You might have heard about the "Atheist Bus Campaign" by the British Humanist Association. They have placed banners on 800 buses and subway stations in England, saying "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".
Here is what it looks like:
Obviously, a campaign like this is going to bring along a bit of controversy, and it has. The religious movements are, not surprisingly, up in arms. They are even trying to get the government to block the ads on the basis that there is not "a shred of supporting evidence" that there is probably no god. A statement that was received with quite a bit of laughter by the humanists.
They responded by saying "I'm afraid all I've got out of them [the other humanists] so far is peals of laughter. I am sure that Stephen Green [the religious leader behind the protest] really does think there is a great deal of evidence for a god (though presumably only the one that he believes in) but I pity the ASA [Advertising Standards Authority] if they are going to be expected to rule on the probability of god's existence."
BUT, I am not going to talk about religion, or the message in the ad. I believe in the right for people to freely choose what they want to believe in - or not to believe in. What I am going to talk about is how they have created a very good campaign, and completely failed to take advantage of the social web.
The "Atheist Bus Campaign" has all the elements you need to create a very effective online movement.
It has all the elements you need for a social movement. This is an exceptional good example of something that has a high potential to "go viral".
While The Humanist Association has created an amazing campaign, they have completely failed to deliver it to the social communities. The entire campaign is focused around a physical localized object - namely a number of buses. So the campaign is not about the message, it is about the ad.
One very good example is that they did create a Facebook page (obviously), but the page is not about the message. It is not about if you believe or want to follow the idea that "there's probably no god". Instead it is about the ad. Because the Facebook page is called the "Atheist Bus Campaign" - not "There's is probably no god".
What they are asking you to do is be a fan of the "bus campaign", not the message or the identity of being one who believes in something different than god.
They are focusing, and promoting the campaign, instead of the part the people care about - the message, the identity, the emotion, and the part that makes people think.
Instead of making the buses the primary element, they should do the complete opposite.
They should have made the message the primary element, as opposed to simply a campaign. Then they should try to find out how to make people identify themselves with this message in the most effective way possible.
The use of the buses is still a great idea, because it creates a lot of awareness, and reaches a huge amount of people. But once you get people's attention, you need to allow people to act on it.
First of all you need to give people the ability to share the message. Make it easy for people to tell others of this very controversial message that they have just seen.
Then you need to allow people to express their opinions, to interact with the message. Using Facebook is good idea. But instead of making a page about the ad, you should make a page about the message. You should allow people to say, "Yes, I believe in this message".
You might even consider creating an anti-message page, where people could say, "No, I do not believe in this message".
Finally, you should give people a lot of ways to express their opinion to their friends and the public at large. The Humanist Association has started to sell t-shirts, but that is a very low-tech form of expression. Make a widget for people's Facebook page, their blogs, give them interactive web badges, iPhone wallpapers etc. Give them every single tool you can think of.
You should also encourage people to make their own version of the campaign - using your campaign elements. Allow people to express their own opinions in new and personalized ways. Allow them to be creative and to get involved.
Allow people to update their status with a targeted personal message. Instead of simply allowing people to post a link on Twitter, make it a personal statement "I think there's probably no god, and I am really enjoying myself (http://tinyurl/xxxx)". Or you could make fun of the opposition and allow people to post "I DO think there is a god, but I am not enjoying myself right now".
Focus exclusively on how you can empower people to express themselves, to find their identities, and to share their version of it with the world.
...and finally. Create a website that works like a hub for all these activities across all forms of media, social websites, blogs etc. Not a portal, but a hub where people can find where other people are and how they have responded.
This website is also be where you could supply updates of how the campaign is going, provide background information, and supplemential details. Not to mention where you host the high-quality press material for journalists and professional bloggers, who demands more than the low-resolution content.
The effect of this would be explosive, instead of "just a message on a bus".
Please note: The topic of this article is not to debate the existence of God. It is to illustrate how we can use a social movement to amplify a campaign to a much higher level. Please keep your comments within that topic, and refrain from advocating your personal religious beliefs.
Update: Jon Worth has posted a comment, pointing out that I 'missed' a big part of the campaign. I'm sorry about that. I still think that the bus part should have been the secondary message, and the message itself to be the primary focus. Having it on a bus is a good way to get exposure, but people don't connect to a bus, they connect to the message. But read Jon's comment below.
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