In a recent interview with Wired, author and social analyst Clay Shirky was asked what his big takeaways were from recent events in the social media world. Shirky notes that the idea of membership has gone away but groups have not. He goes on to note that only groups can take coordinated actions in the world and there is opportunity to reinvent group action:
The other one is that the idea of membership has gone away. Facebook is not very good at dealing with named groups, they’re not very good at saying, “We’ve got this book club and I’m a member and you’re not.” But membership is one of the precursors to a lot of social action. My bet is that the group pattern — the named group that can do things like open a bank account or take some kind of coordinated action in the world — is an overlooked pattern that someone is going to reinvent.
Membership is already being redefined and reinvented as action. You don’t need to be a member (or wear the right jacket) to take action. But organizations need to pay close attention to actions, what makes them happen, where, when and how they impact their goals.
Membership is a term of relevance to organizations, not individuals. It’s time to reinvent membership. Maybe call it something else. Maybe not. At it’s core, membership is a relationship. Any relationship is built upon action. In nonprofits, sometimes the organization acts but more often individuals act. Organizations need to pay much better attention to the actions people take, why they take them, and how actions occur.
Email, the web, social networks and more have all changed the nature of communications between organizations and individuals. We don’t rely on newsletters to find out what’s going on. We don’t need to belong to an environmental group to know what’s happening to our favorite forest. We can Google it all in a few seconds, subscribe to any number of email lists, look for it on Facebook. Access to information has changed the need for and purpose of the membership relationship.
A greater change, however, is that one no longer needs to be a member to take action on an issue. This has been the case for years, of course. I get emails from the Sierra Club or a friend shares a link on Facebook. I click. I fill out a form and send a letter. I’m involved without being a member. This has been going on since the dawn of email list building time (olden times…the late-1990s).
In recent years this has evolved further as tools for creating the large-scale collective actions needed to change policy are made available to anyone through commercial endeavors (Care2 and Change.org, for example), open source software, and social networks like Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit and many more.
MoveOn and Upworthy are, to varying degrees, current examples of organizations that blend together third party content with some of their own content, add in some calls to action, and bake in a highly optimized social network oven to maximize sharing and drive more people to take action. MoveOn will ask you for money to support its campaign work but neither worries about membership. Both want you to act and relentlessly track what makes that happen.
Stop counting and start tracking
If action is the heart of a relationship we, as organizations, are fortunate. Nonprofits exist to take action and move people to action. We have the ability to track many, if not every, part of an action as a piece of data. With that data we can better understand what motivated people to action (and what didn’t), who took action (and who didn’t), and correlate messages, issues, people, places and more with the success we need (and learn from the failures that we don’t need…but are at least enlightening).
In other words, stop worrying about the number of people on the list and focus on actions.
To do this, we need clear goals and better attention to data.
There is too much data to make any sense of it all. First, have clear goals. If we want to change policy X then name that goal. Understand exactly who needs to act and where to change it. If we need to help 1,000 homeless people in December then name that goal and pinpoint exactly how many people need to act to make it happen. Only then can you know what data you need to track and how to set up your messaging to make tracking possible.
Second, organizations much invest in their ability to track, interpret and use data. Today, most every way organizations interact with individuals can be tracked in metrics baked into email, web, and social media. There are limits to how far we can track users. There are privacy issues. There are problems with how well CRMs track, report and integrate with other data sets. Yet most obstacles are internal and can be resolved.
Too many organizations look at online communications and behavioral data with the jaded eye of the old-time coaches and managers in Moneyball. Data (proof) on the latest month of social media sharing is discarded with a “well, my issue matters most so let’s just keep talking about it.”
Today, we have powerful data about actions and the strength of relationships between organizations and individuals. We have a long way to go but only by tracking, segmenting, and testing can we improve. Organizations must step up their investment in data, make staff comfortable with it, use it. Strong data insights applied to clear goals will drive action, strengthen relationships and help organizations succeed in a world where membership is less important.