The London Riots: What can we learn from how social media was used to do good in their aftermath?

This article is sponsored by iStrategy Amsterdam, Netherlands


The world, and not least Londoners, were shocked by the recent riots that spread across and then beyond the UK's capital.  While politicians debate the socio-economic causes, one notable feature was the use of social media - not only to help organise the riots, but also to track their chaotic spread in real time and then to pull the community together in their aftermath (such as @RiotCleanup, Operation Cup of Tea, Keep Aaron Cutting).  


One incident that captivated and moved the public was the moment when a 20-year old Malaysian student, Mohammed Ashraf Haziq, was robbed by a gang who had appeared to be helping him.  Not only did social media help raise awareness of the incident (hundreds of thousands of people have viewed a mobile phone video of the moment on YouTube), but it also helped provide a platform for pooling public support for Mohammed.  Below is an extract from an interview with former charity worker, Jamie Cowan, the person behind the Twitter and Tumblr campaign #somethingniceforashraf, which was huge success in raising cash and awareness, including support from companies like Sony and Halfords.


For the Business Fights Poverty community, it provides some interesting tips on using social media to do social good.  If you are more broadly interested in social media, the iStrategy Conference is being held on the subject in Amsterdam, 25-26 October 2011.  Members of this community have been offered a 40% discount if they register by Tuesday 6 September by entering 5SOCIAL40 on the Amsterdam registration page here.


The Man Behind the Blog #somethingniceforashraf - A Social Media Q&A With Jamie Cowan

By Tom Knight


Please talk us through how #somethingniceforashraf got off the ground.

It was something me and a colleague thought up on Tuesday morning last week over breakfast. Putting together the Tumblr blog only took 20 minutes. Then we tweeted a few people we knew and it simply took off from there.
Organisationally it only exists within the goodwill it has been able to channel.


Did you consciously move very quickly? Were you aware of time pressure?

I didn't expect it to get as big as it did, as quickly as it did. It was easy to do. It took 20 minutes to start, and then it caught. There are probably loads of people who tried to do something to help. It's hard to break down exactly why our idea worked while others didn't.
People liked it - it's a simple as that. If people like something, they consume it and share it. That's how things get big.
Until last week I didn't use Twitter that much. I had an account but I barely used it. Having set up the website and looking around Twitter, I didn't really see anybody trying to do something similar. There was Riot Cleanup, Operation Cup of Tea, and Keep Aaron Cutting. They were doing some cool things, but they were different. 


Why did you choose to concentrate on Twitter over other social networks?

I'm personally a heavy Facebook user. I set up a Facebook campaign page, but it didn't really take off. Only about 100 people followed it.

I've discovered that Twitter is more explosive: things happen quicker and at a greater volume. The hashtag was going Tonto for two days - everyone was bashing it around. But by the Thursday and the Friday, it was dead. That's the way Twitter works -- it's very spiky.
For spreading news quickly, Twitter is perfect. But if you want a deeper level of engagement, I would have thought Facebook is more appropriate.


Once people were using the hashtag, how did you get them onto the website?

There was a TinyURL attached the original tweet and then Google started performing for us. Whenever people were searching 'something nice for ashraf', it sent them straight to the Tumblr. We were using a specific set of words, which was quite Google-friendly
People can be counted on to find stuff if they know about it. Getting people to the site, in the end, wasn't too much of a challenge. The challenge was making sure people knew about it in the first place.
If people want to do something on the internet, they'll find a way to do it. It's when they're not really that bothered about doing it that people would not do as much as they could.


Did you have a handle on analytics? Were you kept informed throughout the campaign by statistics?

No. The only figures I have access to are from PollDaddy, and the amount we have collected in donations. More than 40,000 people voted on the poll on the site, which is quite incredible.


It must have been very exciting.

It was really exciting, brilliant. The good thing about it all was here was something horrible that had happened to a guest in our country and people felt the same way about it as I did and wanted to redress the balance. I did it because I know people are nicer than they looked as a consequence of all the riots.
In total we're going to raise just under £23,000. The money we raised is obviously important. But it was an easy way for people to demonstrate that they're nice and that they're good people. That's where a lot of the value came from.


