Play to your audience: emotional arcs and making people feel like assholes

In December last year this site was circulating through my Facebook circle.  I didn't think too much about it at the time, for reasons I'll get to below, but it's stuck with me since. I think this is mainly because it's indicative of a problem I've been struggling with in my own work, and one I see crop up in campaigns frequently; it doesn't know who it's for.

Now before I get started I just want to say that maybe this criticism isn't fair. I don't know what the creator intended so I could be judging it as something it's not trying to be. Nevertheless, I think still serves as a good example of not having a clear audience and what that can mean for your user experience.

The site starts with a simple instruction; click here to save the world. As you click forward - though by my best count 173 clicks - it gets into a fairly straightforward admonishment of slacktivism and people who won't put their money where their mouth when supporting a cause. It calls out people who walk past chuggers, people who buy smoothies instead of donating to charities, and so on. It ends by telling you to go do something.

That description really doesn't do it justice. Take a minute to click through and get a proper sense of it.

Knowing your audience is key for everything you do. The audience you are aiming for will inform your goals (or vice versa) and your process design. If you're confused at the beginning you're confused all the way through.

Who is this for? It addresses the general masses but seems to be written for people who know the inside baseball of working in nonprofits. This creates problems and manifests itself in the tone, which is passive aggressive, smug, and frankly more than a little sanctimonious. When it asks you how many smoothies you would give up to help those in need there's no answer that doesn't result in the site saying it isn't enough. That may be true, but it isn't helpful.

They say you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. I'm not a fan of that saying. There's a role of negative emotions in campaigning. Negative emotions are powerful and can be great motivators. Negative emotions can't be the end point though.

If we look at designing an effective process for motivating action then negative emotions can be part of that process. They're a step or a launching point but never the destination. Good campaigns tell a story. Not just the story of the campaign but the story of the audience as part of the campaign. You engage them and bring them into the fold making them invest in it. It's an emotional arc, a character arc, that you take them through. You can't just make people feel shitty and abandon them. You need to give them an out; an opportunity to feel good about themselves when they walk away.

The first example that pops into my head, and it isn't the best, is this Sarah McLachlan ad for the SPCA. It is depressing as shit; showing you images of abused and abandoned animals. The commercials don't just fade to black there though. That would be horrific. They tell you about how you can help and then they show you the impact of that help when you get to see animals that are now healthy and in happy homes. There's an emotional journey to it.

Click to Save the World fades to black after calling you an asshole.

That's not constructive. If you want me - as a member of the public who you accuse of being apathetic and unwilling to contribute in any significant way to charity - to take action then you need to guide me to that action. If you want me to do something then you need to at least hint at what that something is. Let me know how I can make an impact.

This is a question of motivation. Where the site aims to motivate it instead alienates. I don't think the site is wrong in that most people lack the motivation to take substantial action whether that be volunteering their time or their money. People have different priorities and shit to deal with in their lives. There's two ways to go about addressing this; you either a) raise their motivation over that barrier of inaction to the point where they'll take action, or b) you lower the barrier to match their current motivation. Realistically, you're probably going to want to do both.

Because the site doesn't know who it's talking to it fails to accomplish anything. Joe Schmoe off the street is left feeling down and confused and Jan Charity Worker gets to briefly feel smug before feeling depressed that the public doesn't care. A challenge is issued but the rules aren't set out. It's like taking someone who has never seen a basketball in their life, walking them to the court and then telling them to score some points. The people on the sidelines who know how to play can have a good chuckle at the person floundering to understand what they're supposed to do but in the end is anything really being accomplished?

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.

Check out Hooked by Nir Eyal for more.

Check out Hooked by Nir Eyal for more.

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.