Case study in social media for social justice: Exhale’s “16 & Loved” campaign

Case study in social media for social justice: Exhale’s “16 & Loved” campaign

I had a perfect storm of a project recently, and decided to write it up as a case study in how to manage a short-term social media campaign. I’ll discuss tools, tactics and metrics — hope you find it useful!

At the beginning of December, Aspen Baker, the executive director of Exhale, wrote me an email. “I’m looking for a social media coordinator and web person for a short-term project,” she said. “Interested?” I’ve always been a fan of Aspen’s work at Exhale — they’re a nonprofit organization which provides the first and only nonjudgmental national, multilingual after-abortion talkline. One of the things I love most about Exhale, which I learned largely through their campaign, is their advocacy of “pro-voice” in dealing with abortion. Every woman’s voice deserves to be heard; women (in numerous political contexts) don’t need to be talked at, shamed, have numbers and percentages thrown at them as much as they need to be listened to, and told that they are loved.

The project Aspen had in mind was exciting from the outset–large with names but fraught with challenges. It turns out that MTV approached them when they decided to do a special on abortion for their program “16 & Pregnant.” Now, if you’re not familiar, MTV has two reality shows about teen pregnancy running; “16 & Pregnant” is one of them, and the other is “Teen Mom.” They’ve both been running for two seasons, and up until this special, neither series showed any teen having an abortion. This is noteworthy because 37% of all teen pregnancies do end in abortion; many have criticized MTV for not showing a large portion of the teen pregnancy experience.

MTV came to Exhale originally looking for women who would be willing to go on the show and talk about their experience having an abortion. Exhale ultimately got the opportunity to help shape how the show was put together, and used this opportunity to do some pro-voice educating with the production team. They wanted to show that it was possible to have an honest, thoughtful, nuanced conversation about abortion that wouldn’t be polarizing and inflammatory. And, most importantly, they wanted MTV’s young viewers who have had abortions to personally relate to the stories shared on the special.

Aspen then wanted to create a social media campaign and website to accompany the airing of the special. It was slated to air at 11:30pm on Dec 28th, just a few days after Christmas, and there would be no commercial interruptions, and no promotions announcing that the show would be on. So, despite the bonus of having a nationwide audience, we ran the risk of no one hearing about it. The other challenge was that we weren’t allowed to announce the show ourselves until MTV was ready, which likely (given their desire to fly this under the radar) wasn’t going to be until right before the show.


I quickly enlisted the help of Sonal Bains, with whom I work often: we split client work quite nicely, with me on the strategic development and technology end of things, and Sonal on the implementation and media relation end of things. Both of us come from strong offline organizing backgrounds, and this informs our style of work and collaboration. (Plus, Sonal’s hilarious.) The takeaway here is that as you assess your campaign, it’s helpful to write down what your strong points are, what you bring to the table. I know that I don’t have the relationships with bloggers and journalists that Sonal does, for example. If you’re working within an organization, get your key players together and write down concrete skills and time availability as part of your campaign brainstorming. On Exhale’s side, their Director of Programs, Jovida Ross, played a critical role in the implementation of the campaign and was a great partner for Sonal and I. We had a small yet mighty team of high-functioning, excellent communicators.

Aspen’s campaign idea was to create a digital safe space where the women who decided to tell their stories on the show–and by extension, all women who’d had abortions–would feel loved and supported. Central to this space would be a website where anyone could submit a message of love or support. Any political messages (from any corner of the debate) would not be accepted; Aspen’s vision was a zone free of typical advocacy posturing, and wanted it only to focus on the women. Why? In Exhale’s extensive counseling experience, they have found that political rhetoric can shut down women seeking emotional support after abortion. This would be a space where we wouldn’t allow that to happen.

It was important to me to give the campaign a catchy name that had emotional resonance. I rejected our original names that were things like “Your story matters” and “You are loved.” They were all vague, emotionally absent, and just didn’t hit on the enormity of what we were trying to pull off. I asked our group to think of names that were plays on the title of the show, allowing us to capitalize on the already-popular brand; it was Aspen that landed “16 & Loved.”


  • Set up metrics and analytics to track how the campaign performs
  • Build a quick ‘n’ dirty website to capture submissions of love
  • Rename the Twitter profile from “xhaleisprovoice” to “ExhaleProVoice” and use the hashtag #16andloved to capture the conversations about the campaign
  • Build the Facebook Page for Exhale as an organization, and use it to share the love, and updates about the campaign.
  • Involved the reproductive justice blogging community by organizing a private, embargoed call before the special airs, and inviting people to participate in a live blog during the show.


I’m a big fan of Rowfeeder for my social media tracking needs. I work with individuals and small organizations, so we pretty much can’t afford tools like Radian6, which is one of the more popular services in the non-profit sphere. For $35/month, Rowfeeder lets us track up to 3 terms on both Twitter and Facebook. On top of providing interesting metrics reports that you can tweak and do fun things with in Excel (if you’re that kind of nerd; not that I know anything about that), it also dumps all the mentions/posts it finds into a Google doc for you, so that you have the raw data.

We chose to have it track #16andloved, ExhaleProVoice and xhaleprovoice (in case there were tons of people using the old Twitter handle). In retrospect, I should have chosen 16andloved without the hash sign; that would have also captured mentions of the website where neither the hashtag nor Twitter handle were used.


