From Monologue to Dialogue: Learning from the It Gets Better Project.

Traditional public interest campaigns seek to persuade audiences to view social problems in a particular way and then take action. These approaches are like monologues: the group pushing a cause does the talking, and the audience listens. With the rise of social media, the nature of these campaigns is changing: instead of just being receivers, audiences are also creating and distributing content over Facebook, via twitter or through videos uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo. Instead of monologues, we now have dialogues.

A good example of this shift is the “It Gets Better Project,” initiated in 2010 by relationship and sex columnist and well-known LGBT advocate Dan Savage. The campaign —the subject of a case study published in the 2013 special issue of the Public Relations Journal Diversity in Public Relations — asked individuals “to recount their stories of adversity in an attempt to transform the perceived realities of LGBT youth.”

Dr. Jamie Ward, communications scholar from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, chose to study the “It Gets Better Project” in order to answer the question:  “How can a campaign that is completely reliant on user-generated content not only successfully engage a diverse public but also maintain value and legitimacy while persuading individuals to take action?”

Featuring more than 20,000 uploaded videos, the project has been cited as the most successful in YouTube’s history.  “By empowering others to use their own voice, the It Gets Better Project attempts to challenge social stigmas and limit oppression though the use of technology,” suggests Ward. “The It Gets Better Project has been successful because individual needs have remained at the forefront of the campaign. From the initial video post to the videos that are still being added today, each entry adds a new voice to the conversation and addresses individual stories.”

So what made it such a success? According to Ward, who examined 200 of the uploaded videos, there were three main factors:

It was focused. Ward suggests a focused campaign is one that uses a targeted message. “The It Gets Better Project has a clearly defined goal of reaching out to LGBT youth in the hopes of letting them know that despite the bullying they may endure in school, life does get better and there are support systems out there.” Using user-generated content gives the message credibility and diversity.

It grabbed attention. The “videos are detailed accounts of bullying and very vivid discussions of suicide, which are often seen as taboo,” writes Ward. Videos from celebrities and “young people telling their heartfelt emotional stories to connect with other youth going though similar struggles” are an effective way to grab attention, as the stories told “tap all of the publics senses. It is raw, real, emotional and heartfelt. Viewing the multitude of faces and hearing the variety of voices is diversity in and of itself. The campaign is relatable to everyone.”

It engaged the audience. Through user-generated storytelling, the campaign was given an authentic voice. “Each video presents a story entrenched in pain and struggle,” writes Ward. Stories told include coming out, and finding love, as well as stories of empathy and support.

Furthermore, the campaign has a clear, easy call-to-action that engaged the audience “by inviting them to make a video of their own, continuing the campaign outreach.”

Ward suggests that “by making the goal small and reachable —post a video and save life —viewers are not overwhelmed by the ask. While the ultimate goal is to eliminate suicides in the LGBT community, by starting small, the outreach remains targeted and manageable…It is easy to be a part of and easy to share.”

“This campaign illustrates that through the use of digital storytelling, the authenticity coming from the voices of those telling their stories make for a stronger, more effective… campaign than traditional (campaigns). This model not only offers a remarkable medium for social change and support of humanitarian causes, but also serves as a roadmap for… practitioners looking to integrate social media strategies to enhance their participation in grass roots campaigns,” suggests Ward. “When used correctly, this model can bring about engaging and impactful social campaigns, as evidenced by the it Gets Better project.”

The Public Relations Journal

Jaime Ward, University of Michigan, Dearborn

Posted: May 15, 2015