Slow Action: Engagement with Intention

Slow Food International’s website has a quote from Carlo Petrini, Slow Food founder and president, at the top of the homepage that does a great job summing up what the movement is about:

“Slow Food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.
Tortoise and the Hare sculpture in Copley Square, Boston. Photo by Leo Reynolds, Flickr.
Set aside the “food” part for a minute and let’s talk about “slow.” I know, nobody wants to deal with slow. In our culture – and organizations – slow seems counter to progress. And progress, moving forward and change is what we want. Most often, change needs to happen now. Or tomorrow. Or at least by that key deadline for donations at the end of the month.

Take a look at our communications with constituents. Emails are action alerts. We strive to create a sense of urgency. There is so much “noise” out there that we presume that if the tone isn’t critical, dire and needing action today then we’ll be ignored.

There is nothing slow about what we’re doing. In fact, we can be so frantic that constituents can’t keep track of who we are and what we’re doing.

What’s missing is not so much the “slow” but rather engagement and intention. Campaigns roll out quickly, perhaps even unexpectedly from the view of the member.

One concept at the base of slow food is “oneness.” A deep understanding of food issues – and agriculture, nutrition and humane eating – is fostered over time by establishing relationships with other people, recipes, animals and the meals themselves.

What’s often missing is an intentional plan and commitment to helping people create relationships with issues – and with other people in and around the issue – over time. Immediate needs and critical issues are not sustainable over time. Relationships – deeply felt bonds – can be held onto and built upon.

Perhaps we need to up our expectations: both what we hope for the time and investment that people will make in our issues AND the level of guidance and support that we provide to constituents.

In most organizations we can’t have personal engagement plans for each and every person that comes through the door (or the inbox) but we can create general guidelines and strategies to implement them. Maybe we say that 50% of new subscribers will take a second action within 45 days (and while that may not seem impressive it would be a big reach in most organizations). Then we need to measure for that and create, assess and adjust our tactics to meet that goal.

This might be a start. We could create similar plans for Facebook and other social network constituents – and I would argue that those networks need clear goals, plans and resources to move fans to action-taking contributors to issues.

Engagement and relationships are a process. The tortoise didn’t beat the hare with quick action but through intention and commitment to a plan. If organizations are going to be good stewards of their goals, issues and donor resources then there needs to be a commitment to strategic intention that builds and deepens relationships over time.

Innovation through Stubborn Commitment

Thinking about innovation lately. Not just what it is and if/how/why it is good but rather the factors that create a culture of innovation.

Innovation defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Innovation defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
A lot has been written about managing to create and foster an innovation-friendly organization (more on that below). Great resources and research out there.

But it seems that sometimes – maybe most of the time – innovation needs a champion that is just really committed. Or stubborn. Someone wants to see a certain result and won’t take “no” for an answer. Often, there is a reason for the “no” and it takes a new way of doing things to get to the goal.

Recently, I wrote about “Innovate and Thrive: The Future of Nonprofits” by Randal Moss and David Neff. Moss and Neff take a hard look at how to design and maintain a culture that focuses on innovation. Of course, innovation for the sake of innovation is not the point. Yet most every organization and business – from coolio tech startup to retail to auto repair shop to restaurant – is constantly competing, coping with change and trying to, well, keep its head above water in its ever-shifting environment.

Moss and Neff do a great job covering some key pieces of innovation culture and ways to design that culture into the organization. Design – of processes, positions and programs – seems intrinsic to an innovation-friendly environment.

Sometimes, though, you just have to be committed enough to an idea to break past the “usual” way of doing things, change your framework and reach your goal in a new way. Continue reading “Innovation through Stubborn Commitment”

Jim Gilliam on Life, the Internet and the Power of People

Jim Gilliam spoke this morning at Personal Democracy Forum and of all the talks here and at other conferences I have been to having anything to do with anything – especially technology – it was one of the most moving and powerful yet. This one hit home for personal reasons as well as professional. If you’ve been around the field for a while you know of Jim’s work but I didn’t know the full story.

Jim understands what real leadership and vision are about…and the incredible results that are possible when people work together.

Be well. Take care of those around you. And add value to the world.

