Fracking site in Warren Center, PA, Ostoff Law, via Wikimedia Commons
Social media strategies—and the communication philosophies behind them—may have made the decisive difference when voters in Fort Collins, Boulder, and Lafayette, Colorado and Oberlin, Ohio approved anti-natural gas fracking ballot initiatives in early November.
In Colorado, the state’s oil and gas association spent nearly $900,000 on traditional advertising and PR, against $26,000 on the anti-fracking side, according to Forbes columnist Richard Levick, but still took heavy losses: the three communities voted for moratoria or outright bans, Boulder with 76% support. A fourth ballot in suburban Broomfield failed by 13 votes and is headed for a recount.
An Online Campaign Waiting to Happen
The mounting controversy over natural gas fracking has a powerful local dimension in Colorado, according to Climate Central. In some neighbourhoods north of Denver, “city dwellers are seeing new oil and gas wells being fracked in their neighbourhoods and near public schools,” despite concerns about safe drinking water, radon exposure from shale deposits, and large releases of atmospheric methane.
So fracking had all the elements of a breakout topic for social media. The stakes were high. The impacts were local. The division of power—the oil and gas industry, with high-powered political support, lined up against scrappy local organizers—played to the immense power of social platforms to level the odds and empower community voices.
Levick’s after-action report in Forbes showed that anti-fracking forces earned their win by working hard, building an active online community, keeping up a steady flow of information, and transferring the relationships they were building from digital to doorstep.
Campaigning to Win
“Social media outreach, online content development, and search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing (SEM) are all dominated by activist voices,” he wrote. “As a result, they are not only rallying significant grassroots opposition; they are doing it in ways that neutralize any advantage that industry money once provided.”
Levick, a fracking supporter, continued: “While industry money went into advertising and traditional ‘outreach’ campaigns that net diminishing returns in the digital age of public…activists stretched every dollar with online efforts that prove far more effective.”
Those efforts included:
- Content-rich microsites that clearly and succinctly argued the dangers of fracking
- Facebook pages to keep up a flow of messaging and Twitter traffic to promote screenings of anti-fracking documentaries Gasland and Gasland II
- YouTube content that pointed to the risks of fracking.
By comparison, the industry’s advocacy group “built a microsite that, up until a few weeks ago, was static, non-social, and unsupported by devoted SEO or SEM campaigns.” Across the U.S., Levick reported that the top 10 anti-fracking groups have 2.1 million Facebook likes and 1.2 million Twitter followers, compared to the industry’s 28,000 likes and 70,000 followers.
More Than a Numbers Game
It’s no huge surprise to see oil and gas companies outrun by content-rich social media campaigns by small, nimble grassroot groups. “Implementing content marketing in larger enterprises can be a political nightmare,” wrote Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi in a recent blog post.
Pulizzi’s quote points to a crucial factor that Levick left out of his analysis: beyond a simple accounting of the dollars, likes, followers, and tweets behind the pro- and anti-fracking campaigns, online communities thrive on content quality as well as reach.
The anti-fracking campaigns had a genuine, heartfelt message that resonated with local communities and neighbourhoods, but they would never have had a chance if they’d had to compete for traditional media placements. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association could have shifted to a digital strategy, but its pro-fracking advocacy would still have run into a disconnect with grassroot perception and experience.
From Digital to Doorstep
In an angrily dismissive piece on The Energy Collective, petroleum publicist Simon Lomax said anti-fracking forces focused on local ballots because they lacked state-wide or national support. “The national activist groups are ‘going local’ out of desperation,” he wrote.
Sheltie on guard, Rideau River Nature Trail, Ottawa, photo by Karen Irving
But going local is exactly the point, whether it’s to oppose dangerous energy development or support cleaner, greener alternatives. Renewable energy and energy efficiency sometimes make most sense and are easiest to manage at a smaller, decentralized scale. And while the threat of dirty energy is abstract until it comes to your community, a project outside your front door has a wonderful way of focusing your mind. That’s what happened here in Ottawa, Canada over the summer, when TransCanada Pipeline proposed a diluted bitumen pipeline under the river where we walk our dog every morning. (Memo to TransCanada: You’re not fouling Maydeleh’s river.)
Which points to an important similarity between online and physical communities, and one of the keys to a digital to doorstep strategy. We form communities on social media because we share interests, issues, and concerns in common. We form community associations, school councils, and neighbourhood groups because we want to make things better where we live, work, learn, and play. The Colorado anti-fracking campaign picked up on that parallel and showed that when communities organize on social media, they can win in the face-to-face world.
A version of this post originally appeared on The Content Roundtable.