Research & Insights

The Pyramid Approach: How Twitter Use Is Shaping Up Among Advocacy Groups

By Zoe Green

Chao Guo, University of Pennsylvania
Gregory D. Saxton, University at Buffalo, SUNY

Increasing numbers of advocacy organizations are adopting a layered, three-step process for using Twitter to reach out to audiences, deepen their engagement and call people to action. It’s what researchers call the “pyramid” approach.

Writing in the February 2014 issue of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Chao Guo of the University of Pennsylvania and Gregory D. Saxton of the University at Buffalo, SUNY, describe how they studied 750 randomly selected tweets, representing messages from 121 diverse advocacy organizations, to find how advocacy groups have incorporated Twitter into their work.

According to the researchers, the emerging pyramid model that these advocacy groups use involves the following three elements and activities:

Stage 1: Reaching Out to People

For the first step, organizations aim to spread information and to educate. These activities, which form the base of the pyramid, involve organizations tweeting to both “current and potential supporters” of the cause.

As they attempt to reach people, organizations send out the greatest number of tweets in this stage with the goal to make new connections and spread their message to as many people as possible. Hashtags, which allow messages to be sorted into specific topics, are greatly used during this stage.

Guo and Saxton say that getting celebrities to tweet at this stage can be very helpful in reaching new audiences. They say “celebrities have tremendous ‘network’ powers, in the sense that their tweets almost immediately reach an audience of hundreds of thousands, even millions of followers.”

Stage 2: Keeping the Flame Alive

In the next stage, organizations concentrate on keeping “alive the flame of passion.” Steering away from education and information, organizations use community-oriented tweets in order to grow deeper relationships with their followers. Hashtags are also used during this stage. “With hashtags, an organization can easily discover and connect with other Twitter users who are interested in the same cause or issue.”

Here is an example of a community-oriented message one group tweeted to its followers for a voter registration drive:

MaketheRoadNewYork: Great work everybody! MT @LICivicEngage Tks for pledging to reg. voters this year! @naacp_ldf #local1102, @32bj_seiu, #liia, #carecen

Stage 3: Stepping into Action

Organizations that have built a strong base of passionate supporters usually use this third stage to tweet mobilization messages to call people to action. For instance, to inspire its followers to gather at the Supreme Court to protest Arizona Senate Bill 1070 in April 2012, the National Council of La Raza, a large U.S. Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, tweeted the following:

NCLR: Today we are storming the Supreme Court to highlight the injustice of #SB1070. Join us and demand #Justice4AZ

While this may be one of the most valuable uses of Twitter for advocacy groups, researchers caution that organizations must take care not to issue “too many ‘calls to action.’” Too many mobilization messages might make the organization’s follower “turn away.”

In examining how organizations apply the pyramid approach to their work, Guo and Saxton found that because of Twitter’s “mass approach in that tweets go out to everyone,” organizations “tend to put the greatest effort into providing information to stakeholders, followed by building a community and then calling to action.”

While the researchers say their model describes a hierarchical approach to using Twitter, it is very likely that organizations apply all three stages simultaneously, depending on what they’re working on at the time. More specifically, “in the fluid social media environment, an organization must always be seeking to reach out to new audiences (Stage 1), deepen that audience’s knowledge and sustain its interest (Stage 2), and then motivate it to act (Stage 3).”

Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, February 2014

Zoe Green is a third year English major at the University of Florida, minoring in Mass Communications and Education

Posted: October 30, 2014
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