Bright Ideas

Why not say “I don’t know”?

Faking Cultural Literacy in last Sunday’s New York Times argues that social media (and online, omnipresent, instant information in general) has allowed everyone to have an opinion about everything. It’s worth a read but it misses the point.

A bunch of tabs
A bunch of open tabs. Illustration by Jennifer Daniel, New York Times.

American culture has long frowned on one saying “I don’t know.” To admit ignorance (regardless of source) is to admit weakness. It is to say to your conversation partner that they know more than you do (and must therefore be smarter, better educated, have better parents, read more, have a healthier diet, etc.).

Better to say something, anything, and fake it than perhaps question and learn from one another.

Case in point: I’ve been reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. There is a passage in which the main character who has come to the US from her native Nigeria to study at a university ruminates on the classroom experience:

School in America was easy, assignments sent in by e-mail, classrooms air-conditioned, professors willing to give makeup tests. But she was uncomfortable with what the professors called “participation,” and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words. It had to be that Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what. And so she sat stiff-tongued, surrounded by students who were all folded easily on their seats, all flush with knowledge, not of the subject of the classes, but of how to be in the classes. They never said “I don’t know.” They said, instead, “I’m not sure,” which did not give any information but still suggested the possibility of knowledge.

We’re trained early on to have SOMETHING to say. ANYTHING. You don’t look smart (which is 90% of the battle) by quietly thinking things through. Nobody wants to hear of their child waxing philosophic. Leaders don’t hold firm to the gray area.

Social media and online information has not launched a wave of shallow knowledge—it’s always been there. Social media makes it more apparent, however. It also makes it easier to find support for our views without engaging in critical thinking or questioning our assumptions.

As advocates and social change campaigners we should be constantly aware of our role in finding, analyzing and sharing information. And recognize that most of us have an opinion whether we have knowledge or not.

We change policy by, in part, winning arguments but debate means listening and critiquing as much as it does espousing a viewpoint.

Engage, question, listen, think and respond. Don’t just make a point—create opportunity for conversation with your audience.

Listening (to the right stuff)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Upwell, one of the most important and inspiring around these days.

Upwell works for the ocean. They do that with “Big Listening” (more on that later) to track the global conversation about oceans. They do it with minimum viable campaigns – lean tests of what works (and doesn’t) to change and direct the ocean conversations.

And they do it by sharing everything they learn with advocates, organizations, media, scientists and everyone else that cares about oceans (which should be each of you because, you know, the world’s surface is over 70% water and that gives oceans a big leg up on the global power chart).

Clyde listens

Tracking the global conversation about oceans (or climate change or voting rights or organic agriculture or anything you can imagine) has never been more important. The information each of us gets (or can easily find) is no longer controlled by a community (or national) newspaper or TV station and its editorial board.
Continue reading “Listening (to the right stuff)”

Off the trail, in the network

I came across a Gary Snyder essay called “Work in Place of Place” from a collection titled The Practice of the Wild. It brought to mind a community of practice, Web of Change, with which I’m engaged. More broadly, it speaks to the networked way in which change advocates operate.

Here are the opening and closing paragraphs. They stand on their own in a sense but the whole piece is worth a red.

Place is one kind of place. Another field is the work we do, our calling, our path in life. Membership in a place includes membership in a community. Membership in a work association — whether it’s a guild or a union or a mercantile order — is membership in a network. Networks cut across communities with their own kind of territoriality, analogous to the long migrations of geese and hawks.

Our skills and works are but tiny reflections of the wild world that is innately and loosely orderly. There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed. Not for the sake of newness, but for the sake of coming home to our whole terrain. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. That is also where — paradoxically — we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.

(Well written) email matters

Email is dead montage
Maybe crap email is dead. The rest is doing fine.

In the past week, three organizations I run into a lot online and through work posted writing jobs. More specifically, email writing jobs (a list of them is below).

Writing in less than 140 character snippets, coming up with the pithiest text to put over a share image, and (at the other end of the spectrum) even longer form essays seem to be the skillsets du jour.

Yet email remains a workhorse — building and connecting supporter networks more directly than social media. In combination with social media channels, video, websites, online ads and everything else, email can be more valuable. Email goes directly to the inbox, it can introduce a topic or remind the reader of something posted on Facebook or sent through postal mail.

