Lessons From the SOPA/PIPA Fight

Wikipedia screenshot by Flickr user LoveNMoreLove.The Congressional fight over the SOPA and PIPA bills wasn’t a fight about whether intellectual property should be protected – virtually everyone agrees on this – but about how best to accomplish it. In fact, the most visible voices in the fight over SOPA/PIPA, on both sides, were people and industries with livelihoods based on creating or protecting intellectual property. But the substantive positions between proponents and opponents, and the implications of the legislation, were considerable nonetheless.

For nonprofits, the implications were substantial even if they weren’t generally highlighted. Making service providers fully liable for copyright violations occurring anywhere on their networks would almost certainly lead them – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social engagement platforms among them – to aggressively censor information before it is ever posted, erring on the side of expansive and overreaching prohibitions rather than risk liability. And it gives repressive governments, well-heeled corporations, and others a substantially enhanced ability quickly to shut down web sites and entire domains, a power easily applied to silence online speech they dislike for whatever reason. For nonprofits involved in supporting democracy or human rights movements around the world, these provisions were especially troubling. Ethan Zuckerman and Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab have a good blog post (“MIT Media Lab Opposes SOPA, PIPA“) explaining some of this.

But the SOPA/PIPA fight was important for nonprofits in another way, as well: a technical, largely unreported, non-issue exploded into the popular consciousness in a matter of months, fundamentally changing the debate in Washington, D.C. In an incredibly short period of time, SOPA/PIPA opponents repeatedly made national and local press (local television stations were covering this!), compiled petitions signed by millions nationwide (Google says seven million signed its petition, and Fight for the Future reports ten million on another one), and produced a day-long Wikipedia blackout. I suspect there are a lot of lessons non-profit folks can learn from the SOPA/PIPA fight. Here are five:

1. Clear and Compelling Message
Opponents were able to take two very complex pieces of legislation and explain them in clear terms that spoke directly to the values and interests of their intended audiences. Tech people understood the implications of the DNS-blocking provisions, people whose livelihood depends on the ability to share information understood the implications of making social networking sites liable for copyright violations by people using the sites, and free-speech advocates understood the censorship implications.

2. Critical Mass
Opponents hit a critical mass, and their stories went viral, in part because everyone across key communities started talking about it about at the same time. Some of that was probably blind luck, but it was also because key opponents found ways to reach out aggressively across their networks more or less in unison. If you weren’t aware or engaged yet, but you were part of those networks, you heard about the issue a bunch of times within a short period, and then often you’d turn around and share the information with your networks, amplifying the viral effect. This was a real-time example of the “people have to hear something a dozen times before they notice it” marketing adage.

3. Calls to Action
Opponents, when reaching out to the not-yet-engaged, were able to offer a range of easy ways to express support. Calls to action included options like replacing your social networking profile photo with a “Stop SOPA” image, signing the national petition, adding your name to sign-on letters, and spreading the word about the blackouts by Wikipedia, Reddit, and others. Tons of individuals and individual companies created their own badges, images, and other easy-to-use tools. And many of these calls to action were themselves viral (or at least amplified the overall virality of the message). This was often organic … although there were people coordinating and collaborating (and some in prominent positions), there wasn’t, to my knowledge, a conventional campaign leadership team calling the shots, issuing assignments, and allocating resources. People across the networks felt empowered to contribute, and contribute they did.

4. Volume
We often argue that narrowly focused outreach strategies can have more impact than untargeted outreach strategies. Efforts that depend on numbers alone typically don’t cut through the noise or they fail to offset more targeted strategies by the other side (“another day, another 5,000 emails from some nonprofit advocating for something”). The SOPA/PIPA fight illustrates an exception, however: if you can push the volume level high enough, even a strategy largely dependent on numbers can have a real impact. The number of news stories, the number of emails and phone calls received by legislators, the number of people signed on to the petition, the significance of Wikipedia blacking out … all of this resulted in a volume level that was impossible for legislators to ignore, and many flipped from supporting SOPA/PIPA to advocating for a slowdown or even opposing it altogether.

5. Telling Concrete Stories
And, lest this get lost in the excitement of a quickly organized large-scale national campaign, it looks like concrete stories from real individuals who would be directly impacted by SOPA/PIPA were also really important to persuading legislators to shift their positions. The high volume efforts got their attention, but the legislators and staff I spoke with wanted to know – in very tangible terms – what the legislation would actually mean in specific instances for real people and real businesses. The large-scale outreach work created space, but from here it looks like the concrete stories were essential for closing the deal.

Although I don’t think the SOPA/PIPA fight is necessarily a good model for every advocacy campaign, it’s not difficult to predict that the so-called “internet community” will become increasingly political and increasingly sophisticated. There are plenty of lessons from this fight for other advocacy efforts, and lots of opportunity to collaborate with other constituencies as well as watch and learn as online advocacy strategies mature.

MacWorld just posted a interesting analysis, and we’d love to hear about the best analyses you’ve come across. We’d also love to hear your thoughts on the lessons to learn from the SOPA/PIPA fight.

Time spent watching online video going up means you need to tell a good story to the right people

Time spent watching online video vs. streaming viewers.
Time spent watching online video going up while number of people watching holds steady.

