Insights into Social Media Usage by Advocacy Groups in the Area of Same-Sex Marriage

At EMcG PR we recently performed a survey into Social Media usage by Advocacy Groups to investigate the social media behaviours of organisations discussing same-sex marriage. This paper looks at the potential benefits and pitfalls of the survey approach, before presenting the findings of this survey and briefly highlighting some of the positive and negative usage trends among the advocacy groups operating in this in this area.

The debate surrounding same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is a contemporary political hot-potato. Doubtless the situation for members of the LGBT community has improved significantly over the last few decades, however with members of the community have noted that;

As a movement LGBT activism lies somewhere on cusp of first and second wave, with many (though not all) legal and professional rights now under our belts in Western society. The noticeably tricky third wave, the wave of change in our unwritten social rules and opinions, can take generations to come to pass – and will not just be about attitudes in the non-LGBT population, but issues of internal racism, classism and other inequalities that are very much present in this nascently intersectionalist movement. (Parallelvision 2014)

Marriage is frequently perceived as one of the central stumbling blocks to broad attitude change in nations where same-sex marriage is still illegal. As such global campaigning for marriage equality is more vocal than ever. In Ireland the debate is particularly important as there are strong rumours suggesting a referendum on same-sex marriage could happen in the spring of 2015 (RTÉ 2014), after the current government stated its support for a referendum (RTÉ 2013). Due to this, interested parties on all sides of the debate are increasingly engaging social media in an effort to promote their views on the issue. In August 2014 EMcG PR performed a survey to investigate the social media behaviours of organisations discussing same-sex marriage. This paper looks at the potential benefits and pitfalls of the survey approach, before presenting the findings of this survey and briefly highlighting some of the positive and negative usage trends among the advocacy groups operating in this in this area. Due to the increasingly international and ‘borderless’ (Banning-Lover 2014) nature of advocacy efforts, the research drawn on in this paper includes on respondents, not only based in Ireland, but also some overseas and international groups with interests touching on LGBT issues. It is hoped that this allows for a brief insight into international trends social media practices in the discussion of same-sex marriage.

Part 1: Best Practices and Considerations for Conducting a Survey

Increasingly researchers are looking for innovative and unusual ways to gain insights about markets, competitors and their own performance. As technology and new approaches develop, there is a tendency to feel that traditional ‘old media’ derived research approaches such as surveys are outdated and insufficient. This section briefly explores the position of the survey in this new media environment and investigates how it is best to utilise them.

Surveys confer many potential benefits to the researcher giving data that can be readily; ‘quantified and included in graphs’ (Boyer and Stron 2012, 17). This is appealing for researchers as it is perceived to helping to add an impression of legitimacy, reinforcing findings as; ‘colleagues are often much happier about the ability to verify quantitative data as many people feel safe only with numbers and statistics’ (Palgrave Study Skills 2014). Surveying and quantitative research go hand-in-hand, but there are many additional practical considerations that make surveying an important research method. Charity administration agency Volunteer Now briefly summarise the key benefits of surveys in their guidelines, observing;

Advantages of using surveys:

  • Can be cost effective way of reaching a large audience
  • A way of collecting a lot of information in a short space of time
  • Allows anonymity
  • Can be carried out by post, telephone or on-line
  • Allows statistical analysis
  • Allows respondents to answer at their convenience, at a time and location where they are comfortable. (Volunteer Now 2011, 1)

As with any research method these benefits come with some potential disadvantages. The important thing is to consider whether the benefits outweigh the deficiencies, considering the nature of the research you are performing. Surveys are not suitable in some situations, or for certain kinds of data. Volunteer Now note the following potential issues;


  • No opportunity to probe for more detail on open-ended questions
  • Allows limited exploration of attitudes and views
  • May not be appropriate for certain groups
  • May get low response rate. (Volunteer Now 2011, 1)

As we can see, precise factual data is most suitable for harvesting through research surveys. The collection of subjective data is possible with the use of open ended options such as; ‘textboxes for qualitative responses’ (Wright 2006), but these answers can be problematic to interpret. In many cases there is not a strong division between quantitative and qualitative data with organisations desiring insight on both fronts, in this situation it may be beneficial for researchers to actively split their approach, perhaps by formulating separate surveys, or engaging in additional qualitative research through alternative ethnographic methods, such as semiotic analysis.