“But wait,” you might say, “I get way too much email” or, if you’re in the field, you’ll point out the single digit (and falling) open rates in most sectors of the email world. Both are valid points. There IS too much email and most of it is just plain BAD.
Continue reading “(Well written) email matters”

Don’t be the coyote: Falling retention rates can be stopped

Recently, Blackbaud’s npENGAGE blog gathered tips on how nonprofits can do a better job keeping donors on board from some of the best fundraisers around.  Your mileage may vary but each insight offers a little piece of gold bound to help at least a little bit. I was struck, however, by the general message: “you need to do a better job engaging people, acknowledging them, and being genuine, loyal and transparent.”

Retention rates will fall as predictably as Wile E Coyote if you don't understand why people support you and focus on those likeliest to stick.
Retention rates will fall as predictably as Wile E Coyote if you don’t understand why people support you and focus on those likeliest to stick.

The message is true and the tactics presented are solid but it’s not enough. We we need to understand why people enter the organization, recognize that many aren’t going to stay, and build fundraising strategies with likely long-term donors in mind. Organizations also need to structure their acquisition and fundraising programs (online and otherwise) for strong collaboration between staff that handle acquisition and long-term retention.

Donor retention is headed downward with a sort of Wile E Coyote falling off a cliff predictability.  Blackbaud’s head science guy, Chuck Longfield, reports that new donor retention is around 27% these days. Retention keeps falling while the incentive to keep people on board grows — acquiring a new donor costs five, six, seven or times more than keeping an existing donor.
Continue reading “Don’t be the coyote: Falling retention rates can be stopped”

Facebook Grants, Nonprofits and what’s really needed

Facebook GrantsEarlier this week Facebook announced that it had begun putting “Donate” buttons on pages run by US nonprofit organizations. The program rolled out on 19 nonprofit pages and other groups are invited to express interest in participating. Facebook is offering to funnel donations to nonprofits free of charge — 100% of donations made will go to the nonprofit.

This program is important for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly is that it begins (we hope) to standardize the Facebook donation experience which has to date been cobbled together through a combination of free and paid third party apps, forms embedded on page tabs (an interface Facebook removed), and any number of attempts to move potential donors off Facebook which has always been difficult.

A Donate Button? Yeah! Oh, wait. Meh.

The response to this news from the broader nonprofit community may be characterized as lukewarm at best. Why? Organizations won’t receive the names and contact information of donors. Nonprofits are tired of Facebook’s ever-changing algorithms, interfaces and rules. Organizations are also finding they have to pay to get their content in front of Facebook users that already Like and follow their page. Facebook makes it hard for organizations to reach their audience without paying. Nonprofits are not flush with communications and marketing resources. A pay to play environment shuts many if not most groups out of Facebook.
Continue reading “Facebook Grants, Nonprofits and what’s really needed”

Creating the most important organization in the world by caring for your members

Care about branding and marketing at your organization? Then care about your members.

This tweet by Troy Theodore Wruck shares a quote from Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich should be pinned on the wall of nonprofit directors.

At every nonprofit, a lot of money, thinking and time goes into serving the mission, the issue, the clients. And, usually, a lot goes into branding exercises, strategic plans, marketing materials, building social media followings and email lists. Perhaps much of those resources are focused on the wrong set of people.

Typically, not much goes into serving and supporting those members, fans, followers, or even donors. Many organizations with hundreds of thousands of members have just a few “member services” staff. They often don’t know their members and messages to them are rarely, if ever, intended to create conversation.

These are the people that already like you. Don’t just ask them for money. They’re not valuable to you. Your organization is valuable to them. Meet your mission and help the people, creatures or places you serve. Of course.

But focus more on valuing the people that already support you and you’ll be able to better serve your mission.

Twelve things learned from using social media in a community crisis

Earlier this year my partner in crime here at Bright+3 left Colorado for Washington, DC, to work as Policy Advisor on Energy and Environment for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Prior to moving to DC, Jacob served as a city council member and then mayor of Golden, Colorado.

Lessons from Indian Gulch WildfireLike me, Jacob has always been intrigued by the ability of digital communications to connect and support people in their community, personal and political endeavors. Jacob maintained an email newsletter and website for years while a candidate, councilman and mayor. During his council and mayoral campaigns, we tested what was (at the time) innovative integration of voter files, email lists, volunteer data and walking lists to help target his efforts.

