So what makes a good campaign?

I want to try something different today. We’ve spent a lot of time on this site talking about other people’s campaigns and what we think of them. I want to turn the tables and sketch out a campaign structure that I’d like to see. Some things to keep in mind: this campaign sketch is going to be generic, part of a long term strategy, and aimed more at medium to large scale organizations.

To put this in context, over the last year or so I’ve spent a lot of time researching gamification and behavioral psychology for my day job and I can’t help but see how it can be applied to campaigning. From my experience, most campaigns are, understandably, laser-focused on their end goals and miss opportunities to achieve some very valuable secondary objectives. Given the fact that people are busy and budgets are tight I can’t blame them for designing campaigns that way.

What I envision is something that’s a bit more holistic and admittedly a lot of work. In the long run though, I’d hope that the initial heavy lifting would pay off.

In my mind the best campaigns are sustainable. It doesn’t just accomplish its main goal, but that it also empowers the organizers by building their resource pool and empowers the people who participated by teaching them the impact of their actions and encouraging them to do more. A great campaign builds capacity and momentum.

A common complaint about online campaigns is that they’re low effort; you just need to like a post or sign a petition or send of a form email. That’s a fair criticism but it’s often misdirected. It’s low effort on the part of the organization and not necessarily on the part of the participant.

I don’t think you can really condemn someone for only liking a post about Ebola when that’s all they’re asked to do. We ask people to do something and then leave them standing around twiddling their thumbs. Even if they wanted to do something more it’s not put in front of them. That may sound like handholding because it is. It’s also what will encourage greater participation. If we want more we need to ask for more.

The campaign I want to run would try and help move people outside of their comfort zones (incrementally) and into more active roles.

Pyramids, ladders and strained metaphors

In fundraising there’s a concept called the donation pyramid. The basic premise is that there are lot of people who will donate a bit of money, there are fewer people who will donate more money, and then there is a very small group of people who will donate a lot of money. The whole thing can be conceptualized, unsurprisingly, as a pyramid. It is people’s entire jobs to figure out how you can shift people up the pyramid.

This fundraising pyramid is an old idea and a bit of a simplistic one, but as a framework it’s one that has legs and that can be applied to other areas. Just like you can use the pyramid to conceptualize how people are willing to donate their money you can also use it to see how they’d donate their time and energy.

Again at the bottom there is everyone who is interested enough to do a simple online action. Let’s say retweet something. Nice and easy and doesn’t require any real dedication. Above that there are some people who will do more. Maybe they’ll write an email to their MP or senator. Next there’s a smaller group who will evangelize online. They’ll write blogs and promote your content and act as cheerleaders for your campaigns.

As you keep moving up the pyramid you’ll find smaller and smaller groups of people who are willing to take more and more actions and more in-depth actions. At some point they’ll also move offline and into the real world until your pool of potential candidates for scaling an oil rig is miniscule compared to those willing to sign an online petition.

People are going to naturally fall into these groups based on what they feel comfortable with and what they know. The “what they know” is a key point here. A common complaint is that people just like something on Facebook and that’s the last they think of it. That’s because most people aren’t activists. That isn’t to say that they wouldn’t do more to help, just that they don’t know how. Activism is learned. It’s a skill and like any other skill it takes practice and coaching. The role of a good campaign is to help nurture those people so that they become more engaged with the cause.

What we want to do is to give them a ladder that helps them move up the pyramid to the point where they aren’t willing to go further; to the point where they’ve reached the natural edge of their activism. You’re not going to get everyone chaining themselves to fences and that’s okay. You will be moving some people up the pyramid though and growing a community that is empowered to demand change and to bring that change about.

The Framework

Activism is an action and like all actions it can become a habit. That’s the idea that we want to focus on.

Literature around designing for habit building tends to focus on a repeating loop of four elements: A trigger that leads to an action that leads to a reward which creates an investment in the process. That loops over and over until the habit is formed and self-sustaining.

The trigger prompts behavior. Initially they’re almost always external, such as an email or Facebook post, but the Holy Grail is to have the trigger become internalized and require no outside prompting.

Actions are self-explanatory. As the designer of this process it’s what we want people to do. Keep in mind is that as far as this process is concerned actions are important because they precede a reward. As a campaigner we’re interested in the action but users are interested in the reward. We want to make sure we create a scenario where we’re both happy.

Rewards are what get people to come back. They’ve done what you want and now are getting something in return. Rewards don’t have to be complicated and they don’t even have to be tangible. They can be as simple as a positive emotional reaction. Variable rewards also, as a general principle, work better at forming habits, see: gambling.