It is also worth highlighting, that despite the appeal to pure rationality that quantitative data suggests, qualitative judgements are necessary when formulating a survey and interpreting results. Due to this it is important to take a considered approach before engaging in research to ensure that the conclusions drawn are reasonable and valid as;

Often collections of statistics and number crunching are not the answer to understanding meanings, beliefs and experience, which are better understood through qualitative data. And quantitative data, it must be remembered, are also collected in accordance with certain research vehicles and underlying research questions. Even the production of numbers is guided by the kinds of questions asked of the subjects, so is essentially subjective, although it appears less so than qualitative research data. (Palgrave Study Skills 2014)

The primary benefit of carrying out a survey is that it permits researchers to draw on a pool of opinion and hopefully find consensus. The concept of ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ reflects the fact that large groups of people can often come to very accurate judgements, even though individuals within the group might have wildly differing views. James Surowiecki states that; ‘if you have, for instance, a factual question, the best way to get a consistently good answer is to ask a group.’ (Surowiecki 2004) According to Surowiecki however, the best results do depend on a group being ‘smart’. He states that a ‘smart’ crowd requires four key characteristics;

It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer. It needs a way of summarizing people’s opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks. (Surowiecki 2004)

Considering this researchers need to pay attention to sampling methods to ensure that the crowd they are drawing from is suitably diverse, decentralised, independent, and unbiased. On occasion, organisations may be analysing a group small enough that; ‘the entire population will be sufficiently small, and the researcher can include the entire population in the study. This type of research is called a census’ (StatPac 2014). However most organisations of a size that they are considering performing this kind of research are unlikely to be dealing with such a small group and some kind of selective sampling process will need to be considered for their survey.

Researchers need to try and ensure that their sample is a fair reflection of the larger population, to achieve this there are two main categories of sampling technique: probability and nonprobability sampling. The main difference between these approaches is that; ‘nonprobability sampling does not involve random selection and probability sampling does’ (Trochim 2006). This problematizes nonprobability sampling as; ‘nonprobability samples cannot depend upon the rationale of probability theory’ (Trochim 2006). This kind of nonprobability sample can either be accidental, where a sampling method unintentionally favours sampling a certain set of the target group, or purposive, whereby researchers particularly target a subgroup, by asking a particular age or interest group for example. This technique can provide rapid insight into the target group, but it is noted that it is; ‘likely to overweight subgroups in your population that are more readily accessible’ (Trochim 2006).

Probability samples by contrast, are typically generated through random processes that allow each member of the target group; ‘an equal and known chance of being selected’ (StatPac 2014). These types of samples are generally favoured by researchers as they allow them to; ‘know the odds or probability that they have represented the population well’ and means that they can calculate; ‘estimate confidence intervals for their statistics’ (Trochim 2006). This does not necessarily mean that the results gained through probability sampling will be more accurate than those gained through nonprobability methods, but by following probability methods the degree of potential error can be calculated and known, whereas with nonprobability the accuracy is completely unknown.

Even when every care has been taken to ensure a sample is a fair representation of the research group, there are additional factors that need to be considered. It is vital that researchers are conscious of their position within this group, it may not appear that the sample group is affected by any individuals dictating their answers, but the presence of a researcher ‘authority figure’ can lead to their becoming an unconscious influencer.

Many issues with this kind of researcher influence have been remedied by the migration of the survey to online media. The internet allows for greater physical distance between the researcher and respondent removing the potential for direct body language influences such as the Clever Hans phenomenon (Sebeok 1990, 46), and helps to easily target a diversity of respondents. This distance however can greatly reduce response rates in comparison to traditional surveying methods. This means that additional care must be taken to increase the usability and appeal of your survey, in addition to avoiding bias;

Taking care in how you write your questions, construct and execute your surveys, and design the metrics that will enable you to quantify your results, you increase your chances of high response rates and useful results. (Boyer and Stron 2012, 22)

From this perspective it is important to consider what you are trying to gain from your survey, and ensuring that the questions are focused and consistent in relating to this as; ‘the more specific and focused the questions, the greater the chance that the questionnaire will result in complete, honest answers and actionable data’ (Boyer and Stron 2012, 23). One way of helping to maintain focus is to utilise a consistent answer set for several questions, as is shown in the example below.