As elected officials go, it seemed that Jacob knew how to make the most of email and social media in his job. That experience was tested in March, 2011, when the Indian Gulch wildfire started just west of Golden (in the foothills on the west side of Denver). The fire lasted a week and became the nation’s largest at that time. Hundreds of homes were threatened.

The City of Golden had an emergency operations plan and a process by which city and county, the Sheriff’s department and fire officials would update the media. But wildfires move fast in dry windy hills and the need to get information out to residents with homes in and around those hills is urgent. Social media, email and the web raise expectations about information availability and local leaders are pressured to supply accurate and rapid news.

A few weeks ago, Jacob and Bill Fisher, a Golden City Council member, released a brief, highly readable report analyzing the lessons learned about communications (particularly digital/online networks) from the Indian Gulch fire. The report digs into early observations shared on the site Emergency Management in 2011Continue reading “Twelve things learned from using social media in a community crisis”

Behold the greatest threat yet to nonprofit organizations

Nonprofit organizations face countless obstacles in their quest to protect the environment, improve education, tackle economic injustice, and otherwise help society.

Death Star poised to destroy nonprofit email
The Death Star – aka George Lucas’s early version of the Gmail tabbed inbox.

This is tough work, friends, and these days, as we gaze at computer screens or phones we are probably looking upon the most significant hurdle yet: Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

That’s the story, anyway, from a few recent nonprofit messages and news stories.  Jeff Bezos’s new project, The Washington Post,  has a story titled Advocacy groups want out of Gmail’s ‘promotions’ ghetto. It includes a snippet from a New Organizing Institute (NOI) email containing one of the best (if overwrought) lines in email history:

Now some of you might love this new organization of your inbox, that’s great! But many important advocacy emails (like this one from your friends here at NOI), could get lost in the commotion of all these new tabs – silencing our voices like those of the poor souls on the planet Alderaan.

The email went on to let people know how they could get rid of the tabbed inbox or slide NOI email into the primary tab so that future messages would appear there.

Not to be outdone, the international advocacy campaign group Avaaz sent a message to subscribers titled “Huge threat to Avaaz.” Here’s a bit of that one:

Avaaz email informing subscribers about the threat from Gmail.
Opening of a recent Avaaz email about Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

There is some debate about the impact the tabbed inbox is actually having on email response. MailChimp crunched data from millions of messages sent through its system to Gmail addresses and concluded:

What bothers me in this case is that open rates stayed down for 3 consecutive weeks. From looking at a year and half’s worth of data, I can say that kind of behavior isn’t normal. I’m not willing to declare an emergency just yet. After all, I don’t even know what the adoption rate is on Gmail’s side. However, I would say this is an early indicator, and we’re definitely keeping our eye on it.

Not exactly a call to evacuate Alderaan in the face of massive Imperial threats but perhaps we should be concerned. It’s worth noting that MailChimp looked only at open rates, a high level metric that doesn’t correlate to conversions (though it can be useful in spotting trends over time with large amounts of data).

ReturnPath has also taken a look at Gmail data using inbox placement and read rates. They found that already engaged subscribers are reading messages more often but read rates are down in general.

So,  what to do about tabbed inboxes?!

The tabbed inbox is simply Gmail’s next step in a long progression towards trying to give people what they want (or what Google thinks they want). They know that most “mass” email is ignored and have been shifting towards engagement based ways of inbox placement and advance management for years.

I don’t begrudge any organization from making an effort to get its messages out of the promotions ghetto and into the Primary tab. It’s definitely worth testing, at least.

But the people that are going to take this step are likely those that were already engaged with your messages anyway. In some sense, raising alarm about messages not being in the Primary tab misses the point. If people want to read your emails (and care about your issue and what you have to say) they aren’t going to suddenly stop because your messages are in a tab two inches to the right.

Better to emphasize action, engagement, and value to the reader in every single message. The tabbed inbox is not the biggest threat to your work.

Note: We would love to talk to any organization that has tested and crunched Gmail data in the past couple months. It would be great for others to know what’s working, what’s not and if there has been a measurable impact on actions taken and donations given. 

Email & Online Fundraising

Email remains the killer app of the Internet age. A healthy email list is the lifeblood of many organizations precisely because – if you build a permission-based list – you are delivering your message to readers that want to hear from you. We have been building email advocacy, fundraising, and marketing campaigns for nearly 20 years and we can help your campaign use it to get more people involved, raise more money, and win.  Continue reading “Email & Online Fundraising”