Teaching non-profits about social media and viral content

in My Process, Add Oil Comics

Photo of the first class

Last month, I co-taught two classes on using social media to popularize issues (如何運用社交媒體推廣議題). Organized jointly by the Culture & Media Education Foundation and HKCSS, this new course targeted non-profits and NGOs, whose social media needs differ significantly from those in the private sector. It was my first time teaching this topic, so it made for an adventurous and unexpectedly rewarding experience.


The participants & our constraints

The class comprised of 30+ students from various social and political organizations as well a minority of private sector professionals and teachers. The breadth and diversity of participants was definitely the biggest challenge for us as instructors. Even within the social and political organizations, there was a range from those who advocated for political reform to those who acted as politically-neutral, service-oriented charities. We did find one common thread among almost all participants though: none of them had a large, dedicated social media team.

This lack of a dedicated team, in addition to the editorial restrictions of being part of a social or political organization, were the two major constraints that our participants faced in their day-to-day social media work. These constraints, in turn, shaped what we could teach. Most of the social media success stories (and talks and guides and tutorials) out there usually involve media or private companies – their content was often slapstick and rarely had to align with a social or political mission. The dearth of good, low-budget, social/political case studies was a definite roadblock for us. Of course, there have been notable successes such as the It Gets Better Project, or the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but for the most part, these involved prominent celebrities and/or are not the type of campaign I would advise a small NGO to replicate.

One sidenote I want to point out: hashtag campaigns would have been wonderful to teach, as my colleagues at The Civic Beat did with the ACLU. Unfortunately, hashtags work best on Twitter, which is grossly unpopular here in Hong Kong. True, hashtags are supported in Facebook and Instagram, but the tags themselves rarely go viral without the help of Twitter. I'd even say that hashtag culture hasn't taken off here in the way it has in North America due to the absence of Twitter.


Why I was teaching this class

Add Oil Comics Preview

I did have one unique advantage in teaching this class: I've been running a social media project in making social/political issues go viral for three years. With Add Oil Comics, my goal has been to create viral comics or animations that explore and advocate for social and political issues. Roughly a third of my comics are targeted at the general public in Hong Kong and three of my comics have "gone viral" here (more about what this means later). On top of all this, I generally work alone and stay away from internet outrage-friendly polemics, so my experiences in this regard are surprisingly well-aligned with our participants working at a small or mid-sized non-profit.


What we learned

Here I want to share some of the things we learned through teaching the course and via the direct feedback we received from our participants afterwards. In doing so, I hope to add to the global discussion around how to help non-profits with limited resources utilize social media. Because as we've learned in the past two years, those with deep pockets can often buy their way into our social media feeds, and we are dire need of ways to fight back.

People wanted mid-level knowledge

Almost everyone was well-acquainted with social media (most participants were in their 20s or 30s), so high-level concepts and overviews were greeted with a lukewarm reception. Our participants were savvy: they knew which platforms were popular in Hong Kong, and they knew what viral content was. On the flip side, they also resisted low-level, hands-on activities: they knew how to Photoshop images, they knew how to cut a video (or their colleagues did anyhow). The sweet spot was what we called "mid-level" knowledge – practical guidelines, tips & tricks, specific metrics, and strategy/planning activities.

Adapting corporate processes for small non-profits

Much of our class was devoted to how to make viral content, and I always emphasized that each organization should make their own definition of what it means to "go viral." For Add Oil Comics, I personally define a viral success as a post that receives a combined 1000+ likes and shares – a target I've hit 7 times out of 55 over the course of three years. For my students, I encouraged them to consider other variables, whether it's separating the shares from the likes, adding comments into the fray, or being more specific about platforms.

Growth process diagram

Diagram via Startup Marketing/Ryan Gum

Similarly, one practice we didn't have time to dive into was how to replicate and adapt corporate processes around testing-analyzing-optimzing for smaller non-profit organizations. Large corporate organizations, particularly those in the media, can finetune their process via A/B tests and experiment with a large variety of content types. But what does that mean for a smaller organization who might not have enough traffic to A/B test, or for whom experiments are a luxury?

Pushing them out of their comfort zone

Many of our participants had a very simple editorial goal: they wanted to inform people about the services they offered. Unfortunately, simply informing readers about specific social services makes for some pretty flat content and, worse, may come off like an advertisement.

To push participants out of their comfort zone, I suggested a) stories with conflict, b) personal stories, c) toying with misconceptions and stereotypes, and d) if all else fails, a catchy headline. Within the short plotting and storyboarding exercise we facilitated, the approach that seemed most effective was (b) personal stories – participants who wrote and drew stories that they had a personal, emotional connection to yielded, to my eyes, the most interesting results.

On a more abstract, strategic level, I also tried to push participants to think about posting on social media as more than just informing their followers. On top of providing information, content can (and should) be tailored for sharing, to satiate existing followers, to document a particular event for posterity, to direct readers to a specific action, etc. Not every post needs to go viral, because there are some things that are just not easy for readers to identify with and share.

Delicate subjects are tough

One social issue that came up in both of the classes that I taught was the ongoing teen/student suicide problem in Hong Kong. Given its severity, many of us felt very strongly about it, but it's also a very delicate subject touching on, quite literally, life and death. Making teen suicide-related content go viral is not only difficult, but as a non-profit, there is an added layer of responsibility to not misrepresent any facts or lead people astray. A difficult topic such as this could take up a class of its own, so we weren't able to devote much time to it. But I did come away with two takeaways for our students: 1) be wary that a piece directed at parents might reach their children (and vice versa), and 2) it is probably better to err on the safe side and end on a positive note (though not so positive that it comes off as false).


As instructors, we decided early on to focus on helping our participants create individual posts rather than entire campaigns. Learning how to make an article/photo/video more effective felt more applicable for our participants than learning how to plan a grand (and probably fictional) social media campaign. But I have to admit this choice was also based on my own personal bias and experience with Add Oil Comics. I believe we made the right choice, given that it's usually posts and not campaigns that go viral and given the resource limitations of our participants. But due to this personal blind spot, we may have missed a few essential tips along the way. So if you have experience running campaigns for non-profits, please chime in below in the comments.


Special thanks to Patrick Yip and Billy Chung for co-teaching the two classes with me.

By Jason Li

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