Image 1

This allows respondents to become familiar with the answer set available and guides them more rapidly to the most appropriate answer for each question. We should be wary however that this approach may lead to generalisations and a less considered approach to each individual answer.

While aiming for brevity in their questions, researchers also need to ensure they are not guiding respondent’s answers through leading questions. These can be easy to overlook, but as a guide leading questions typically employ ‘negative phrasing’, such as; “Wouldn’t you like … ?” or “Don’t you agree … ?” (Boyer and Stron 2012, 3) A similar problem that can be easily overlooked is when researchers unwittingly use ‘double-barrelled’ questions that are actually asking two questions simultaneously. This leads to problems when analysing responses as it is impossible to determine effectively which question a respondent is actually answering. An example of a potentially confusing, two-part question can be seen in the excerpt from a customer feedback questionnaire seen below (Lemon’s Bar 2014):

Image 16

While initially appearing simple, this question is problematic as any answers may refer to either the atmosphere of the bar, the appearance of the bar or both. As a rule it is suggested that; ‘if either and or or end up in your question, there’s a good chance your question is inconclusive.’ (Boyer and Stron 2012, 4)

Confusing questions can do worse than providing inconclusive data, questions that are unclear can actively put off participants from completing the rest of the survey (Boyer and Stron 2012, 5). Due to this care needs to be taken to consider the experience and preferences of respondents for any given survey. One common bias among respondents is that; ‘users are biased toward the first answers they encounter in a survey question—choosing the first answer when another might actually be more appropriate’ (Boyer and Stron 2012, 5). Thankfully the migration of surveys from print to the internet has allowed providers to offer a range of additional features, such as answers that are shuffled for each respondent, which would have been problematic to perform on printed questionnaires. The ability to have answers shuffled reflects one of the ways that the internet is increasing the power of surveys (Wright 2006), some more are shown below.

Additional Online Features:

  • Randomized answer choices for participants.
  • Filter questions (to tailor surveys to individual characteristics of survey respondents).
  • The ability to use multimedia, i.e., asking participants to respond to a video or audio clip.
  • Computer scripts that randomly send participants to one of several other web pages.
  • Some products support multiple language versions of an online survey and versions for visually impaired respondents. (Wright 2006)

The ability to shuffle answer and even question order has helped researchers to; ‘guard against bias’ (Boyer and Stron 2012, 5). The other developments listed above greatly improve the potential for interactivity within surveys and coupled with a number of developments on the data processing side mean that powerful insights can be gained far faster than has ever been previously possible.

The ability to shuffle answers can also be utilised to reduce more nuanced instances of bias. In the recent survey conducted by EMcG PR, we were conducting research to support a piece of qualitative analysis into social media language use. As part of this we wanted data on the subjective language use of the following terms: Same-sex Marriage, Gay Marriage, and Marriage Equality. Our hypothesis was that these phrases are unconscious ways of framing the whole debate on same-sex marriage, and that the usage of one term preferentially could be linked to an individual or organisation’s stance on LGBT marriage issues. There was a problem however in that during their casual use, individuals are unlikely to have consciously considered their language use in such detail, but by viewing the alternative phrases concurrently (as they were forced to during the survey), the subtle differences in their bias became apparent. We feared that this could influence the answers given, and that having viewers consistently read one term in the immediate light of another, might make one seem consistently preferable to the other. As an attempt to remedy this, we opted to have the answers shuffled for each respondent. Two examples of the same question viewed at different times can be seen below:

Image 2Whilst in this situation shuffling the answers was the most viable way of reducing any consistent bias found in viewing one response in light of another. The technique hopefully led to any bias being evened out across the participant base, and to it having a negligible effect on the final results. It is not a perfect solution, but hopefully helps to illustrate the ways in which modern survey techniques can be utilised to help give fairer and more useful insight.

