The movement to influence the UN Sustainable Development Goals to be agreed this autumn is now part of the global conversation, thanks to social.

It’s been 15 years since the first set of UN Millennium Development Goals were established. They came at a time when digital was in its infancy (as were most of Snapchat’s current core user base).

A time before everyone had the opportunity to voice their opinions and influence those goals via likes, RTs, shares, online petitions on Avaaz and blogs on the Huffington Post.

Now, as the world gears up for the setting of the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals at a global conference later this year, focused on ending extreme poverty and addressing the problems caused by climate change, it begs the question: how exactly can the new digital democracy enable everyone in the world to have a presence in that room in September 2015?

With the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches being remembered this month, the 1960s African-American Civil Rights movement offers us one of the greatest examples of a perfectly executed campaign.

A series of people and organisation-led examples of small non-violent protest and civil disobedience (bus boycotts and sit-ins), coupled with a few stand-out newsworthy front page moments (marches) and some big names (Martin Luther King) combined to influence the key decision makers and, ultimately, change history.

This ‘ladder of engagement’ shows how people, organisations and influencers should work together, in different yet complementary ways, to have the greatest impact.

And in 2015, digital campaigning works in exactly the same way. No matter where they sit on the ladder - people, organisations, influencers, decision makers - everyone has a role to play... 


The people

Can consumers truly influence the agenda for sustainable development beyond 2015 via their mobile phones?

Well, yes… their role is share, like, make as much noise as they can. The more noise made, the more it gives permission and makes it acceptable to talk about these issues.

The #FGM campaign is a great example. As recently as a couple of years ago, could we have imagined casually retweeting a tweet about female genital mutilation, or dropping it into conversation as we passed the gravy over lunch?

The #ArabSpring is another example – people were finally able to voice their frustrations without fear of reprisal, thanks to the sheer scale of the conversation and hashtag.

It’s all about creating so much noise that it becomes ‘unavoidable noise’. The ‘No More Page 3’ digital movement reached fever pitch and drove The Sun to end a 40-year institution. Malala Yousafzai, the global campaigner for girls’ education, was once just a blogger who refused to be ignored.

The Girl Effect 

The organisations

How can organisations ensure their particular issue gets a mention when it counts?

The organisation’s role is to support the noise by adding weight to the topic. To ensure topics/issues have impact on those at the top table, evidence is key.

The Girl Effect has harnessed the voices of girls around the world and supported them with robust economic arguments around girls’ impact on the GDP of various countries based on hard evidence.

This has captured the attention of Ban Ki-moon and drawn support from key decision makers and influencers around the world, including Desmond Tutu.

With so many global issues vying for attention, cut-through is also imperative. To truly change hearts and minds, organisations should aim to employ a ‘newsjacking’ policy, to grab attention (and then back up their argument with evidence).

Greenpeace is extremely successful in this arena, using planned agility as part of its comms mix and gaining traction around everything from the #CometLanding to #TheDress. 

Emma Watson 

The influencers and media

How should the influencers speak out for maximum impact?

The influencers’ role is to give the people’s noise and organisations’ evidence an audience. Emma Watson discussing gender equality to a capture audience at the UN goes a long way in furthering the causes of women everywhere on behalf of HeforShe.

The Evening Standard championing #FGM and The Dispossessed Fund has ensured leaders such as Boris Jonson are talking about this issue (and even sleeping on the street).

However, organisations should also be strategic in their choice of influencer to champion their cause. Justine Greening is more likely to be influenced by a blog from Leyla Hussein, a credible, multi-award winning campaigner on FGM and gender rights with 9,000 Twitter followers, than by top YouTube influencer Fleur de Vlog – even though the latter has enjoyed over 52 million views of her vlogs. 


The decision makers

Their role? Simply to listen. David Cameron could have chosen any issue to get behind but he knows the noise is around #FGM, so he’s wisely chosen to get behind it.

The digital opportunities available to us now mean we have a chance to get closer to that group of 600 delegates sitting down in September – wherever we sit on the ladder of engagement.

This will be a defining moment in the history of our people and planet, and thanks to the last 15 years of digital development, you can have your say on the development goals.

Gina Roughan

Published 30 March, 2015 by Gina Roughan

Gina Roughan is editorial director at digital agency Zone. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (2)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Yay, #firstworldproblems!

The #FGM campaign remains a total #fail. "MPs have said it is "unforgivable" that there have been no UK prosecutions since laws against FGM were introduced nearly 30 years ago. This was despite more than 140 referrals to police in the past four years."

The #ArabSpring "was supposed to bring peace, democracy and stability to not only the nations where it took root, but also others around it in the Middle East and North Africa. It was supposed to usher in an end of violence and heavy-handed government tactics, just like it ushered out entrenched leaders. In short, it was supposed to mean a brighter future. Not more instability, not more violence, not fewer freedoms. But that's what happened"

But congrats on replacing page 3 by the daily mail's sidebar of shame.

I really wish it were otherwise, but in the real world social is a great platform to make people feel good, but it's totally inappropriate to "enable everyone in the world to have a presence in that room in September 2015". The people actually there, making the decisions, are the celebs, billionaires, lobbyists, fulltime politicians and dictators - just like 50 years ago.

over 3 years ago

Gina Roughan

Gina Roughan, Content director at Zone

Hi Pete, some interesting points raised.

I guess when it comes to the potential of social to engender change, I have my opinion, you have yours, Malcolm Gladwell has his (, Leo Marani has his (

On FGM, social hasn’t helped to eradicate it – but it has created a momentum that has seen it become a hot topic on the political agenda. The fact that something previously seen as an issue solely within niche communities is now part of the mainstream agenda can only increase the likelihood that legislators will act.

It’s probably not for you or me to decide the ultimate effects outcome of the Arab Spring movement; clearly it’s for the people involved – and the course is not yet run. What is undeniable is that, thanks to social, tens of thousands of people felt able to express themselves thanks to the ability to speak with a shared voice.

And, of course, social media won’t literally give everyone a voice inside the UN General Assembly this autumn. But do I feel that social media will positively influence some of the minds in that room? Absolutely – and that can only be a good thing.

The fact that social has added another rung to the ladder of engagement for people who want to engage is to be celebrated.

over 3 years ago

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