Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

'Pictivism': Does Changing Your Facebook Pic for a Cause Really Matter?

March 29, 2013

It started with Facebook Doppelganger Week.

Three years ago, millions of Facebook users changed their profile pictures to images of their self-proclaimed celebrity “look-a-likes.” While some folks were a little more “generous” with their celeb-identity than others – ahem, we are not all George Clooneys or Angelina Jolies – the viral campaign was highly successful.

Consequently, hundreds of nonprofits sought to tap into this trend by asking followers to change their profile picture to advocate for a cause. This week, our Facebook newsfeeds were inundated with red equal signs in an online expression for marriage equality.

But does changing your Facebook photo for a cause – or “pictivism,” as I like to call it – actually create social change?

Why it works: Tweets come and go (in fact over 70% of tweets go unread), but sharing content via Facebook can be very impactful among networks of friends. After all, your profile picture is similar to the top fold of a newspaper – it’s often the first thing your followers see and interact with on Facebook. This can be a very powerful tool for advocating your cause if used correctly.

Why it’s challenging: You may be asking followers to change their profile pictures to a particular logo or color, but what is that really achieving? Of course, this is the main argument for critics of slactivism. Without a call to action, it can be difficult to really see value. “Facebook pictivist” campaigns also lack metrics and measurement. There is really no good way to quantify and track the numbers of users participating in the viral campaign, which is important when advocating for support and funding.

How to do it right: There are three things to remember if you consider using the “Facebook pictivist” approach for your campaigns.

Call to Action: Having users change their photos to a pink ribbon in remembrance of breast cancer may be honorable, but your campaign needs to drive people to action. This can be as simple as including a ‘call to action’ tagline and URL address to get followers to do something beyond social media.

One Piece of the Puzzle: Remember that a “change-your-Facebook-picture-to-support-the-cause” campaign is simply one tactic. You should not rely on it solely to achieve your goals. If even applicable, it should be just one approach among a whole suite of tactics that make up your broader strategy.

Be creative: Simply put, the campaign needs to be different in order to garner mass appeal. Facebook users have seen the turn-my-profile a color motif and they may have even transformed their photo into a cartoon for child abuse awareness in the previous years. Think creatively to bring consumers something they haven’t seen or done before. Use the new Facebook’s timeline and cover photos to create something unique.

What do you think? Have you ever changed your Facebook profile for a cause? Do you think it works? Did you change your picture to a red "equal" sign this week?

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