In addition to the increased potential for data collection, many online survey services also allow for real time data processing and analysis. The images below show the development of some intermediary results gathered as part of the above mentioned survey for EMcG PR.

Image 3

A variety charts and graphs can be easily selected to visually display data, and raw data is displayed in tables such as the one below.

Image 4

These are especially useful when piloting a survey, as they help researchers see an instant snapshot of responses, and can highlight any problematic questions or areas that would benefit from some adjustment. Additionally, when releasing finalised questionnaires, graphs illustrating response rates can indicate to researchers when their survey might need reposting, or when they have saturated the target group and are unlikely to gain any further responses. An example response rate graph is shown below.

Image 5

As we can see, in online environments, surveys are increasingly powerful research tools. Despite their ease by which researchers can formulate and distribute a survey however, there is a need to plan carefully before engaging in this kind of research. The primary considerations for any potential users must be; the suitability of surveys to the kind of research they are undertaking, ensuring their questions are focused and clear, avoiding the influence of bias and retaining respondent interest. Careful usage may not fully alleviate the potential disadvantages related to; sampling frames, response rates, participant deception, and access to populations’ (Wright 2006), even if online options appear to relieve some of these problems. However if planned effectively, a survey is a low cost and easy way of gathering high quality data from a wide variety of respondents and should remain at the core of any well executed quantitative research projects.

In the next section we will look in more detail at the data from the EMcG PR survey, and see what trends among advocacy groups on social media the survey suggests.

Part 2: Preliminary Analysis of the Results of the Recent EMcG PR Survey

Problems in Survey Implementation:

Unfortunately surveys can be prone to a number of unforeseen issues that may confuse the final data, and prevent the drawing of strong conclusions. The number of advocacy groups around the area of marriage equality to which we had direct access was limited, so in the interests of increasing the sample size, groups were encouraged to share the survey with other relevant organisations and individuals, this has greatly helped to expand the pool of responses, but has the side effect that a number of the responses are of unknown or unclear provenance. Whilst this is not a problem for the majority of questions, it prevents us from drawing any strong trends for advocacy groups on either side of the debate which would have been of interest for some of the questions. In addition to this, a brief look at the known respondents, who were simultaneously the ones most likely to have shared the survey, shows a bias toward advocacy groups and activists campaigning in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage. It is impossible to prove the existence of any bias in the respondent base due to the number of unfamiliar respondents, however it seems fair to assume that there is probably a skew in our results towards an increased representation of the practices of groups and individuals in favour of same sex marriage. All results gained from this survey need to be considered within this framework.

Survey Results and Findings:

As mentioned above the survey started from a basis of non-random targeted sampling, focusing on a number of advocacy and interest groups, from this basis a process of convenience sampling was engaged in to expand the sample group to a final 111 respondents. Whilst acknowledging the potential problems with this approach, the first question in the survey asking the identity of respondents revealed a diverse and international group of prominent advocacy groups and individuals including; Acting Out, LGBT Noise, Dublin Unitarian Church, Cork Pride, the Abortion Rights Campaign, the European Institute of Communications, Irish Education Partners, OpenFM, Mallow LGBT, the Dublin Council of Trade Unions, Dundalk Outcomers, Viva España,  Dublin Council of Trade Unions, GLEN (Gay + Lesbian Equality Network), G-Force, the Irish Refugee Council, the Gay Health Network, DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology), and the Filipino Community Network, among many others.

The first insight into the social media behaviour of these groups is gained in an investigation into which social platforms they most frequently use. The results are shown below.

Image 6

According to eBizMBA, the most popular social networks for the period of the study (August 2014) were:

1 – Facebook

2 – Twitter

3 – Linkedin

4 – Pinterest

5 – Google Plus+

6 – Tumblr

7 – Instagram

8 – VK

9 – Flickr

10 – Vine

(eBizMBA 2014)

With a couple of notable exceptions this data correlates pretty strongly with the usage patterns found amongst advocacy groups. One notable exception is the absence of Youtube, however it is quite possible that eBizMBA do not classify Youtube as a social media platform, as it is often used to host videos that are then shared elsewhere. Regardless, of this the data from survey reflects the importance of Youtube to advocacy groups, as highlighted by its use in high profile campaigns such as the Kony 2012 video (Basulto 2012). The other interesting point is the high placement of Pinterest in the eBizMBA data in comparison to its placement in the EMcG PR survey. This suggests that Pinterest is one platform where advocacy groups should perhaps consider focusing more of their attention.

