By Donna Bowater 

For many global development issues, 2020 is a milestone year. From the deadline for national plans to meet the Paris Agreement climate targets to the Nutrition for Growth Summit, the international calendar weighs heavily with pivotal moments.

Yet amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of these events — and the opportunities for development advocates to meet with decision-makers — are now hanging in the balance, with a growing number moving online.

Virtual conferences, such as the online Lead Author Meeting of the IPCC Working Group III next month, may have the benefit of a smaller carbon footprint. But they inevitably compromise on interpersonal communication, which is often most effective, direct, and impactful when it comes to making the case for development policies and funding.

In the absence of those crucial diplomatic coffee breaks, taxi rides, and late-night dinners, development organizations must adopt new strategies to advocate around high-level events.

Communicating digitally on sustainable development issues comes with different challenges and consequences, but there are still ways to do this successfully.

The first key difference is that unlike the top-down environment of high-level events, virtual advocacy can succeed just as well with a bottom-up approach that mobilizes a groundswell of voices and cuts through the online noise.

This opens up the possibility for more creative strategies that reach intended audiences through volume and frequency rather than the precision of direct, in-person appeals.

For example, with the global spread of COVID-19 preventing large gatherings, Greta Thunberg has reimagined her School Strike for Climate as #DigitalStrike or #ClimateStrikeOnline to maintain momentum and galvanize her supporter base.

And when last year’s U.N. climate talks were relocated to Madrid at the last minute, preventing many from rearranging travel plans, the Climate Vulnerable Forum launched its #MAD4survival campaign online, encouraging supporters to post photos of themselves using the hashtag.

These smart switches enable organizations to keep their advocacy relevant and timely, while harnessing the power of global audiences to continue to achieve their objectives.

With the COP26 climate talks also likely to be impacted, advocates for climate action should be looking now for creative ideas that most effectively take their cause online, such as crowdsourced social media campaigns, online petitions, or augmented reality applications.

Pay close attention to communication channels

The second major difference is the reason why these broad, creative campaigns are so important: Online audiences are far more dispersed than those at live events.

At gatherings such as the U.N.’s High-Level Political Forum, for example, the key decision-makers are all present in one location, providing development organizations with a ready-made, self-selected target audience of converts.

However, when these key players can only be reached online, they become fragmented and scattered across the enormity of the digital world.Get development’s most important headlines in your inbox every day.Subscribe

Some policymakers may be active on Twitter or LinkedIn, for example, while others may have a limited digital footprint, logging on only for email and conference calls and to read their single news outlet of choice.

Engaging with the most influential policymakers in the virtual lobby of the World Wide Web, then, requires paying close attention to the ways in which they communicate as well.

Once it is clear which channels to prioritize to reach the right target audience, it is possible to develop a clear communications plan with which to deploy an online advocacy campaign.

This strategic approach can be seen in action with Malaria No More’s Stop the Buzz campaign, which uses an AR filter to encourage social media users to literally utilize their voices to help end malaria ahead of the United Nations General Assembly and the Global Fund replenishment. Real-life versions of the filter were also deployed in New York during UNGA to target those in attendance as well as those following virtually.

Give a platform to those whose lives are impacted

Finally, an important challenge to overcome in virtual advocacy is to humanize digital communications as much as possible. At in-person events, the message is as powerful as the messenger, who can deploy charm, wit, and rhetoric to make their case directly to their intended recipient.

However, communicating virtually often involves using open forums, which means online advocacy must factor in broader public perceptions around key issues.

Moreover, online communications can feel disconnected from the human experience and risk becoming too abstract to be engaging.

This is why successful online campaigns tend to give a platform to those whose lives are at stake. For example, the SDGs and Me campaign from agriculture coalition Farming First packaged up and promoted the voices of farmers whose lives would both impact and be impacted by these goals taking shape.

Not only does this remind target audiences of the very real consequences of action or inaction, but it also makes a direct appeal to our shared values and experiences by highlighting the links between health, nutrition, incomes, and prosperity.

It is also often more feasible to gather personal stories from those at the sharp end of development issues and tell them online than to bring those people to events around the world.

Achieving the SDGs — digitally

As more of us face a life increasingly led online, pivoting to new kinds of digital communication will help us continue toward our development goals in the decade before the 2030 target of the SDGs.

This comes with challenges, but it also comes with opportunities and benefits — democratizing advocacy to those less resourced or more distant, for instance. Those that seize them first will lead the pack.

About the author
  • Donna BowaterDonna Bowater is a senior associate at Marchmont Communications, an agency specialising in communicating around global development. She was previously a journalist, most recently covering Brazil and Latin America for English-language media.