Essence Responds to Zimmerman Verdict with #HeIsNotASuspect Campaign

The Zimmerman trial was a shot heard around the world. And while the verdict has spawned extensive controversy both in the digital and physical worlds, Time Inc. magazine Essence, whose readers are African American women, has made its audience’s standpoint clear by reacting with the #HeIsNotASuspect social media campaign.

The campaign asks people to upload pictures of young African American men they love to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter along with the hashtag #HeIsNotASuspect and a description. Dawnie Walton, deputy managing editor of Essence, says the brand launched the “anti-stereotyping” campaign after seeing their social audience, particularly African American mothers, turn to Twitter to express their “despair” over the verdict and fear that their sons could face a fate similar to Trayvon Martin’s. Walton also notes that mothers with children who are under 18 year old make up 35% of Essence’s reader demographic.

“We wanted to do something that addressed and celebrated our boys instead of accepting this notion that they’re frightening or seen as suspicious. We wanted to counter that,” Walton says.

Walton says Essence decided to use social media to spread the campaign’s message to both readers and non-readers who may not fit the publication’s target demographic. She adds that Essence has always had an activist background and that social media has become a primary source for social activism.

And while she says the campaign strives to “engender some positive thinking about young African American men,” Essence also aims to generate at least 20,000 #HeIsNotASuspect posts by August 28, 2013—the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, according to the brand’s website. So far, the campaign has generated approximately 2,000 posts on Instagram and close to 2,500 posts on Twitter. Walton adds that the campaign’s original call-out post generated approximately 4,000 likes and close to 1,200 shares; however, she says Facebook’s recent introduction of hashtags has made analyzing the campaign’s success via Facebook more challenging.

Walton says that the campaign has provided a space for “catharsis” for many of its audience members and has given them a chance for their voices to be heard. “It reinforces that we are dedicated to our reader, her concerns, her needs, and that we are serving her by trying to give her solutions,” she says.

But this campaign is not the first time Essence has shaped its campaign or content based on its audience. For example, Walton says that Essence frequently features “street style” moments, which highlight a reader’s outfit on the brand’s website.

“We engage with our social audience all the time,” Walton says. “Our readers really relate and are deeply engaged with the brand, and we reflect them back on our site fairly often.”

And encouraging audience participation is something Walton says all brands can learn from.

“Whatever way you can connect with your audience on a very deep and personal level and get them excited to spread a message—that’s something [brands] can maybe learn from this,” she says. “It’s taking a story or something from the magazine and extending that message in a way that feels natural and simple for the reader to participate in and feel like they’re doing something important.”

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