Image 7

The third question in the survey revealed showed an unusual disparity in usage trends. It seems reasonable to expect posting rates on social media to drop evenly from the most popular frequency to the least, however as we can see here that is not the case. Over 40% of advocacy groups post several times daily, but then there is a large drop off, with the second most popular choice being groups who post a few times weekly. This suggests that there is a divide between groups who pursue social media as a primary tactic, while others use it as a secondary or supporting tactic in their campaigns. Beyond this we have those who use social media very casually or occasionally, the less than 20% who post less than a few times a month, these groups are unlikely to generate much active engagement through social media.

Image 8 

The findings from the forth question are fairly clear, the overwhelming majority of activists and advocacy groups have not linked their social media accounts. This means that they are not utilising social media as efficiently as they could be, and that potentially their different accounts might not be exhibiting a desired unity of voice. Linking accounts could be of particular benefit to groups who do not post often, helping them to maximise the reach of their posts, and giving them more time to proactively engage with followers.

Image 9

The notion of family is readily linked to the concept of marriage, and as George Lakoff suggests; ‘conservative and progressive politics are organised around two very different models of married life: a strict father family and a nurturing parent family’ (Lakoff 2004, 47). In short, there is political ground to be gained by normalising a view of the family that is inclusive of an advocacy group’s aims and core beliefs. In spite of this, the survey found that the notion of family is not being frequently utilised in the discussion of same sex marriage. This is an approach that advocacy groups may want to consider in their future posting strategies.

Image 10

The sixth question dealt with the notion of influential users on social media platforms. Some advocacy campaigns, such as the Kony 2012 movement, have successfully targeted popular social media users such as celebrities in order to increase the reach of their campaign (Basulto 2012). As we can see, this is also a popular tactic among many of the activists and advocacy groups in the area of same-sex marriage, however in practice, a few high profile cases aside; it can be difficult for advocacy groups to approach influential users successfully.

Image 11

Similarly to approaching influential users, the use of visual content has been shown to increase the spread and engagement of posts on social media. Studies carried out by Twitter have shown that the inclusion of photo and video content increases the chances of a post being retweeted by 35% and 25% respectively (Lee 2014). Due to this it is no surprise that visual content marks a key part of the strategies of so many advocacy groups and activists, with over 70% of respondents including visual content in at least half of their posts.

Image 12 

This questions looks at the ways that advocacy groups may be framing the debate on same-sex marriage. This graph shows weighted scores for each phrase, with the longer bars showing a phrase is more popular than the shorter bars. As mentioned above, the potential bias in the respondent group means that it is hard to compare conservative and progressive approaches adequately. We can at least see that while marriage equality was the preferred phrase, there is no strong consensus among the group. In some ways this lack of consensus is reflective of the value of these phrases, as none of them seem particularly unusual or favoured, they can each be used to subtly introduce bias into a discussion. A more interesting point emerges when we look in more detail at the percentage breakdowns for each phrase, shown below.

Image 13

Looking at these percentages we can see that there was a clear preference at each level. However, what is surprising to note is the closeness between the second and third choices, with there being just one vote between them on two occasions. This suggests that while users are implicitly aware of the benefit of using a frame that matches their cause, they largely disregard the potential negatives of using one that benefits their opponent. One possible exception to this is the phrase marriage equality, which, while proving the most popular first choice, was abstained from by 26 respondents (overall this question garnered the least response of all those in the questionnaire, with 23 respondents skipping the question all together). This shows that there is some ad-hoc understanding of framing within the members of the advocacy community, but that it is certainly not being utilised to its full potential and that many activists could work to hone a more considered approach to language use in the social media posts.