The final step is investing the user in further action. As part of the design they need to put in some degree of time/energy/money/social capital that gives them a personal investment in repeating the process with escalating actions.

That’s the framework we’ll be working with.

The campaign

What does our hypothetical campaign look like?

First, let’s go back and consider that we want to build activism as a habit and to increase capacity. That means that we need to guide people. If we think back to the pyramid of actions we can think of it as laying down a whole bunch of ladders.

We need to guide people up a chain of escalating actions and we need to do that as painlessly as possible. We’re competing in an ADHD world where we’re surrounded by entertainment and distractions and most people aren’t going to have the knowledge or initiative to follow an activist’s path by themselves. So rather than judge them we need to teach them.

A note here: as we move from action to action we’re going to lose people. That’s the nature of the beast as people reach the edge of their comfort. At some point we’re also going to need to move people offline. There’s only so much we can do online.

What’s our reward? How are we motivating people to continue doing what we want?

The internet is identity politics. In a world of Facebook, Twitter, etc. all our online actions are tinged to some degree, whether we want to admit it or not, with a desire to project a certain image of ourselves either to others or to ourselves. If people are expressing at least a passing interest in our campaign it means that they identify with the “brand” of the campaign. They want to be seen as an environmentalist, anti-establishment, socially conscious, etc. Now, they may actually be all of those things but for our purposes we’re interested in tapping into that desire to project that image and be a part of that group. We’re validating them and that’s why they’ll come back.

One tip that you always see about online campaigning is to tell a story as a way to engage users. We’re flipping this on its ear. We’re crafting a story around the user. They’re the hero and we’re putting them at the forefront and using their actions to craft the narrative. By doing this we’ll be rewarding the user with a greater sense of self and community that will keep them engaged and returning.

As we move from step to step we’re making sure to ask people to take the next step where appropriate. Dead time and unclear actions mean that you’re losing people. You’re going to have to work on the timing to be sure that the person always sees the next step they have to take within a minimal amount of time to maintain momentum.

Step 1 – we’re going to start off small and just ask people to like a post on Facebook. We want to catch as many people as we can and this lets us cast a wide net. Try and follow up in the comments or another post with a thank you to everyone for helping to spread the message and to let them know that it helps. Remember, we want people to have positive feelings about what they’ve done and that includes us expressing gratitude and showing the potential impact of their help.

Step 2 – here’s where we really get into it. We want to escalate by asking people to share a post. Not only that but we want to ask them to explain, in their own words, why they think the issue is important when they share it.

I know that seems pretty weak and like homework but there’s a method to the madness. Having people share a post in their own words accomplishes three things:

  1. it spreads the word again and lets the campaign communicate with a larger audience;
  2. it reinforces with the person sharing why they care since they have to stop and think about it; and
  3. it doubles down on their connection to the campaign. They’re making a very visible declaration of support to their friends and family.

All of that reinvests them in the campaign and will increase their likelihood of engagement.

Step 3 - let’s do an online petition here. Petitions might seem like a step back here from the last step – I mean you’re just signing your name in a form – but we’re trying to accomplish something different here. The first two steps have been about building up your identity as an individual. The petition is the first step to bringing you into a community and incorporating a sense of tradition and belonging into that identity.

After they sign the petition two things need to happen.

First, they need to be told how many other like-minded people are out there like them. Something along the lines of “You and 12,387 other people have told Monsanto to stop being selling Roundup.” We want to start building up the idea that they’re part of a community; one that has ties and one that depends on them.

Secondly, since at this point we’re going to be using more complicated tools, we need to present them with the next set of actions. Remind them of what they’ve done, remind them of the stakes, and let them know how they can continue to help to achieve your shared goals. Moving to a petition gets us onto other platforms (ideally your website) that give you more freedom for stuff like this.

Step 4 – the next step in the escalation is sending an email. The standard practice with stuff like this is to include a form email that they can use. We’re going to do that but we’re also going to press hard and encourage them to write their own version. A custom email has a bigger impact when it lands and it also pulls the user in more. They solidify their thoughts on the campaign by having to write them down and they also invest more time and energy into participating. Once they’ve taken the time to do this they’ll be more willing to put more time in later. It’s all sunk costs.

Since we’re encouraging that they write a custom email we need to justify the time and energy it will take over the form email. That means explaining that a custom email will have a greater impact than a form one while also walking the line of not discouraging people who will only send the form version.