Model Goals, Not Just Outcomes

Dealing as I do with online campaigns and social media I hear quite often about how we the organization or client “need to do it like they did it [at group or campaign X].” Invariably, when pressed for what that means, you hear something like “well, they really got a lot of people involved” and/or “they raised a ton of money.” Sometimes you hear “well, they won.”

350 Day of Action photo by Sioux Falls Green Project
Photo from day of action by Flickr user Sioux Falls Green Project

All good reasons to look for inspiration and models in the work of others. They were successful. Let’s do it that way.

But this assumes at least a couple factors that organizations or campaigns can’t necessarily replicate. Nor should they.

  1. It assumes that the goals and practices of “good campaign x” track are a match and transferable. Hmm. Maybe but probably not. This deserves examination. When you peel back the layers of a campaign’s communications, staff, volunteers, ads, news coverage and all the rest you come to its core goals. Nine times out of ten (at least) the best campaigns perform at a high level because those goals were crystalline, achievable and shared amongst all involved. The outcomes track to those. If your goals aren’t similar you’ll struggle to replicate outcomes. Align on goals first.
  2. These high-performing online campaigns share interesting structures that are optimized for the web and social media. This doesn’t mean they’re all built the same way (which would lead one to define the secret formula…psst, there isn’t one) or that they aren’t tied into a larger structure that operates differently.

This structure is one that takes into account the interconnectedness and social aspects of the web. But staffing and “culturing” this network-sensitive approach in an organization takes some awareness. It’s not just about creating a website with “social features.”

Recently, Jason Mogus at Communicopia blogged about how organizations and campaigns can craft themselves using the network principles of the web and how that structure lends itself to creating campaigns, cultures and organizations that thrive on the hyper-networked web. He draws on actual first-hand experience (the best kind) with entities and campaigns like, Avaaz and TckTckTck . Here’s what he had to say:

From my own observations working with these groups familiar patterns emerge: small, usually virtual teams of multi-skilled people – all leaders in their own right – collaborating in real time without silos or management reporting boundaries. Not distracted by ongoing programs that muddy priorities and chew up resources, and empowered to say no to opportunities that don’t fit or aren’t realistic. Valuing listening, letting the community they serve inform (or even set) priorities, and collaborating openly with them on their most important work. Disciplined people, tracking metrics in real time, dropping what doesn’t work, and focusing on a few key leverage points, throwing everything they’ve got at one thing when openings appear.

They way they use technology is also important. There is often no “web department” of networked orgs – everyone is comfortable using modern communications tools. There are of course specialists on staff to build and fix things, but no one has to ask a different department to “blog that story” or “tweet that insight”, everyone has their fingers on the pulse of a different version of their constituency, everyone is a collaborator. Technology helps them do this faster and more efficiently, and lowers the barriers between those inside and those outside the organization.

This is worth chewing on as you tackle your next “big social media campaign.” It’s not about the technology – this app or that website – but rather it’s about the people. The people you’re trying to reach and engage, no doubt, but also the people inside guiding the work. How do they interact, learn and share? Build and model networks internally and you may have more success building and engaging them externally.

Save your (inbox) bacon

A few weeks back I wrote about the generally sorry state of response rates to nonprofit advocacy emails. Those numbers, by the way, were in a 2010 report. The 2011 data was released shortly after and it’s gloomier. Grab the data from M+R and NTEN when you get a chance.

Nearly 28 Billion Bacon emails were sent per day in 2010
Nearly 28 Billion Bacon emails were sent per day in 2010.

The data is telling us that a whole heck of a lot of email is going unread. The amount spurring action – at least measured as a “response” – is even smaller.

This is no small matter as email providers like Google make efforts to more actively manage email for users. For a few years now web and desktop email providers have made it simpler for users to mark email as spam and many provide ISPs with feedback loops that let them tap this info to better manage spam.

But Gmail’s Priority Inbox and other services are changing the game and looking at whether or not email is read by users. If a sender is delivering to your inbox but you’re not reading the messages then, well, that email may fall below the fold in the inbox. In other words, if subscribers aren’t reading your email then it’s less likely to be presented to the reader at all. Add this to user filtering/folders and you have more hurdles than ever.

