If You Want Your Message to Be Heard, Do Things Differently
"Not nearly enough people listen to what we have to say, and we have a lot to say," a fellow blogger at MideastYouth.com tells me during one of our campaigns to highlight the human rights abuses faced by the Baha'i communities in Egypt and Iran.
Getting traditional media outlets to cover such controversial issues is difficult. One whole year of writing blog posts and translating reports was not working. What now?
Our challenge has always been fighting for people's attention. In a single day the average reader has millions of sources to choose from. People lack the time and sometimes, sadly, the interest to look into the issues that we attempt to highlight. We had to change the way we communicated these issues to them.
We then got the idea of using satirical comics that bring attention to things that not many people were aware of. We started creating short comics mocking the absurdity of various human rights violations in the Middle East. We started with this one, about the Baha'i minority in Iran:
We first circulated it internally via a mailing list. It was the first newsletter that people were actually responsive to. People later requested permission to republish it on their blogs and websites. Traffic to our site increased, and we got more people interested in the conversation. We figured this is working, so let's just keep it up.
After a series of comics about Iran, we turned our attention to Egypt, highlighting the absurdity of Egypt refusing to issue birth certificates and ID cards to members of the Baha'i Faith:
We made an Arabic version of that comic as well which was spreading around quickly and being picked up by the more traditional media sources, such as this Arab women's magazine which featured it:
We were able to increase our audience because of these comics, which turned me into a strong advocate of relying on such creative approaches to communicate important causes, specifically those that not many care to pay any attention to, including the mainstream media. There is only so much you can do with lengthy redundant blog posts that people would not be encouraged to immediately circulate. Of course it is important to continue writing and exposing these injustices in much more detail than what you can possibly fit in a little comic, but to drive the traffic to such information, you will need to do much more than simply hit the publish button. This is where the other "side projects" come in.
Away from comics, we also began experimenting with video editing and animation, which had a similar viral effect. We created this video below as a satire to mock Egypt's tourism ads, which often appeared on CNN, promoting Egypt as a great and fun place to vacation in. We turned that ad into an alert of the Baha'i human rights abuses within the country.
Within days it was featured prominently in a local paper:
It was being quickly embedded on blogs worldwide, and permission was requested to also play it at video festivals and conferences. We kept creating these videos and comics -- trying to get more creative as time passed. Some made it huge, some didn't go anywhere, but the attempt was always there.
It remains extremely difficult to fight your way past the noise and into people's sight. Getting them to just look at these is hard enough as it is, getting them to take action is even harder, but it got better with each attempt. Some of our videos really made a big difference in reaching new audiences previously unaware of what was happening. Receiving a lot of negative feedback for these efforts was also promising for us, because it showed that the video was being explored by those who do not share our values and perceptions. And we measure our success by the amount of people whose perceptions we are able to influence, challenge, or change.
Creativity guarantees mainstream coverage which gets us the kind of audience that we would otherwise not be able to reach. We can't expect everyone to come find us, so we go and find them, and get them to listen to what we have to say, as we listen for their feedback.
Our latest video, which is about the injustices faced by migrant workers in the Middle East, was nominated recently for a Viral Video Award.
An interview about why we created the video can be found in an interview with me on Change.org.
We also created an ad which appeared for free at a local newspaper in Bahrain, drawing more attention to this cause:
As well as other video animations, another example of which can be seen here:
All of these approaches have helped us increase our audience by dozens of thousands of more readers. Every new reader you gain is a potential supporter of your campaign. It is extremely hard work to gain and maintain their attention and ongoing support, so the creative efforts must continue. Some of our videos have taken months to think up and create. Some have taken a few hours. We no longer find ourselves spending the majority of our time on just research, which itself is very time-consuming, but to organize this information, summarize it in the most powerful way possible, and then use it to tell a story that you want people to watch and listen to.
People are always looking for new and interesting things to turn their attention to, and the sad fact that we have to admit and accept is that people simply lack the time to swiftly go through the majority of your work. Other efforts are necessary for your campaign to reach people beyond the limitations of your own blog. This is especially the case for human rights campaigns, where no audience is ever big enough. Whenever we come across a devastating story that we want thousands of people to be exposed to, we know that hitting "publish" on our WordPress page is not going to get the job done. That's where video editing, comics, and illustrations come in. Then we send these to our press contacts in the hopes that someone would care enough to share them with an even larger audience. Many do. The same would not be possible if we had simply sent them a blog link. Journalists are always looking for "new" and "different" things to cover, so "new" approaches even to existing issues often get the job done quickly.
In summary, if you want your message to be heard, the best way to increase your audience is to simply do things differently. You don't have to launch a new video or a comic with every blog post just to get new readers. You just have to maintain your audience by surprising them every now and then with a different way of communicating your causes, thoughts, and ideas. Some of these will be picked up by the biggest sites out there, and some will die in your archives, but one thing is for certain: exploring your creativity will get you the audience that you deserve. Having a sense of humor about what you do doesn't hurt either.