From this point onwards we also want to be providing examples of what the actions we’re asking people to do have achieved in the past. That means that if we’re talking about divestment then you need to talk about apartheid. If you’re running a boycott then you need to highlight examples of where a boycott has worked. Your examples don’t all have to be grand but they should be clear successes. This helps demonstrate that their actions have impacts and it roots those actions in a history and tradition of activism and provide context for their identity. They aren’t just signing their name on a petition; they’re part of a long history of civil action.

Finally, while we’re on the topic of emails I’d also debate asking the user to make it an open letter and to cc friends, family, and the organization. It makes the letter harder to ignore and, again, it reinforces that identity with the user and puts that identity on the line as they are publicly presenting themselves with that persona to those they know and care about. If they cc the organization it also allows you an opportunity to follow up and be able to share good examples on Facebook or wherever so that, again, you can reinforce this idea of community and give public kudos and plaudits.

Step 5 - now we need to start entering the real world. We always knew this was coming, but until our Oculus overlords come to save us we need to venture from the screen sooner or later. We’re going to expand on the previous step by asking the user to send a physical letter. It can be the same one they emailed. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about taking a small step offline. Like before, we want to explain why a physical letter has a greater impact than an email and how it’s harder to ignore. We’re priming the user with the idea of the greater impacts of physical actions.

Step 5.5 – at some point around now the organization needs to start talking about impacts. We’ve alluded to historical impacts but let’s talk about what this campaign has achieved so far. You should have some numbers collected from your previous actions so throw together an infographic or something that shows the power of the collective actions of your supporters. Show them what their combined voices look like. We’ve started to ask them for a lot so let’s help justify that and encourage them.

Step 6 – we’ve introduced the idea of real world action and now it’s on to the next baby step to build them up. Ask the user to go out and take pictures of them with a banner somewhere or some other small action and then share it online. It’s not something that’s too out of place with what people do every day and it expands on what we’ve been trying to establish earlier.

Step 7 - they’ve put a lot of work in so far and we’ve been trying to give a sense of community. Now we want to ask them to attend a rally or a meet up or really anything that puts them in the same place as other like-minded individuals. We want to demonstrate that the community exists all around them (in the real world) and hopefully they’ll form some bonds and these people will begin to encourage each other and feed on each other’s energy.

Step 8 – at this point they’re ready for more guidance than we can give in a campaign. If we haven’t lost them at this point then we need to have them talk to an organizer in person so that they can learn how to keep participating. If you don’t have the capacity or a local office then try and direct them to another organization that does and aligns with your goals.

That’s my idea. I haven’t had a chance to try and execute it so I’d love to hear feedback and learn about your experiences trying to run something like this. Feel free to share in the comments below.

Two Canadian apps to help you make informed decisions

I recently came across two apps coming from Canada that are designed to help the user make informed decisions.

The first is Democracy Link helps connect you to your elected representative and send them messages. A Google search would net you the same results but anything that removes a barrier to communicating with your representative is helpful. Over on this Reddit thread the creator answered some questions.

Over here in Vancouver we’re in the middle of a plebiscite on whether we want more public transit or not. Despite the fact that that whole previous sentence is ridiculous there has been some good that’s come from it. Moving Forward teamed up with Discourse Media to create a web app that tells you the costs, personal and societal, of your choice of transit for your commute. It’s a useful tool and lets me feel superior about my cycling. Too bad it’s buried under around 500 words. Pro tip: don’t bury the lead.

Why aren’t mobile games more reflective of their users?

If you’re even remotely interested in video games or feminism and use the internet then you know that any discussion of the two has inevitably turned into an absolute clusterfuck for the last 6 months. It’s a shame too because in all the controversy about controversy – and I don’t want to downplay the legitimate issues that are wrapped up in that – stuff like this recent Washington Post article are slipping through the cracks.

Madeline Messer, a 12 year old who seems way smarter than I was at 12, noticed that in the games she and her friends were playing there often wasn’t a choice to play as a female character.

Of the apps that did have gender-identifiable characters, 98 percent offered boy characters. What shocked me was that only 46 percent offered girl characters. Even worse, of these 50 apps, 90 percent offered boy characters for free, while only 15 percent offered girl characters for free. Considering that the players of Temple Run, which has been downloaded more than one billion times, are 60 percent female, this system seems ridiculous.