Did you feel as if the campaign was running out of control at any point?

We've had to stop taking donations. I would be interested to find out how much the campaign could have got if we let it run on. But we thought we had raised enough so we shut it down. Ashraf is only a young lad, and I didn't want him to be getting so much money that it became a problem for him. If somebody's got £100K landing on their desk, there are some bad things which can come out of that.
We didn't want it running out of hand. The whole premise was doing something nice for him. £23,000 is enough money to do something very nice. Anything on top of that would have been gratuitous, particularly at a time when there were loads of other causes which needed money and support. I started redirecting on the site to other causes that people could donate to. It felt like the right thing to do.


Companies like Sony and Big Fish Bikes started approaching you and offering donations to replace Ashraf's stolen property. How did they reach out to you?

Directly, on Twitter. Halfords and lots of other businesses start making offers. It was really good.


What do you think was in it for them?

They just wanted to help. I'm sure they're pleased with the positive PR that came out of it, but I don't think that's the primary reason for them acting. I think they saw that something pretty bad had happened and they had the means to provide an answer -- just the same as the individuals.
Everyone always points the finger at business, accusing them of being cynical, but there are a lot of good people working in business and a lot of cultures which are actually nice. I think that's encouraging.
When Halfords offered a bike I told them one had already been offered, but we would still welcome any donation they wanted to make.
The whole thing demonstrates that if you do something positive, how readily people are to respond. Most people are nice. They just need to be presented with opportunities which are easy to demonstrate how nice they are.


It seems incredible that you can go from not being an active Twitter user to the architect of such a wildly successful Twitter campaign.

Actually, I don't to use Twitter because it looks messy. But it clearly serves a purpose and I would definitely use it again for the right reasons. If I decide I want to do something I'll definitely redeploy some of the things I've learned over the last week.


And what are they?

The key thing is that I did something at all. I was literally sat having breakfast last Tuesday morning and I was lucky to


have an idea, to set up a site and see if anyone wanted to do anything.

Then, even more importantly, I actually went out and did it. It wasn't anything clever with social media -- but doing it was the key thing. It was the fact that people liked it which made it big.

My message would be, if people want to set out and do something, do something good. If it's not good, nobody's going to want to spend time on it. Have an idea, give it a go, and makes sure that it's a fundamentally good thing.

And if you're using Twitter, remember to move quickly because it's a very explosive medium.

The other thing is, it could have looked like a con. After Hurrican Katrina a lot of people set up fake fundraising accounts. Some people got in touch asking me if what I was doing was legitimate.

I had to tell people that I couldn't offer any guarantees, they just had to trust me. Twitter was useful for that sort of thing because you can be very public about those conversations.

You've got to put in quite a lot of time to be reactive. If someone has a concern, you've got to deal with it, otherwise it's going to turn into something much bigger and reduce people's confidence in it, if you don't respond quickly and honestly. 


This article is sponsored by iStrategy Amsterdam, Netherlands


If you'd like to learn more about social media, iStrategy Amsterdam will be bringing together top brands and professionals from 25-26 October 2011.  In an exclusive offer to BFP members, attendees can attend Amsterdam iStrategy with a 40 percent discount if they register by Tuesday 6 September by entering 5SOCIAL40 on the Amsterdam registration page here.


About iStrategy


iStrategy is an inspirational, two-day, digital media conference for senior executives who believe that the success of their business requires a sound digital strategy. iStrategy is held bi-annually at each of our four regional event locations in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.

iStrategy combines keynote speakers, interactive workshops and live interviews to deliver a high-quality program for attendees. We are committed to providing a live social media experience, with a very active Twitter feed, live blogging, Facebook posts and Linkedin discussions as our attendees tend to be active in social media channels.

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BFP Team
Comment by Zahid Torres-Rahman on September 1, 2011 at 8:38
Interesting article in Sunday's Observer Newspaper in the UK: "Supermarkets to tackle riot zones: Retailers will send managers to deprived communities to help boost local economies"

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