Living in South Africa, you cannot deny having an opinion on one of the most generation-defying moments and news that continues to make headlines. This moment is the wave of student protests driven around the theme of the need to decrease or eliminate university fees to allow maximum access to higher education. As we know, the youth face many gruelling realities and among the most desperate is the scourge of unemployment.
With many of us having different opinions on how to address the bigger issue of education accessibility, something else was triggered in my mind during all the unrest: Let’s look at Fees Must Fall as if it were a marketing and communication brief!
How would we create an impactful campaign to raise enough awareness of the socio-economic issues facing South Africa’s youth?
With a limited to zero budget, what was needed was an idea that could live in the digital space and on the ground, with key influencers propelling the conversation for maximum earned exposure. The Council of South African Students (Cosas), with the lead drivers of change, the Wits SRC, developed an experiential and social media campaign, #FeesMustFall.
Most importantly, the campaign needed to create awareness of the pressured economic environment surrounding education. The campaign needed to encourage active conversation and engagement on political issues from a youth perspective. With the key audience of this campaign being mainly the youth, the broader target market of this campaign and its message could be seen to be directed at multiple markets: formal university institutions and their management, the key government members – including President Jacob Zuma and the higher education ministry, and its head, Minister Blade Nzimande – as well as the broader South African population.
For the campaign to have the desired effect the context of communication needed to be delivered in a social and colloquial tone. The key in making the campaign a true success was on the one hand in understanding the critical issues that needed to be addressed, and on the other it had to be delivered in a such a way as to become youth lexicon, resulting in broad inclusiveness. Everyone could get involved.
The insight and strategy
For me the insight of this campaign sat in the fact that South Africans are still living in a state of false freedom, as economic non-transformation still chains many individuals, resulting in a disgruntled youth. The idea of free education is very much up for debate, but as Tim Cohen, the editor of South Africa’s Financial Mail points out, “Free, is almost always at someone’s expense”.
That’s all contentious, and made this campaign very dynamic and interesting for anyone looking from the outside in. But the students wanted one simple thing, simply to make education accessible. Accessibility which can be identified as the campaign proposition has its theme substantiated through the emotional context of freedom, transformation and equality.
Plus there was the knowledge that they only have one shout to launch into the market and gain traction quick enough to escalate the campaign to reach ultimately South Africa’s government.
So this strategy arose:
- Launch into the market with proposed message: zero percentage increase on university fees.
- Leverage the right to education as stipulated by the Constitution and some of the ruling party, ANC’s policies.
- Get the most influential university Student Representative Council to champion the initiative directing key messages at the institution’s vice chancellor.
- Critical to the elevated impact of the campaign was the timing of its execution, which was just preceding final year examination. This period ensured that experiential campaign would disrupt normal institution activities enough to get most number of students involved in the cause, in the hope of quick resolution to allow for normal schooling to resume.
With the many Wits University students in solidarity after only a couple of days of the campaign’s launch, and them being influential individuals within their broader social spaces, the message spread through different platforms to reach its tipping point. Now all other universities would be able to engage in the conversation and join in the viral experiential campaign.
The disruption tactics employed proved critical in the overall campaign as this received widespread media coverage, meaning that the message, proposition as well as cause for concern was being delivered to both TV and radio audiences – as news inserts. This further spread the conversation organically to a level of national importance, driving even more earned exposure across different platforms but with its home being on social media.
The timing of how all the elements of the campaign were not random either. Over the two week period the campaign managed to gain enough traction from launch to spreading nationally to all universities campus (with one key message), eventually culminating in a synchronised march to South Africa’s Union Buildings, and an address by Jacob Zuma himself (albeit on TV)!
The key and most notable elements of the campaign, was the social media presence of the hashtag #FeesMustFall on Twitter. The hashtag dominated trending conversation, with the culmination being the Hashtag #NationalShutdown.
Prominent media figures, musicians, and political youth activists from all parties had by now joined the conversation as well as all the activity on the ground. This inevitably increased campaign relevancy, impact and reach exposed it to a global audience.
Over and above the dominant Twitter presence, the visual aspects of the campaign were captured and broadcast on Instagram. As we know Instagram has been a growing part of the youth, who they are, and how they communicate and express themselves. Instagram brought the campaign to life with some of the users posting vivid images of how the #FeesMustFall campaign unfolded from day one.
On Instagram the campaign generated more than 50 000 posts.
The result of this campaign was outstanding with over 1.2m tweets generated and 3.5 billion impressions being the result of #FeesMustFall. The value of the campaign with the inclusion of radio and TV mentions was well over R20 million over just a two week period!
What is most fascinating is the integration of all the elements from a social media perspective and how there was very little disconnect from developments on the ground regarding the protesting / experiential. #FeesMustFall reached and showed that the illusive Holy Grail that most youth brands spend millions trying to achieve is doable.
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