This isn’t a malicious problem but it is a pervasive one – I mean the numbers show it. Take for example Temple Run, it’s created by a husband and wife team who, at least in the interviews I’ve read, seem like really nice people. I can’t imagine them twirling their mustaches at the idea of disempowering little girls. In fact, they have a version of the game that defaults to a female character (Temple Run: Brave). But it is indicative of an industry wide issue.

It’s like the Bechdel Test. The problem isn’t that one game charges for female characters, it’s that 85% of games charge for them if they even have them. That’s got to be disheartening and something that young kids, unfortunately, internalize.

It’s a shame we aren’t talking about this more. Not just because she has a point, but because a 12 year old doing something like this is something to be encouraged.

I’m pretty sure Trust Engineer is a job title straight out of 1984

Over the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time working on usability and user experience in my day job since we’re in the middle of designing a new site. A lot of that time has been spent working on language and figuring out what words we can use to encourage people to take action.

Yesterday I listened to the most recent Radiolab podcast (embedded below) and it was a nice piece of serendipity. The podcast talks about the social engineers at Facebook and how their small tweaks to language and design can have big impacts on usability.

It’s amazing what the simple addition of the word “it’s” to a description of an emotion can have such a huge impact on the way that people perceive a tool.

What MTV’s 16 And Pregnant can teach us about campaigning

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that MTV wins wars; that cultural colonization, for better or worse, is far more effective than any bomb. Well now it looks like MTV is also winning metaphorical wars too.

A new study on MTV’s show 16 And Pregnant attributes part of the decline in teen pregnancies in the US to the show. When looking at the data on teen pregnancies they found that the decline corresponded not only with how many people were watching the show but also with Google search data and the number of tweets about the show. Their estimates show that 16 And Pregnant is responsible for a 5.7% drop in teen pregnancy in the US.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding that really surprising. I mean, if I’m being honest, I probably would have guessed that the show would have inadvertently encouraged teenage pregnancy or thought that if it did have an impact it wouldn’t have been so strong. Mea culpa I guess. I obviously didn’t have enough faith in MTV or teenagers.

So that got me thinking, what exactly can we learn from this show? MTV, knowingly or not, is running one of the most successful awareness campaigns in the US.

(Before we get started though let me just say that I am by no means an avid fan. I watched 2 episodes after hearing about this study and that’s what my conclusions are based on. Take from that what you will.)

  1. It tells a (voyeuristic) story: first and foremost the show is meant to entertain and the message gets snuck in. It’s not that the message is secondary to the story, it’s that the story and the message are integrated. Presenting the message this way keeps the viewer interested enough to receive your message.
  2. It shows consequences: not only does it show the consequences of teen pregnancy (or at least some of them) but it presents them in a way that allows the audience to imagine themselves in that situation and empathize.
  3. The illustrates the actions needed to avoid those consequences: those actions are also small and actionable. Now, it’s easier to avoid getting knocked up than it is to stop climate change but the important point is to show people what they can do.
  4. The impact of the actions you can take are apparent: the final point, and again perhaps a bit easier to illustrate with teen pregnancy than other issues, is that you know the impact of the actions you can take. It’s easier to follow through with something if you know what effect it will have.

[infographic] The 3 most important words you should include in your title

Buzzfeed, and to a lesser extent Upworthy, get a lot of shit for the trend they started in attractive but uninformative titling. They deserve a lot of it but you can’t deny that their tactic works and that people can’t resist clicking on them.

Reddit user Minimaxir looked at around 60,000 Buzzfeed articles and tracked which 3 word phrases got the most Facebook shares. The answer will surprise you! (I couldn’t resist)


[Ramblings] Bitcoin as protest

Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want -Anna Lappe

So Bitcoin has been in the news a lot over the past few months. I have a fascination with Bitcoin; I’d guess I’d liken it to someone slowing down to look at a car crash, though in all fairness we don’t know if it will be a car crash yet. In case it wasn’t obvious from that previous sentence I have a bit of a distaste for Bitcoin and I wanted to explore that a little.

But let’s rewind a little and go back to the beginning.

What is Bitcoin?

It’s like PayPal for drugs. Wait, hang on. No angry emails please. That may be accurate, but it’s not fair. For that I’m going to summarize an article from Darren Hobbs. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency – a type of digital money – designed to eliminate the need for third parties (like credit card companies or banks) and to deal with the problem of inflation. The major selling point is that it allows people to transfer Bitcoins between each other without the need for a third party like a bank.

What’s my problem with Bitcoin?

