Interview with writer Ariane Sherine and her use of social media - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Ariane Sherine

We recently chatted with Ariane Sherine, creator of the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ about her use of social media to generate awareness of her campaign.

Bearing in mind the subject matter we’d like to emphasise this interview is 100% about social media and sharing information with our blog readers to help with their own efforts, in no way are we using this to express any personal views.

Could you provide us with a bit of information about yourself?

I’m a journalist and comedy writer, and I created the Atheist Bus Campaign, which placed atheist slogans on buses earlier this year.

The campaign came from a series of articles I wrote for The Guardian’s Comment is free website, where thousands of site users debate issues daily in response to articles. The response to the idea of donating to fund atheist advertising was overwhelmingly positive, and led to my launching the bus campaign, which achieved publicly visible UK representation for atheists for the first time. The campaign then spread around the world to 12 further countries, including America, Canada, Italy, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Croatia, Switzerland, Australia and Brazil. After this, I created and edited the first atheist charity book, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, which features 42 contributions from atheists including Richard Dawkins, Derren Brown, David Baddiel, Charlie Brooker, Ben Goldacre and many more. All royalties from the book will go to the UK HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust.

Your atheist bus advert campaign was a great example of using social media to mobilise support at a grass roots level. How much of that was planned and how much just happened?

It was about 50:50. There are a number of tools you can use to raise awareness of a campaign, and I think the most effective of these not only engage with users, but allow them to engage with each other. I used every social media site I thought would help, including Facebook and Twitter – the Atheist Bus Campaign Facebook group now has 25,500 members, and when the campaign launched it had under 5,000, so I was able to email them all and encourage them to donate. I also chose JustGiving as our donation site, as though it levies a higher commission than some sites, it allows donors to leave comments, and this element added greatly to the campaign – the Atheist Bus Campaign JustGiving site fast became the first pay-as-you-go messageboard, with people leaving donations in order to write a comment! And the campaign would never have happened if it hadn’t been for the articles on Comment is free – I can’t imagine another national newspaper allowing a journalist to start an atheist campaign on its website, and am very grateful to The Guardian for this.

As for the other 50%, the theme of the campaign added greatly to its success, because it gave atheists a public voice for the first time, so we were all very willing to donate as there was great solidarity there. We had a common purpose, and that unique element isn’t something you can replicate or engineer. You could use all the social media available to you, but if the idea behind your campaign isn’t necessary, you don’t feel strongly enough about it to communicate the need for it, or you don’t have a target market who are passionate about it, then no amount of awareness will achieve the result you’re after. I was very surprised by the tremendous response – the launch article achieved the most comments of any piece in the history of The Guardian website, while JustGiving blogged about the unprecedented rate of donations, and we smashed the £5,500 donation target by 2750%, raising £153,000. I don’t think you can ever plan for that.

It feels like you have combined using traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers etc) to generate awareness, and social media to develop a community and promote discussion, would you see this as a fair assessment?

That’s mostly true, though the majority of the awareness I created was online, via the articles – I wrote the press releases and the British Humanist Association sent them out, but you can never predict exactly what the national press are going to pick up on and what they won’t, so we were very lucky that they jumped on the story. Richard Dawkins’ involvement was also a great help in generating interest.

One of the great things about social media for me is the instant and open feedback you get from others. How have you used this to guide you?

The most controversial part of the campaign was the slogan itself – users put forward many ideas as to how it should differ from the original. I realised early on that there was no slogan which would please everybody, so as the first idea I had generated all the interest, and nothing else seemed to resonate overwhelmingly, I stuck with it. Overall, the feedback from atheists was extremely positive and helpful – several suggested using quotes from famous atheists and humanists for adverts, so I took up this idea for the London Underground tube cards.

You have over 3,300 followers on Twitter and just over 1,600 ’friends’ on Facebook, do you find it hard to keep on top of all the questions and comments you receive each day? How do you go about managing all this information?

It’s wonderful to receive so many requests, ideas and so much information daily, but it does become tricky to handle at busy times. I try to keep on top of it in quieter periods, but sometimes I let it all mount up and then reply to everyone in one long session. However, at the end of last year (during the campaign donation phase) I wasn’t at all prepared for the initial influx of communications. It really got on top of me, and I failed to reply to hundreds of emails sent at that time – it seems way too late now, which I regret, as so many people were so kind and supportive. I also have a mailing list which visitors to my website can sign up to, and there’s an RSS feed on my blog and for my Guardian pieces, so people can be alerted to what I’m up to without having to email me directly.

You have been writing a blog for a few years now, how has that developed over time and what is its purpose now?

Interesting question – I didn’t start it for any particular reason, just because I enjoyed writing my thoughts down, and it’s remained the same over the years even though hundreds of people now follow it. I update less frequently than I’d like to, but hopefully that means it’s retained its slightly haphazard character!

What have you found to be the positives and the negatives of embracing social media to the extent you have?

It’s almost all positive – the only slight drawback is the sheer volume of responses, but that’s a good thing as it’s a sign that your campaign has been successful. I also get alerted to any developments very quickly by supporters – e.g. if a new article has been published about the campaign (I do use Google Alerts, but they don’t always alert me to links that quickly).

Would you consider adding ‘sponsored tweets’ in to your Twitter feed?

Definitely not. That’s not what Twitter is about, and I imagine anyone who did that would see a sharp drop-off in followers. I’d certainly unfollow anyone who used sponsored tweets – I don’t even like blogs having Google ads.

And finally, do you have any plans for developing your campaign further?

No – it went better than I could have ever imagined, and I’ve taken it far further than I expected. I’m looking forward to doing lots of new, different and completely unrelated things in the future.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is available now, published by The Friday Project, in aid of the UK HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust.


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