We purchased and set up hosting with (their “One” plan for $10.95/month). We installed WordPress, and chose the Therapy theme from WooThemes for $75. I recreated the “16 & Pregnant” logo to read “16 & Loved” by hand using my Wacom Intuos drawing tablet.

For the submissions and posting, we used a few WordPress plugins. The submission form was created by Contact Form 7, and we had to sent to a special email address that we hooked up to Postie. Postie turned the submission emails into draft blog posts, and we checked regularly and approved/discarded the posts. We also used an extension for Contact Form 7 that captured the submissions and added all the info to a table in the database that could be exported. We also used the Really Simple CAPTCHA to keep out spam/bot submissions.

I installed the WP Supercache plugin in case the site got really popular and crashed (it did once). For social sharing, we used the Facebook Likes It plugin (this seems to have been abandoned; I can’t find its install page anymore), and the WP Tweet button plugin.


Before we got word we could talk about the special, we started working on building the community engagement by joining existing abortion conversations, following and engaging with influential folks that we identified, and also posting a few teasers about having Exciting News! to share very soon.

Once we got the go ahead, we launched the website and started soliciting submissions. We received several dozen on the first day, and tweeted some of our favorites. We continued to solicit, post favorites, retweet others’ Twitter posts, and respond to inquiries. Because of the short time period for the campaign, we didn’t do as much curating as I normally advocate for. That’s not to say that we used Twitter as a broadcast tool (a big no-no!); we still maintained a very conversational focus. It’s just that for this case, most of the focus was on “16 & Loved.”

We also used Twitter to promote airing of the show, watching the live blog we were putting together, and to continue to curate responses.


Prior to this campaign, Exhale had a Page that they didn’t use, but they did have a Cause with ~1,000 members. My experiences with Causes haven’t been overly fantastic; I feel like it takes a lot of time and resource investment to get minimal material return. Especially for the purposes of our campaign (promoting submissions to the site, and getting the word out about the show), I feel like a Page would serve our purposes much better. The biggest thing is that status updates and links from Pages are more likely to appear in a fan’s news feed, and that was absolutely critical for us.

I asked 25 friends quick to Like it before we even did that much with it so that we could land a username, making it easier to share the Page with the wider world. We chose We then started posting periodic updates to the Cause, asking people to Like the page so that they could stay in touch with Exhale and its Very Exciting News! that was coming.

After that, we used a similar posting strategy as to what we had going on at Twitter.


Sonal got to work right away on putting together a conference call for the blogging and journalist communities. She contacted about 10-12 people who write about abortion issues and women’s rights on a larger scale. The Friday before we launched, we hosted the call just using We scheduled a short talk with Aspen, a few words from a spokesperson who had had an abortion. We stressed that the information we were sharing was embargoed, and we would let them know as soon as we could when they could share with their communities. We had a few key asks: 1. to see who wanted to participate in our live blog, 2. to see who was willing to write about the show and our campaign, and 3. to stress the importance of the pro-voice angle of our movement, and ask that they respect that as much as possible. We then opened it up to Q&A, and altogether, we spent about an hour on the phone together.

Five or six of the bloggers on the call volunteered to participate in the live blog the night that the show aired. In addition, the Women’s Media Center offered to create a “watch-in,” and they shared it with their community. How that worked: They created a Facebook event in which people were invited to watch the show (in their own homes) and voice their opinions about it.

For the liveblog, we used CoverItLive. They make it very easy to get a group of approved panelists, as they’re called, to come together and chat live. You can embed the CoverItLive tool in any website very easily, and we encouraged our panelists to do so, widening our reach. I monitored the comments from the community and approved appropriate messages as the show aired. Sonal worked on monitoring the new submissions to the website. After the special was over, people could also re-read the liveblog.

RESULTS! (That’s what you’ve been waiting for, right?)

The straight-up numbers*…

  • Website: ~9,000 visits, with most of those happening between Dec. 22nd and Dec. 30th. Users spent an average of 2:26 minutes on the site, and visited 2.1 pages while they stayed. 200+ submissions.
  • Twitter: Followers increased from 235 to 465; 548 mentions of @ExhaleProVoice (from 12/20/10, that’s ~27/day); 1563 mentions of #16andloved (from 12/20/10, that’s ~78/day)
  • Facebook: Fans went from under 25 to 616; 617 likes of posts with 1,152 active users; Dec. 29th was the most popular day for likes and comments; 86% female fans; 62% are 18-34
  • Liveblog:  During the show, we maxed at ~120 viewers at once, with a total of 422 viewers. 175 panelist comments were published; 234 reader comments were sent (98 were published). Since then, the live blog has been replayed over 900 times.
  • Media: About 25 blog posts and articles, including feminist strongholds of Feministing, Feministe, Jezebel; independent media such as,, and Care2; mainstream media such as ABCNews, NY Post, Washington Post. Two weeks later, an article on the campaign appeared in the NY Times.

Were these good numbers? All told, yes! We were very happy with them. Moreover, we were even more thrilled with our qualitative metrics, which for me are the real measure of a social media campaign: The overwhelming messages of love and support often left us emotional and speechless. We received very few negative submissions (less than 5), and very few negative comments online. (There was a minor campaign by a conservative blogger, but it never caught traction.) All around, a huge, huge set of cultural wins for the pro-voice movement.

* Exhale agreed to let me publish these numbers. Normally, all quantitative and qualitative metrics are kept private as part of my contracts.