I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% sure. I’m a big believer in the idea that, to some degree, everything we do is political. What we buy, how we dress, who we talk to, all of that is an extension of our beliefs (or lack there of). I mean, some of that is going to be dictated by circumstances and the situation but the principle stands in general. I think that we can all agree that what we buy says something about our politics; the choice between a buying a Hummer and a Prius is probably to some degree a declaration of politics. If that’s the case then isn’t the way that purchase is made also important?

I’d say yes.

If you have problems with the execution of the current economic system – rather than say with the principle of the system – then Bitcoin lets you operate without using, and therefore giving power to, institutions that you disagree with. In the case of sites like Silkroad (see the stories above) it also allows you to purchase some things that you would otherwise have difficulty procuring. You can make an argument that that is also valid. It also can’t be taxed, at least until you try and convert it to another currency.

So what’s the problem then? Well I’d say there are two issues that I have. Let’s break them down.

The evangelists

If you spend any significant amount of time online in the nerdier underbelly of the internet then you’ve probably been inundated with propaganda from Bitcoin evangelists for years. I’d rank my experience with Bitcoin evangelists right behind Ron Paul supporters on the I Understand Your Point But You’re Annoying As Fuck scale. Part of this is because Bitcoin evangelists seem to be a heady mixture of free staters, investment bankers, people who are waaaaay too keen about LSD, Guy Fawkes mask purchasers, and people who insist that taxes are a form of violence inflicted upon them (but who ignore the benefits, like you know, roads and schools). All of whom insist that it will solve all the world’s ills.

I think that’s more of a problem with me though. A recent study from the University of Toronto looked into the way bias around certain issues effects the way people view others. One that stood out to me, because of personal involvement, was that there is resistance to tackling environmental issues because some people see environmentalists as “tree huggers” and “hippies”. I’ve worked a lot on environmental issues so this understandably rubs me the wrong way and I can’t imagine that the same phenomenon that annoys me here isn’t working it’s magic on me in regards to Bitcoin. My distaste for the evangelists (or at least my perception of them) is influencing my views on the issues to some degree and that’s not fair.

I don’t want to let the evangelists completely off the hook though. There’s a certain strain that are actually being detrimental to the overall perception. Take this article for example. Wired spends an entire article talking about homeless people who survive using Bitcoin. Except they aren’t. Bitcoin is only part of the picture. Wired says,

The bitcoin system could become an equalizer for the country’s homeless, a place where the stigma of living on the streets isn’t as pronounced.

which is utopian tech wankery for the sake of a novelty. I’m not saying there aren’t some real benefits to Bitcoin for homeless people (namely a way to remotely store money without needing a fixed address) but that quote ignores a whole host of issues and variables and does almost nothing to address the socia-economic realty that this specific set of people found themselves in. It’s Bitcoin boosterism disguised as activism. A cooptation of other issues as a way to promote a pet project. I frankly find that a bit offensive but that may just be because I feel that homelessness is a more important issue than, say, who controls the Federal Reserve.

The cooptation of politics for money

My second issue, which is kind of related, is the fact that for a lot of people Bitcoin isn’t a form of protest. It’s a stock that they buy and sell for financial gain. I guess the question is then whether it matters if a legitimate form of activism is getting used for something else. Again, this rubs me the wrong way but that’s my biases showing. To go back to environmentalism, I can’t say that I think that companies profiting off of renewable energies or selling organic foods delegitimize the cause. I mean sure, they might dilute the message or complicate the discussion of the issue but it doesn’t invalidate it.

With Bitcoin, and this might just be because of the enthusiasts I’ve encountered, it seems to me that the majority are more concerned about making money then about promoting the cause. The cause is ancillary to the profit. People treat it like stocks. A stock exchange fueled (at least in some small part) by ethics. Is that a bad thing though? Wouldn’t it be better if real stock brokers acted like that. But making money is a way of promoting the cause. I can’t fault someone for buying stocks in a solar panel company even if they don’t have a real interest in renewable energy. Either way it promotes the adoption of that technology.

The wrap up

Even after all that rambling and vacillating I still have to say that I’m still skeptical of Bitcoin. I get the premise behind it but I can’t say I’m keen. Maybe I’m wrong, I probably am. I’d be happy for anyone to try and convince me in the comments below.

Ice Bucket Challenge post mortem: is it possible to capture the lightning again?


I’ve been waiting for the Ice Bucket Challenge to cool down (puns!) before taking a look at what went right with and whether it’s possible to replicate. Let’s break this down.

What is the Ice Bucket Challenge?