So we’re left with BACON (did somebody say bacon?). Yes. Bacon. That’s email that people asked for but don’t really read. Facebook pushes email out every time someone comments on a status update you commented on or a photo you’re in. Nearly every online retailer has an email list. If you’re remotely involved in politics you’ve likely been subscribed without permission to every candidate email list under the sun. And nonprofits are pushing out emails about events, issues and fundraising with reckless abandon.

It’s crowded out there. And little or none of this email qualifies as or is marked as spam. It is (many political emails aside) requested email.

Recent data put together by indicates that it takes, on average, one minute to unsubscribe to an email list (assuming the unsubscribe process works or is even offered to the user). That doesn’t seem like much until you realize that almost 28 BILLION bacon emails are sent each day.

As someone who is a prolific email subscriber and also aids and abets in the sending of vast quantities of email I can tell you that while email works to deliver advocacy messages and raise funds it is an increasingly, and painfully, crowded inbox out there. And your emails are probably suffering. And as email providers react to the bacon age I predict that more and more “requested” email is going to be hidden from users – even while being delivered. And it may not be delivered at all.

How to save your bacon without getting fried

A place to start is by culling your email list. Think honestly about dead wood and getting rid of it.Your boss and board may not like this but your email list isn’t nearly as big (in real usable terms) as the number of “deliverable” email addresses indicates. Get better at identifying and trying to reactivate inactive subscribers. And if they don’t get back in the game then cut them loose. If they want to find you again they will.

Get better at segmentation. Give people what they want.

Better subject lines and better content overall. Test subject lines. Frequently. Don’t rest.

Think hard about the value of an email address. If someone is on the list for five years but has never donated or taken an action (and not opened an email) what does that mean? Chances are there might be more of those on your list than you think.

Make it easier to unsubscribe.

You don’t want people on the list that don’t want to be there. And that’s more true when your inbox placement is based on user interaction.

This is just a start. Be creative. I’d argue that social networks and mobile are throwing a wrench in the works (though probably not yet at a level that will be noticeable for most). Some subscribers are moving towards interacting in other channels, like Facebook, but it’s still somewhere between hard and impossible for organizations to connect email and social network data. Integrating that data is going to help.

Get to work saving your bacon. And soon.

iPad 2 Faceoff: Best Buy and Apple Store Showdown

[Cross-posted on the PlaceMatters blog.]

iPad 2 launch - Photo by Robert Scoble
iPad 2 launch. iPad 1 on left and iPad 2 on right. Photo by Robert Scoble.

Anticipating long lines and limited supply, and believing we’d increase our odds of both scoring a new iPad2 on Friday afternoon when Apple kicked off sales of its latest toy, we split up. Turns out we were wrong – the limit was only one device at Best Buy – but we both made it home that evening with the latest flagship Apple product. I’ve owned my iPad2 for just a few days now but adore it already. An hour-and-twenty minute movie on my flight to D.C. burned only 16% of the battery and was gorgeous to watch. It’s sleek, slick, powerful, and smooth. Scoble is right: it’s all about the apps, and the iPad app universe is nothing short of fantastic.

This morning’s post isn’t about the iPad itself, though, but about the folks who designed the buying experience at the two stores. And the punch is as predictable as it is important: design matters.

The Apple store experience, in typical Apple fashion, was all about the customer. Smiles and free water to everyone waiting in line, a welcoming handshake for every customer as they entered the store, a bunch of staff on the floor quickly helping everyone as they walked in, cashing folks out on the spot with their mobile cash registers (which are themselves pretty cool), staff willing and able to answer questions and help customers find accessory products, salespeople congratulating customers, free advice about using the new iPad2, mini-classes going on in the back, the Apple store itself with it’s so-cool-I-kinda-want-to-hang-out-here vibe.

Continue reading “iPad 2 Faceoff: Best Buy and Apple Store Showdown”

Be More Like Artists

This short Chronicle of Philanthropy interview with Seth Godin is from December, and as usual Godin hits the point hard: nonprofits have a tendency to act in corporate, structured, safe ways, often to the detriment of the values they espouse.  He criticizes the “be like a business” mentality that he traces to the early philanthropists, who themselves generally acquired their fortunes through the private sector.

