The influence of digital on campaigning has been steadily on the increase in recent years, becoming more prominent in Irish elections and referendums since the mid-2000s. However, it was during the recent marriage equality referendum that the digital and social media phenomenon really proved its mettle.

The Irish political landscape is, as a result, fundamentally transformed, with political parties and candidates now more aware than ever of the significant and previously untapped potential of digital campaigning. Having once been perceived as a distraction from traditional campaigning methods, digital and social media has now earned its place at the table and it’s there to stay.

In May of 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality by popular vote. The momentous 62 percent ‘Yes’ vote was a result of the most extensive and effective civic campaign ever seen in Irish politics. Digital and social media played a vital role for the first time, transforming political campaigning as we know it.

In the week leading up to the referendum, #MarRef was used 467,323 times from 384,002 users, generating an estimated 1 billion global impressions. Loved ones returning #HomeToVote shared more than 72,000 tweets on voting day alone. This outpouring of support was illustrative of the influential and sophisticated digital campaign that captured the imagination of the nation.

The design, development and execution of the campaign’s digital strategy was geared towards being fully integrated into the wider campaign, supporting all mobilisation, organisation and communication efforts. What follows is the story of how the campaign was executed, and how it has changed Irish politics in the time since.

Tone, tone, tone

In the years preceding the referendum, different events had resulted in an emotionally-charged and activated support base. Many people felt aggrieved that the rights of gay and lesbian people had been denied for too long. Disrespectful language was commonplace among both sides of the argument, with much of this debate taking place on social media. The opposition were using the utterances of such language to bolster their argument, that marriage equality supporters were refusing to engage in open, respectful debate.

Those leading the Yes Equality campaign feared that the existing tone and language would work against the achievement of a positive result. While empathising with vocal supporters, there was a concern that the lack of strategic oversight and intolerance shown by some would undermine the prospects of achieving the constitutional change required.

Experienced campaigners knew that winning over the movable middle required the establishment and maintenance of a positive tone. This was vital in creating a campaign that people wanted to be a part of. Social media would be central to this and would mean using strategies and tactics not seen before in Irish politics.

The power of storytelling

It was the personal stories we heard from across Ireland that helped secure the 1,201,607 Yes votes in the referendum. Central to the campaign strategy was providing a space for people to tell these stories. The ‘I’m voting yes. Ask me why?’ campaign was specifically designed to support this and aimed to start a nationwide conversation on the issue of marriage equality. Throughout the campaign, from politicians and journalists to celebrities and everyday citizens, many took to social media through different mediums to tell people why they were voting yes. The messengers were as important as the message, with videos featuring grandparents taking about why they were voting yes going viral.

Similarly, quotographs (images with supportive quotes) featuring high-profile Yes supporters performed extremely well on social media. The Yes team responded to this emerging trend and created more and more as the campaign progressed. Quotographs became a staple of the positive and shareable content of the campaign.

The digital campaign was concerned with making it as easy as possible for people to show their support online. This included social media avatars, uploading videos outlining why they intended to vote yes, donating to the campaign, and joining local canvassing groups. By providing a participation spectrum with different levels of engagement, supporters, both active or passive, could identify ways in which they could get involved in the campaign, thus influencing decisions to participate.

These efforts were underpinned by having clear call-to-actions that facilitated different campaign objectives. Each CTA was supported by clear material to explain how and why to do it. For example, when encouraging people to join their local canvassing groups, videos of ‘Yes Equality’ canvassers, interactive maps of local groups, timetables and guidelines accompanied the invitation.

By anticipating and addressing the obstacles people may have faced in taking action, ‘Yes Equality’ made it easier for them to take the next step to get involved.

The local campaign

Many groups had been advocating for marriage equality for years, but now, faced with a referendum, a shift of focus was required. ‘Yes Equality’ strategists believed that the people of Mayo knew how to run the best campaign in Mayo, not from the headquarters in Dublin and set out to build a grassroots network across the country in just a matter of months. Local ‘Yes Equality’ groups began emerging across the country and, in many cases, social media provided the platform for these groups to form and organise. These sub-groups often began as Facebook Pages, started by active supporters. Over the course of the campaign a network of over 60 Yes Equality sub-groups developed, with the vast majority maintaining an active presence on social media through the course of the campaign.

Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp were instrumental in providing the tools required to guide supporters and activists towards needed action and facilitate the local campaign. Twitter was used to recruit new volunteers, WhatsApp groups were created to keep members updated on canvassing activity and Facebook assisted in promoting fundraising efforts up and down the country.

While the campaign nerve centre was located in Dublin and a central team provided strategic leadership and oversight, ‘Yes Equality’ was keen from the outset to not seek or maintain control. Instead it focussed on resourcing and equipping groups and individuals to run their own campaign. That said, it was paramount that the ‘Yes Equality’ content and messaging was consistent, compelling and relevant across all platforms and sub-groups.

Sub-group coordinators signed a protocol document agreeing to what was expected when using the ‘Yes Equality’ name and brand. The central team provided resources, branding, content and social media guidelines. Groups also received daily emails with suggested Tweets, key messaging and media alerts.

Ongoing communication was maintained through a centrally operated closed Facebook group providing a forum to keep the ‘Yes Equality’ HQ team abreast of any issues or developments. The dialogue between the networked community on social media was crucial to ensure that all communications were in line with core messaging and that the positive tone that had been established was maintained.

‘Yes Equality’ had a strict policy of not engaging with trolls or opposing campaigners on social media. The personal nature of the debate caused frustration amongst many, especially at tweets from some of those opposed to the referendum that were deliberately provocative, however for ‘Yes Equality’ it was essential that they encouraged their own activists towards positive messaging.

Turning the negative into a positive

Social media also provided the official campaign with the platform to respond to news stories, issues and online developments as they arose. The emotive nature of the referendum campaign created much media debate and the occasional controversy. On numerous occasions, ‘Yes Equality’ needed to respond swiftly and adapt appropriately. For example, when the opposing side of the campaign erected their posters there was a feeling of frustration and anger among Yes supporters, with a select few tearing down posters and posting images of the fruits of their labour on their social media channels.

‘Yes Equality’ responded immediately on their social media platforms to condemn the removing of posters by supporters on either side of the campaign. ‘Yes Equality’ harnessed this frustration by sharing links on social media encouraging people to donate to help fund the Yes poster campaign. This resulted in a surge in donations.

Similarly, TV debates on this issue were used as an opportunity to send messages aimed at increasing participation in local canvassing groups, messages which resulted in large numbers of volunteers signing up. Messages such as “Don’t get angry, don’t get frustrated – join your local canvassing group” with clear call-to-actions were promoted on social media during times of heightened media activity.

Together, we did it!

The success of the campaign comes back to the positive tone that was maintained. Despite the divisive nature of the referendum and the “us versus them” debates which played out on traditional media, the strong leadership of the Yes campaign and its effective use of social media created an open and respectful space.

This ultimately became a campaign that Irish citizens wanted to be a part of, with so many people from various walks of life joining us on our journey. And why? Because the campaign reflected the sentiment of Irish society and the values of fairness and decency instilled in its people.

The ‘Yes Equality’ digital campaign provides a model to be emulated for those campaigning for progressive social change.

Craig Dwyer is a fellow with the Social Change Initiative, conducting research on using social media as an effective tool in campaigning for social change. Craig was previously the Social Media Director for the Yes Equality campaign for civil marriage equality in Ireland.