The Ice Bucket Challenge started, as best we can tell, on July 15th when Chris Kennedy dumped a bucket of ice water over his head and challenged his cousin to either donate money to ALS research or dump a bucket of freezing water over her head. If you’re interested in seeing how it spread the Wall Street Journal has a good run down. From their it spread across social media with people posting short videos of them dumping ice water over their heads, tagging their friends in the posts, and challenging them to donate and do the same. At some point the whole either/or part of the challenge got lost in translation.

Did the Ice Bucket Challenge work?

Good god yes! Over the course of a month there were thousands (tens? hundreds?) of tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts. On top of that the ALS Association is reporting that they raised over $100 million dollars. Keep in mind that during that same time period last year they raised just under $3 million. So that’s pretty much an unqualified success and ridiculously amazing for something that started so organically.

Can you recreate the Ice Bucket Challenge?

No. Trying to recreate a viral campaign is a bad idea. They go viral due in part to their novelty. That being said we can look at what made it work and try and work that into future campaigns.

What lessons can we learn?

Okay, so it works but we can’t just copy it wholesale. Fair enough. There are a few really good lessons we can learn from the Ice Bucket Challenge to apply to future campaigns though.

1) The timing was right. This campaign hit in the summer right in a depressing news cycle. Shot down planes, invasion of Ukraine, ISIS, etc. were all dominating the news. Then along came this campaign, which is entertaining, involved celebrities, and was easy to turn into a human interest story. I can’t count the number of stories I saw where it started off with the ice bucket challenge and then shifted to a story about a local person with ALS. As a general rule news programs aren’t keen on positive stories unless their human interest stories and the timing of this hit when they were dying to break up the depression.

2) It’s basically a chain letter. Or a pyramid scheme or multilevel marketing or whatever way you want to think of it. It quite deftly exploits your social networks to perpetuate itself. Seriously, the tag 3 friends bit is straight out of Cutco’s playbook and also kinda genius in a nefarious sort of way.

3) It used peer pressure, (mild) humiliation and guilt. By tagging you in the post the challenge calls you out in front of your friends. You can ignore it but then you’ll look bad. So you’re peer pressured and guilted into participating. Some people would prefer to call this social proof.

The challenge itself is also a little humiliating or maybe humbling is a better word. Not enough to dissuade people from participating, but just enough that it’s entertaining to watch your friends dump cold water over their heads.

4) It targeted our vanity. We’re all a little vain and we all like looking good in front of our friends. The ice bucket challenge lets people show they care about something, show that they’re good people, and show that they have a sense of humour. Basically it’s a chance to show off.

5) It targeted celebrities. There’s no way this would have got the attention it did if it hadn’t targeted celebrities, which then got it on the national news.

6) It was authentic. This is the one that would be the hardest to replicate. The ice bucket challenge just felt authentic and not like it was cooked up in the back room of an office or that it had been focus grouped. I mean that’s because it wasn’t but still, you get the point. It was simple enough that anyone could have thought of it or started it and that’s something that people liked. They were on an equal playing field and not being directed by an organization.

[gsummit] The art of Google ads

One of the more interesting talks at the GSummit conference – though one that didn’t have the best attendance; I guess an talk on the arts is a hard sell to marketers – was by Erik Gensler from Capacity Interactive.

His presentation was on doing online marketing for dance companies and other arts organizations. Obviously pretty niche, but also really interesting. Two things really stood out to me.

1) They created a website that helped people pick out the right show for them. Users answered questions on what type of music they liked, when they were available, how much they wanted to pay, etc. and then the site gave them options for shows that fit their criteria. This was particularly successful for getting in newbies to the arts scene who were interested but had no idea where to start.

It seems to me that some organizations that are trying to promote grass roots action could really do with something similar that would recommend activities people could take based on their skill set, time commitment, etc. I imagine people would be more willing to follow through if they received a customized action plan.

2) Use Google ads to creep on people. As a follow up to the recommendation engine they also set up there Google Analytics to track users who went a certain amount through the process but then did not by tickets. With that info they then had Google serve up ads to those people for tickets to their shows. The idea being that a lot of the people who abandon the process are interested but leave for a variety of reasons and that by seeing the ad they’ll be prompted to pick the process back up. You see this a lot with online stores when you leave with things in the shopping cart unbought.

Again I could see a non-profit application for something like this for people who don’t end up signing petitions or who stopped in the middle of the donation process.

The slides from his presentation are embedded below.

Do we lose impact by moving online?