People are watching more video online. Recent data from Nielsen shows that the growth of time spent watching online video is outpacing the rise in unique viewers. In other words, most people that will watch video online are already doing so. Growth is coming from those people spending more time watching video.

Nielsen and others cite growth in long-form video watching and not just watching more videos. People are spending more time watching movies and TV shows on Hulu, Netflix and other streaming video outlets. More people watching Weeds on their computer doesn’t have many direct benefits to organizations using video to build awareness and market their issues. Minimally, however, this is a sign that people are increasingly able and willing to view longer length streaming content.

There are a couple important takeaways for organizations. One is the value of good storytelling in video. Another is the need to take distribution strategy seriously from the start. Video content is found through many channels, lives in many places and needs to be much more than something plopped on YouTube and embedded on a web page you host.

Tell a Great Story

This shouldn’t be news to nonprofits. Some of the most successful online videos have been a few minutes or longer because they’ve used storytelling to drive engagement and sharing. A couple great examples of this are the Story of Stuff and the Meatrix. If you want to dive into some of the storytelling themes used in these videos I suggest you check out this recent presentation by Jonah Sachs, a point person behind both Story of Stuff and the Meatrix.

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Facebook is giving people what they want (engaging content, that is)

Giving people what they want. This is how I would sum up news from EdgeRank Checker that Facebook user engagement is at least 70% lower with posts to Facebook through 3rd party applications (like Hootsuite). We’re not going to get into details on the methodology of the report. Check the original post for that. Allyson Kapin does a great job running through the report and its implications over on Frogloop.

Posting to Facebook with 3rd party applications lowers engagement
Infographic looking at lower Facebook engagement on posts from third party applications.

The idea that posts to Facebook from third party applications get less visibility on Facebook is not new. But this study is the most conclusive look yet at real data. What we want to look at here is what’s the moral of this story for organizations.

What you, as a Facebook user, see on Facebook is not simply a chronological stream of everything posted by every one of your friends and the pages you have liked.

When you visit Facebook you are seeing what Facebook shows you. It’s their network, after all. And what they are showing you is what they think you are most likely to be interested in reading as judged through past likes, comments, wall posts and tags.

Most people have figured out that there is at least some difference between “Top News” and “Most Recent” Facebook streams (though if you have figured out why you see what you do on the Facebook mobile app let us know – that one seems inexplicable at times).

Facebook wants you to see Top News because it believes you will be more likely to be interested and stay on the page. Facebook wants you to be happy.

This, friends, is the world presented to you through an algorithmic filter. Facebook figured out that people are happier seeing stuff they like. [Read more...]

Relationships are about organizations and people (not communications tools)

It seems that “email is broadcast communications with the audience” while social media is (or can be) interactive and a way to have a conversation with your audience. Broadcast messaging is a shout at recipients to take action. Interactive or social media may make a call to action but it assumes opportunity for other involvement by the recipient.

Shouting in the storm by Flickr user lanier67
Organizations that aren't thinking about relationships may be shouting into the wind regardless of communications medium. Photo by Flickr user lanier67.

Communications media have been forever evolving, however, and while some channels may lend themselves to more or less interaction their use as engagement and relationship-crafting tools has more to do with the communicator than the medium. To paraphrase Beth Kanter, perhaps, a fortress organization with a Facebook page is still a fortress.

Social media to the rescue?

We talk about conversation, continued interaction, and (if you like) two-way engagement is viewed as more valuable. Relationships aren’t built in a command and control environment (except in the military, perhaps). An organization, campaign or company that can interact and have a back-and-forth dialog with a constituent or customer is, they say, going to have a more fruitful relationship with that customer (or donor or member).

Social media is sometimes characterized as a knight in shining armor riding to the rescue of organizations besieged and alone inside email and print walls that let messages out while nothing comes in. Social medial will knock down the walls and create a free flow of conversation and information amongst leaders, staff and citizens. All will benefit. Cake for everyone.

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The state of social media in Congress: Now with shiny data points

Photo by Flickr user wallyg
The US Capitol. It's inhabitats are probably tweeting as you read this. Photo by Flickr user wallyg.

From October to December, 2010, the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) surveyed Capitol Hill staff about their use of online technologies to manage constituent, media and other communications. Their first report, released in January, 2011, was called Communication with Congress: Perceptions of Citizen Advocacy on Capitol Hill.

The latest report to come from last year’s survey of Congressional staff, titled #Social Congress: Perceptions and Use of Social Media on Capitol Hill, was just released. The results are fascinating and important to anyone working in an organization using social networks and email to engage Congress on advocacy issues.

The CMF report plays up the significance of social media in Congressional offices. That’s likely due to the historical perspective they have. After all, social media and online in general, even email, has been around a very short time relative to postal mail, office visits and other in-person interaction. Looking at some of the numbers here you’ll see that “in-person” and “personalized” interactions carry much more water on the Hill.

This should perhaps serve as a warning to those trying to automate large-scale communications from constituents to Congress via Twitter or Facebook. Many Hill staff don’t think constituents are actually sending form emails. Social media interaction can be more personal so shoot to make it so. There is a radar seeking out impersonal and inauthentic messaging.

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