‘Community Influencer’ Ronnika (R.J.) Williams Works Out a Formula of Engagement with Her Facebook Audience

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.— Sometimes you can serve up a serious message with a side order of humor. If you do it right, it makes for easier digestion.

Ronnika (R.J.) Williams has been doing just that for months on Facebook. The 36-year-old is one of the community influencers who in late March began posting specially crafted memes, or simple public health messages, to residents of the 49022 ZIP code to help keep them safe from the coronavirus. 

The community influencers were chosen to reach residents of minority communities who have little communication with the local hospital system’s and county health department’s mass communications methods. See: “How to Build Trust in a Pandemic” 

At the heart of 49022 are Benton Harbor and Benton Township, primarily African-American municipalities, but with a significant Hispanic community, too. These influencers’ work is continuing indefinitely as they help residents with issues of pressing community importance such as mental health problems, obesity and filling out census forms.

At the beginning of her meme-posting journey, Williams would serve up a meme — a simple, one-page affair, usually with one or more illustrations — and would then follow with a personal message.

‘COVID Meal of the Day’

“I would post a meme, and then I would post what I’m doing for the day,” Williams said. “Like, ‘I’m in the house.’ It may be a recipe or a meal or something like that. So, people were engaging: ‘Oh, OK, well, if that’s what you’re doing, well, let me get that recipe.’”

The approach was: “‘I’m in the house with you guys, what are you doin’?’, and still giving them facts,’” Williams said. “I would actually post the picture of my plate and then I would just say, ‘COVID meal of the day.’”

Williams had a lot of fun, even as she was sending out serious messages. And, as the possessor of a huge nail polish collection, she vowed to keep up the combination of the serious and the light. “Now I need to incorporate my nail polish a little bit more.”

‘Throwback Thursdays,’ Too

When she tired of luring people with her cooking, Williams turned to Facebook’s “Throwback Thursdays.” Old photos were also alluring for her audience. It helped that her family was cleaning out their mother’s house, so Williams posted some of the pictures left by her much-older siblings.

Sometimes, in sending out a serious coronavirus meme, she would take pictures she had found “and send them to the actual people. And I’d do a lot of ‘Guess Who?’ too,” she said.

“Most people know me as an archivist, so I was going through a lot of my Dad’s stuff. ‘Hey, I’m about to go through these pictures’” is the kind of message she might post. Her Facebook audience would react with posts such as: “Oh, my gosh, I guess I could do that too: clean up and find photos.” Williams said this approach offered practical help, “kind of giving them ideas of what to do in the house” during the coronavirus lockdown.

Ronnika Williams Facebook Book Page

‘My Sweet Spot’

Williams is at the center of community life in Benton Harbor. She works at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor’s Teen Center. She is locally known for a continuing documentary series on grief, “The Final 48,” which she started in November 2014. The title refers to the last two days of life, which she has found is the time people who are grieving remember most of a loved one’s dying. 

She began this series of stories because her own family didn’t talk about grief, and she said grief is largely avoided as a topic in the Black community.

Williams was therefore a ready-made community influencer when leaders of the 49022 communications effort were brainstorming possible names.

Regarding posting the coronavirus memes, she said: “I actually tried to gauge when, I would say, my tribe is most active, and for a lot of people that follow me, they work the 9-to-5.” She figured they might be active on Facebook and other social media before 9 a.m. or immediately before 10 a.m., around lunchtime, and possibly from 12 to 2 p.m.

“And then, for sure, it seems like that 7 o’clock (p.m.), 8 o’clock hour is my sweet spot, when the most engagement” happens.

Measuring Her Impact

Williams began her coronavirus memes and other influencer posts by using Facebook’s News Feed. But while she could see “likes” and other reactions on her wall, she could not gauge the number of people viewing a post.

So, she turned to Facebook’s Your Story feature. A person posting a story can see how many people have viewed it. Each story only lasts for 24 hours, unless they are highlighted, Williams said. 

“So, we just make sure that every day is a new one, so constantly every day you’re seeing a new meme or post (on) the coronavirus, grief, all of that.” 

Concerned for Her Community

Williams was interviewed about four months after her influencer work began. On her mind was a sense that recently “we were losing engagement with our teens. So, we were just trying to think of different challenges for them, to engage them. Where’s their mental state? Are they OK? What are they doing in the fall?”

Williams’ use of the word “we” seemed to move fluidly as a collective pronoun standing for influencers, or the Teen Center, or even a broader coalition. Asked about “we,” she said, “I’m focused on community.” She noted, for example, that the Boys & Girls Clubs are “inside of a Black community,” and part of the same fabric.

Williams and others had been working to educate teenagers about the upcoming early August primary election in Michigan and importance of voting, because the teens appeared uninformed about some of the voting basics. Yet she did note that the teens have seemed to be getting the messages about coronavirus, because “every single one of them” she encounters has on a face mask — “every one of them!” But sometimes the adults Williams sees are not wearing masks.  

Teens Make Videos

Williams mentioned a couple recent community efforts that involved much collaboration from different organizations, drawing significantly from fellow community influencers. Those influencers work for the county health department, Benton Harbor Area Schools system, and a local jobs-preparation agency. 

One effort was a video competition among 2020 southwest Michigan high school graduates. They were asked to create a video of themselves in which they talked about how COVID-19 and/or the Black Lives Matter movement had affected their lives, or how they expected they would affect their lives in the future. An influencer and an anonymous donor donated cash prizes for the first three places. A coordinator of the 49022 effort, who is on the staff of Spectrum Health Lakeland, the local hospital system, worked with Williams to coordinate the video competition.

Contest Winners and Video Links:

1st Place: Jenyse McGinnis     2nd Place: Tekeidra Masters    3rd Place (Tie): Eric Johnson  (not available this time)    3rd Place (Tie): Serenity Burton

The second effort, spearheaded by the county health department, involved passing out health surveys in front of stores. Those surveys asked a few questions, including about mental health and obesity.

Influencers Team is a Spark

Williams senses there’s a team feeling among the influencers and the community influencers approach has helped promote community collaboration.

“Oh, yeah, we’re finding ways to collaborate like none others, so it’s been great.

“I don’t think I’ve ever collaborated this much in the past. It’s just, really, we know our goal, and we’re charging towards it: ‘What’s your gift, what’s your gift, what’s your strength?’” 

Read More:  “How to Build Trust in a Pandemic”