I was reading an old issue of Intelligent Life recently – seriously, that thing has been on my apartment floor untouched for months – when I came across this fantastic article about Video Volunteers’ India Unheard.

Video Volunteers tells otherwise unheard stories by putting cameras in the hand of people in poor and marginalized areas. It gives them training video journalism and puts them in a position to use video to inspire action.

It goes like this: find someone with something important to say. Put a camera in their hand and teach them to use it. Ensure that the resulting films are screened in relevant communities, be they urban slums or rural villages, and that the audience is suitably galvanised. And be sure to document any change with a second film, the “impact video”. These are some of the most compelling films made by Video Volunteers. Correspondents get hold of government officials and show them, on camera, some injustice that they have the power to undo—their discomfort growing as they become more accountable and realise that denial is no longer an option.

It really is an amazing story and the community correspondents seem to get some real tangible results in their communities. I don’t think there’s any arguing that it’s a fantastic program.

This is where I start vacillating.

As I was reading the article and all the quotes about the impacts of the videos I kept thinking about how that model could be applied to global problems. I’m a big picture guy, what can I say; local issues and politics just don’t hold my attention the same way that global catastrophes do.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that the impact of these videos is that they are local. To a large part these videos seem to work on shame. The targets are shamed and face the consequences of that shame in their day to day lives since the problems are local. It’s hard to not address a problem when you are forced to see the impacts of that inaction and answer for it. When you don’t get that immediate impact or when you can pawn off the responsibility I’m just not sure that it works as well. Shame just doesn’t translate outside of the community level. Things become faceless at that point.

This is a bigger problem too when you’re trying to organize on a grassroots style campaign on a large scale. The tactics that work small scale often don’t translate well. The aspects of small scale grassroots campaigning that is appealing can often be a detriment as you scale up. Think of some of the problems that Occupy encountered.

Does that mean that tactics used for grassroots campaigns lose their effectiveness as you move away from the local? What would happen if we adjusted this model to account for YouTube and a global audience?

Well, it wouldn’t work. Or at least not consistently. I just can’t imagine people in the West – not to single out one group – caring about local concerns halfway around the world. I could see it happening occasionally but not on any sort of consistent basis.

But I don’t think that means that this model would not work if we abstract it out enough. It’s a matter of tactics versus strategy. While the tactics of the India Unheard campaign might not work the overarching strategy would. It’s an issue of framing. I don’t think that it’s a surprise that you can’t scale up a project that much without making adjustments.

So shame won’t work but what about positive emotions?

Saying that shame is the big driver of the Unheard India videos doesn’t really do it justice. That may be the initial driver but the success of those campaigns and the screening of the videos creates a real sense of empowerment and makes the overall campaign viral. The videos, outside of their original purpose, do 3 important things:

  1. they empower the viewers;
  2. they act as a teaching device, showing people a model the emulate; and
  3. spreads the idea and principles behind India Unheard.

To me, that seems to create a very powerful feedback loop.

So how would you apply that globally or nationally? It would take two different approaches. First you would emulate India Unheard and follow their model for tackling local issues. On a national/global scale you could then shift the focus towards highlighting successes and demonstrating how small (relatively speaking) actions can have real impacts. You’d curate the videos and create a campaign based on showing the power of the “common man”. Step two would be doing some napkin level math to quantify the impacts that everyone collectively has had to demonstrate how small actions can add up.

At least that’s my take. I love to hear yours. Let me know in the comments below.

Iranian clicktivism

Recent reports indicate that the Iranian government has cut off access to all encrypted Internet services. Google has confirmed that users in Iran can no longer access their secure services. By blocking access to websites using the HTTPS format the Iranian government has, in essence, censored sites including Google, Facebook, and Yahoo. Luckily Tor still seems to work. For years activists have speculated that Iran has been moving towards a “halal” internet, which would for all intents and purposes be an intranet controlled by the government.

This saddens me for a number of reasons. You see, back in the good old days of 2007 I used to work in a think tank that dealt with issues of nuclear proliferation; Iran was obviously a big focus of this work. It was there that I first encountered the idea of online activism outside the context of the Western world and I’ve considered Iran as a beacon for online political dissent.

When you mention clicktivism and Iran many people first think of the Green Revolution. That was nowhere near the first run that the Iranian government had with the Internet.

I’d like to take this chance to highlight a favourite book of mine, Nasrin Alavi’s We Are Iran (which you can find on Google Books). We Are Iran tells the story of dissent in Iran using the words of Iranian bloggers. The book not only provides insight into an Iran that is rarely seen in the West, but also shows the potential of the medium. In 2005 there were more than 64,000 Farsi blogs.

