How To Get People To Care: Anatomy Of A Trending Hashtag

Angry Kid-Lit Readers Demonstrate Why Hashtag Activism Isn't Always Useless. Here's What You Can Learn About Sharing Your Message.

When the organizers of BookCon, a major publishing event, released their list of big-name speakers earlier this spring, some people noticed something: there weren’t a lot of non-white faces.

A children’s book panel, in particular, promising the biggest names in the genre, featured all white men. It was a sore spot for many, coming on top of stats from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison finding that, of the 3,200 children’s book titles the library received in 2013, just 253 were about people of color. That’s less than 10%, while about half of children born in the U.S aren't white.

So numerous children’s book writers took to social media to protest. They got a lot of attention—and the addition of new BookCon panelists. From that success, a group of almost two dozen authors decided to stage a bigger campaign. On April 29, the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks began trending on Twitter. According to Tracy López, a freelance writer and novelist and one of the campaign’s team members, as of May 12, more than 24,000 users had created over 90,000 tweets.

It’s an interesting story of hashtag activism in its own right, but the lessons the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team learned can help people with all kinds of ideas. Here’s how to help the world share your story.

1. Get the right message.

Obviously, the first step in getting people to share a message is to have a message worth sharing. Lots of people care about diversity. But even if you’ve got a good message, the phrasing matters. According to I.W. Gregorio, author of the forthcoming YA novel None of the Above, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag started off as "#IWantDiverseKidLitBecause...."

The hashtag evolved as people realized the former sounded more inclusive—and snappier. Especially with Twitter, even a few characters can mean the difference between trending and not.

2. Don’t go it alone.

A major trending social media campaign will require many more participants than you, personally, know. But asking everyone you know to help at the beginning gives you a big running start. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks team asked friends, their agents, and their editors to spread the message and tap their networks.

3. Push in different ways.

Give people a reason to participate beyond agreeing with your message. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks crew scheduled Twitter chats (in which you use the hashtag to participate and ask questions). They also included a visual component with their Tumblr campaign.

People posted pictures of themselves and—more importantly—their children holding signs explaining why they wanted more diverse characters in literature. Whether you care about books or not, cute kids are fun to look at. That drew more people in.

4. Draw in influencers (part 1).

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks team reached out to people with massive Twitter followings. Famous authors were obvious targets—including Jodi Picoult, and Veronica Roth, who Gregorio says both used the hashtag. But she reached out to others who might be interested too, including Oprah Winfrey. "I even tweeted LeBron James," she says. He didn’t take part, but you never know who will, and if Justin Bieber ever retweets you, your message will take off.

5. Draw in influencers (part 2).

Celebrities are fun, but they’re not the only entities with reach. Libraries became major champions for #WeNeedDiverseBooks. The Oakland Public Library system began posting pictures of their diverse young patrons holding signs explaining their desire to see and read about characters who looked like them.

Even an organization without hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers may have outsized influence, and may be able to influence people in real life, too. Think broadly about partnerships, and you might find interesting ways of nudging a message along.

6. Give yourself a news hook.

"If you want to get something to trend, mention it with something that’s trending right now," says Jennifer Abernethy, owner of Socially Delivered, a social media company. "You get more eyeballs to see your hash tag."

In her message to LeBron James, Gregorio referenced the David Sterling controversy, noting that if there were more diverse children’s books "maybe more people wouldn’t be racists," she tells me. Just like newspaper feature stories often try to reference the news, a good social media campaign can answer the question "why now?"

7. Be ready to ride the wave.

Planning for failure is prudent in life, but planning for success is smart too. The organizers of BookCon added a panel about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag. But the team has been thinking bigger. They’ve done media interviews with outlets as far away as the United Arab Emirates, and they’re challenging readers to put their money where their tweets are and buy books with diverse characters.

If your message does take off, what will you do? How will you leverage that success to give your message a longer life than any hashtag can have? If you think about these questions, your trending message can lead to long-term gains.

[Image: Flickr user Pratham Books]

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2 Comments

  • Lots of great info here to share with my middle school students as they learn about social media beyond sharing selfies with friends. However, it's Donald, not David Sterling. (I know this after seeing years of his full-page ads in the L.A. Times bragging about his charitable work!)

  • D Grant Smith

    Laura, this is the best piece on tips for creating powerful social media marketing I've seen. Each point is well made and applicable to anyone or business (large or small). Thanks for the detail and clarification. Well done.