Image 14

Question nine looks at the use of hashtags among advocacy groups. As we can see here hashtags are used fairly frequently by advocacy groups, with the majority making some use of them. The concern however is the fifth of activists who make no use of hashtags at all. Whilst a minority, this is surprising as, without the use of hashtags it is difficult for an advocacy group to enter into the discourse surrounding a subject. Efforts that are not using hashtags are likely to be quite ineffectual and isolated, as they are not making use of the unique ability of hashtags to collate social media content.

Image 15

This data looks at the frequency of reblogs, retweets and reposts by advocacy organisations and activists. The concern here is that, given the limited understanding of framing evident in the analysis above, advocacy organisations may be reposting information unhelpful to their cause, as George Lakoff states, advocacy groups need to remember; ‘‘when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want’ (Lakoff 2004, 3). The high frequency of retweets and reposts means that there is the potential for material like this to spread amongst allied advocacy groups, so they need to be careful in checking the material that they choose to repost, to ensure it really fits their cause.


Overall here we can see that social networks form a core part of the approach for the majority of the groups questioned. In general the active groups display some knowledge of effective social media strategies, such as the targeting of influential users, and the inclusion of visual media, however there are noticeable gaps in their knowledge base which limit the effectiveness of their approach, and could lead to actively unhelpful social media practices. Groups would be advised to take a more considered approach to social media use, as it is an increasingly powerful tool that can provide substantial campaign gains, but can also undermine a cause is dealt with in too casual a manner. This brief paper is only a quick overview of the findings of the survey by EMcG PR, however it should provide some actionable pointers for advocacy groups and activists with an interest in the debate on same-sex marriage.



Banning-Lover, Rachel 2014. ‘How to Campaign Online: 15 Dos and Don’ts’ Online: Internet Accessed 19th of August 2014

Basulto, Dominic 2012. ‘Clooney, Kony, Soldier, Spy: Celebrity Activism goes High-tech’ Online: Internet  Accessed 5th of August 2014

Boyer, Susan and Mark Stron 2012. ‘Best Practices for Improving Survey Participation’ Online: Internet Accessed 4th of August 2014

Ebizbma 2014. ‘Top 15 Most Popular Social Networking Sites’ Online: Internet Accessed 18th of August 2014

Lakoff, George 2004. Don’t think of an Elephant! – Know your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing

Lee, Jessica 2014. ‘Twitter Reveals Which Tweets Get the Most Engagement’ Online: Internet Accessed 28th July 2014

Lemon’s Bar 2014. ‘Customer Feedback Questionnaire’ Online: Internet Accessed 11th of August 2014

Palgrave Study Skills 2014. ‘Choosing Appropriate Research Methodologies’ Online: Internet Accessed 8th of August 2014

Parallelvision 2014. ‘Its Not Just What He Said, its How She Said it’ Online: Internet Accessed 15th of August 2014

RTÉ 2014. ‘Same-sex Marriage Referendum in 2015’ Online: Internet Accessed 18th of August 2014

Sebeok, Thomas A. 1990. ‘Zoosemiotics: At the Intersection of Nature and Culture’ in Essays in Zoosemiotics. Toronto: TorontoUniversity Press

StatPac 2014. ‘Survey Sampling Methods’ Online: Internet Accessed 6th of August 2014

Surowiecki, James 2004. ‘Q & A with James Surowiecki’ Online: Internet Accessed 8th of August 2014

Trochim, William M. K. 2006. ‘Nonprobability Sampling’ Online: Internet Accessed 8th of August 2014

Volunteer Now 2011. ‘Guidelines for Carrying out a Survey’ Online: Internet Accessed 6th of August 2014

Wright, Kevin B. 2006. ‘Researching Internet-Based Populations: Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Survey Research, Online Questionnaire Authoring Software Packages, and Web Survey Services’ in Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. Volume 10. Issue 3. Online: Internet Accessed 11th of August 2014

Image Sources:

EMcG PR 2014. ‘How Do You or Your Advocacy Group use Social Media (in the area of LGBT issues)’ Online: Internet Accessed 8th of August 2014

Lemon’s Bar 2014. ‘Customer Feedback Questionnaire’ Online: Internet Accessed 11th of August 2014


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>