The story starts in 2000 with Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian who emigrated to Canada. While studying at the University of Toronto he wrote a how-to blog guide in Farsi and the Iranian blogging revolution began. Derakshan is currently in jail in Iran for “insulting religion.”  The use of anonymous blogs allowed Iranians a place to express themselves on ways that they couldn’t anywhere else.

A big focus is of course, given the circumstances in the country, women. Alavi writes,

Blogs have allowed some Iranian women to express themselves freely for the first time in modern history and this small freedom may have a big knock on effect. It might be objected that the majority of female bloggers do not reflect a true cross-section of Iranian society, as not everyone has access to computers and the internet. However, thanks to the Islamic Republic’s policy of free education and its national literacy campaigns, those who enter further education tend to be from a relatively wide cross-section of society. Iranian students come from a broad variety of social and regional backgrounds and have access to the internet.

Which can be seen in this statement from a blogger called Baakereh, which could not be expressed anywhere but online:

What would happen if you were no longer legally required to wear the veil? Just imagine if our women were free to wear whatever they wanted; if even mixed bathing on the beach were allowed …would this be culturally tolerable to Iranians?

The history of online activism in Iran is long and storied, and while a bit outdated, We Are Iran provides fascinating context to the activism we see expressed today.

When a clicktivist hits the streets

Yesterday I went street campaigning with Greenpeace UK and a bunch of Stormtroopers (that’s right, Stormtroopers), so I thought I would share some of my impressions and pictures of the day with you guys, while walking you through a very peculiar campaign that combines both online and offline tactics.

Greenpeace’s Dark Side campaign kicked off in late June this year, targeting the car manufacturer giant Volkswagen.  The ultimate goal of the campaign was to stop the company from lobbying against climate laws and have them spreading their “Blue Motion” energy efficiency technology throughout all their models – instead of just a few.

Yesterday’s street campaigning event would be one of the later stages of this European wide operation, whose earlier stages included:

  1. The launch of a spoof video in late June
  2. The launch of the viral game Dark Side – Join the Rebellion
  3. A number of direct actions (in the UK, France and Germany)
  4. The film competition “See Volkswagen Differently”

Our goal was to collect over a thousand signatures against Volkswagen’s lobbying practice. There were about 70 volunteers involved from all London GP networks, and 8 Stormtroopers (or volunteers wearing Star Wars costumes, if you will) escorting us through the streets of London. Simultaneously, campaigners and Twitter users were tweeting about the campaign, sharing pictures of their encounters with soldiers from the Imperial Army and using the unique hashtags #spotthestormtrooper and #gpactive to mark their tweets.

I found this combination of online and offline interactions very fascinating, though not as effective as I expected, unfortunately. To my great surprise, less people than I thought were actually interested in tweeting, mostly because they weren’t on Twitter at all (yikes!). Only couple of people out of the over thirty people I spoke to yesterday told me they were on Twitter (of those, one magically tweeted about the campaign from her smart phone while I was still formulating my question – oh, youngsters!). This made me think of the potential reach of a combined campaign that includes both face-to-face and online campaigning. However, this surely depends first and foremost on the target audience of the campaign in question; in this case, mostly middle-aged middle-class car owners, I guess.

My second thought of the day was: despite its undoubted effectiveness, street campaigning is, and will always be for me, a weird beast. I must say, I don’t usually fancy people coming around asking for money or signatures on issues I didn’t even take into consideration a minute before. Let’s be honest, nobody likes it. That is why, when I do get involved in this, I’m always very conscious of the way I’m talking and interacting with people. I’m aware of the fact that a single word could either scare them off, or make them hang on my lips. You also have to get used to being rejected most of the times, and learn not to take it personally. It is not a nice feeling in most cases, but is challenging and therefore very rewarding when it works.

Third thought of the day: Stormtroopers are campaigners’ best friends. The following pictures are pretty explicative of what happened once the guys put on their costumes and held the Greenpeace sign against Volkswagen. Lots of eyes, lots of pictures, lots of questions, lots of signatures (and, obviously, lots of fun).

At the end of the day, despite loosing the use of hands and feet due to the freezing London weather, we eventually reached and exceeded our goal, collecting over 1,600 signatures in just few hours.

Now, what would my beloved anti-clicktivists possibly have to say to this?

Oh yeah, and this is me with the Stormtroopers (tell me, how could I not have published this?).

--Oriana (@OrianaLau)