Activists VS. Corporations in the Social Web

Let there be no doubt; there is an information war taking place on the Web between corporations and their industry associations and activist groups who want legislative changes or government policies changed. For decades, corporations were the ones who could afford to fight the perception battle in traditional media; they had the financial resources. With the advent of social media, that has shifted. And activists have learned to use social technologies very well.

In our research of multiple industry sectors, from extractive resources to consumer products and to public policy research for governments around the world, we have come to find this pitched battle raging in every country we’ve conducted research. Who’s winning on the social web? For now, the activists. Whether it be environmental groups, health related or political, activist groups move faster are more nimble and less intimidated by engaging with the general public. Here’s a broad look at our findings;

Activists vs. Industry Associations:
As can be seen from the table below, activist groups are heavily engaged across all social media channel categories, far more than the industry associations they are often battling. We note that activists are using video and imagery very effectively and that it has become their medium of choice as citizens react more to imagery than text. Where they even out for presence is in blogs – but people don’t read long blog postings. Industry associations tend to rely on long blog posts when engaging in social media. Activist groups have also been faster to adapt to microblogs like Twitter and on average we found them to have 72% more followers than an industry association.

Activists Vs. Corporations
When it comes to measuring corporations vs activists, we see that corporations lag far behind activists. Especially in the use of videos and photos. In Social Networks (SocNets) we see a more level playing field, but looking at 4 primary social networks (Facebook, NetLog, Orkut and MySpace) our research showed activist groups tended to have 42% more followers than a corporation on average. As with industry associations, there is also a more even play in the blogosphere, but corporate blogs tended to be 30% longer in text and 78% less likely to include videos and photo’s in their blog postings. Looking at Alexa and other ranking tools for traffic and inbound links we also found that activist blogs had 32% more inbound links and mentions across social media channels than corporate blogs.

Conclusion
Well, a lot can be concluded from these findings. For many it is little to no surprise that activist groups are more engaged and that they tend to dominate the social web. Some may also surmise that is natural as the social web is more about grass roots, youth and ranting lunatics. Certainly there is a share of them. But more often than not, sober, well informed and educated, professional adults are seeing these messages. And they are reacting to them. As the technology to produce high quality videos and photo’s today is so inexpensive and a message can go viral so quickly, activist groups will continue to expand their activities and pose an ever more serious threat to corporations.

Activists are keenly aware of the challenges that corporations and their associations face with communications. They also know a corporation must contend with multiple stakeholder and present a balanced approach. And then there is the challenge of corporations still adapting to the swift changes and challenges of operating in a global community where the cost of broadcasting a message is almost zero and available to anyone who can get access to the Internet. The advent of mobile devices with immediate upload of video and photo images has added to the complexity of the situation and it will only become more challenging. Online reputation management tools will become ever more important, as will digital research firms who can dig deeper, go farther back in time and provide more professional insights.

Note on Research Classifications:
We defined “activists” as non-profit organizations with a primary mandate/mission to change government policies and legislation on societal issues such as the environment, human rights or health care. NGO’s and NPO’s such as The Heart & Lung Association or Medicins Sans Frontieres are not included in this category. Industry associations are those that clearly represent the interests of a particular industry such as the World Coal Association or OPEC. We classified corporations in the context of those with 2,000 employees or more operating in more than one country with an estimated or clarified market cap of $100M and above. Our results are based on the aggregate evaluation of over 200 research projects from 2007 to 2010 in the English language and includes Canada, United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Holland, Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Argentina, France and Spain.