doing this depends on how you built your website but, again, I’ll go into more detail on that in another post. Once the tracking code is installed, the platform will be able to see the traffic on your website and create audiences.

You might be getting a little lost at this point so let me give you some specific examples that hopefully will clear things up. Let’s start with a Facebook example. To install their tracking code, you’ll go into Facebook ads manager, then go to the Events Manager and add a pixel to your website. They refer to their tracking code as the “Facebook pixel” even though it’s not a pixel anymore. They’ll generate some code that you need to copy and paste into your website. Again, I’ll have detailed instructions on how to do that in another post. 

After it’s installed on your website, you’ll have the ability to create audiences in Facebook based on visitors to your website. You could create an audience of everyone who visited your website. Additionally, you can create an audience of people who visited specific pages on your website, like blog posts that all are related to a particular issue. You could even create an audience of people who visited your donation page but didn’t donate. In each of those cases, you can create ads that focus on one of those audiences.

Hopefully, it’s beginning to become clear why these tracking codes are so powerful and how all of these technologies work together. So now that we’ve talked about the individual components, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.

Putting It Together

So, let’s recap the major components of the technology stack. Again, picture a hub and spoke model where your domain and website are at the center and the spokes are search engines, social media channels, email newsletters, etc. All of those spokes are driving visitors to your website where you are encouraging them to take further action like subscribing to your newsletter, following you on social media, making a donation, signing a petition, answering a survey, etc. While on your website, your analytics and tracking codes are watching what’s happening and creating audiences that you can use to retarget at some point in the future. 

As you’ve probably figured out, when done correctly, this becomes a perpetual motion machine. More visitors to your site leads to more newsletter subscribers which leads to more visitors to your website which leads to more social media followers which leads to more traffic to your website and so on and so on. It all works together and grows over time. 

One of my ten social media commandments is “Thou shalt not start over.” It should be abundantly clear to you at this point why that’s a sin. If you’ve spent two years building a website, signing up email subscribers, and building a social media presence, why in the world would you then tear it all up, throw it away, and start the whole process over again from scratch? It sounds like an insane idea, yet that’s exactly what I see time and time again from political candidates. They spin up a new website and a new Facebook page every election cycle, use it for a few months to raise money, then abandon it until the next cycle when they start all over again. It’s a great business model for political consultants who get paid to build these every two years but it’s not a great investment for the candidates.

One More Thing…

There’s one more component in the technology stack that I wanted to talk about separately from all of the others. Technology will only enable your ability to be a successful digital activist. It by no means guarantees it. Your success is going to be entirely dependent on your ability to create and promote remarkable content. Again, there’s no technology that will do that for you but there it can help you be more efficient and effective.

The technology I’m referring to is a second brain. It’s called a second brain because it’s a system that helps you capture and review raw materials that then allow you to create and distribute remarkable information. It’s something I’ve been doing for a very long time. In fact, the first time I wrote about this concept, one of my main collection tools was a Blackberry Storm smartphone with Evernote installed and I had coined an acronym, “ABC,” which stood for “Always Be Collecting.” I’ve been using Evernote software for 12 years now and I’ve collected literally thousands of articles, PDFs, and blog ideas. 

Recently, I came across a modernized and expanded version of my ABC strategy called “The Second Brain.” You can watch the video here:

Conclusion

So hopefully that gives you a fundamental understanding of the digital activism technology stack. If you don’t already, the first thing you need to get up and running is your website. That’s going to be the crown jewel and centerpiece of your digital activism. Then, you can add and improve the other components of the technology stack over time.

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