I share the underlying sentiment (nonprofits should act more like artists and playwrights, as he colorfully puts it), but I think the frame is wrong.  The question, in Jim Collins’ fashion, isn’t how nonprofits can act more like businesses, but how nonprofits can act more like successful organizations.  Both the business world and the nonprofit world run the gamut from the sloppy, useless, not-likely-to-be-around-next-year outfits to the slick, efficient, effective, highly successful operations.  The key to being great isn’t emulating “the private sector,” but rather learning from the best practices across all sectors.

Connections that Bind

We hear a lot these days about increasing numbers of followers, building email lists, interacting more with users and retweets. We measure click-thrus and response rates, pageviews and bounces, and may use PostRank or Google Alerts to monitor conversations about us and our issues.

What does all this tell us about how well our organizations are or aren’t using social media, communications and membership programs in general? It can inform our efforts, certainly, but if it contributes to solid analysis is debatable. It is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and want to explore in coming posts.

A common thread in all these metrics is that they indicate a relationship between an individual and organization.

But to what extent do these relationships matter? That seems the question. What are we as individuals able and willing to do for the organization and (it must be asked) what is the organization doing for the individual?

I really like Gideon Rosenblatt’s talk a couple months back about “powerful connections” between organizations and people. Gideon asks the question: Is it possible to have a soulful relationship with an organization? He goes on to tell the story of his long-term relationship with both Groundwire and Social Venture Partners and how he worked to connect people in the organizations. His position in and among these organizations is unique, of course, but throughout he seemed driven by idea that it was people and their relationships with the organization that mattered. The program and policy minutiae would work themselves out if the passion and personal connections were in place.

Can everyone on an email list or Facebook fan page have a “soulful” connection with your organization? I hardly think so. But proactively striving to create opportunities and openings for deeper connections seems like it could only pay off in the long run.

Failing the Spam Test

Earlier today I happened across my reading notes from Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing:

“Permission marketing is anticipated, personal, relevant.

Anticipated – people look forward to hearing from you.
Personal – the messages are directly related to the individual.
Relevant – the marketing is about something the prospect is interested in.”

I also received a solicitation today from a capacity-oriented nonprofit organization I happen to admire greatly and which also happens to have a highly-regarded nonprofit marketing expert on its staff. Their email failed on every count: I wasn’t expecting, much less was I looking forward, to receiving their solicitation. While they got my name right – that’s worth something – the letter pitched to me the organization’s expertise in helping nonprofits fundraise. Given that they sent the email to my Nooru Foundation address, they should have at least wondered if a fundraising and donor communications pitch would have any personal or organizational relevance. At a minimum, given the name of our organization, they might have at least gone to the trouble of asking if we raise funds from donors before making the pitch rather than assuming we did. After figuring out that we don’t raise funds from donors, asking if we provide support to our grantees for their own donor fundraising would at least have had some chance of sparking my interest. Instead, their solicitation constituted the very same sort of spam that Godin argued against in 1999 (and that he hasn’t stopped railing against since).

Jumo’s Tough Road Ahead

Jumo launched yesterday with much fanfare, and NonProfitTrends, Amy Sample Ward, and Beth Kanter are among those with useful observations. I love the idea – “Jumo is a social network connecting individuals and organizations who want to change the world” – but it seems like a tough move to build an entirely new platform when so many people are already embedded elsewhere (Facebook,, and Idealist are obvious examples). Just offering a better, more social sector-optimized version of Facebook (despite Facebook’s mediocre execution) may not be enough to overcome the gravitational pull of 600 million users or even the established communities at other nonprofit-oriented sites. And offering largely redundant functionalities with a wide range of reported problems isn’t going to make it any easier. I suspect for Jumo to earn a critical mass of credibility and user loyalty they’ll need to clean up their implementation issues (obviously), but I suspect they’ll also need to offer a platform that does something dramatically different and better than its many competitors.

For the record, I don’t yet have a Jumo account because it’s rejected every attempt I’ve made to create one. I’m sure I’ll get in eventually.