Sunday, July 23, 2006


Advocates and Congress can move forward together

The Internet has democratized our political culture in part because it has given all Americans a kind of civic activity that is simple and not threatening. They can go to a campaign website posted by an organization they trust, learn about an issue, and send a quick message to state or federal lawmakers. They affirm agreement with the campaign message and want to participate in the organization's coordinated effort along with possibly millions of other people. This is good, but leads to an increasing volume of email to lawmakers.

Last week, the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) released its own quick assessment of the logic behind "logic puzzle" (the new tool to block mass emails launched in the House). It announced that neither Congress nor advocacy groups are "completely wrong" and that both have to change their "mindsets and their practices" before email delivery can improve.

CMF wants to mediate this purported dispute and offers advocacy groups some wisdom on the changes we should be prepared to make.

The Advocacy Community must recognize that there is a difference between being noticed and having an impact on Capitol Hill. Quality is more persuasive than quantity. Short, targeted, informative, and personalized messages (even if they are part of an organized campaign) have more influence than a large volume of identical form messages, especially if those are intentionally sent to overwhelm congressional offices.

I find this kernal of wisdom pretty funny really. Of course, quality is more persuasive than quantity. The vast majority of advocacy groups strive to bring as much personalized messaging to Congress as possible. Of course, personal messages have a greater impact than standard ones, and phone calls make a greater impression than emails. Actual office visits and real conversations make a great impression too!

Advocacy groups work to lead Americans to more and more personalized and higher level volunteer activities because those activities are critical to achieve our political goals. That is essentially beside the point here. Standardized messages are here to stay because Americans appreciate them and want them. Advocacy groups in turn want to give Congress options that will make those standardized messages easier to manage. Those options might include certain kinds of data that feed along with the message and help distinguish the standard message from an edited version and from a completely unique communication.

People don't change the standard message because they agree with it, or because they have too little time to restate the message in their own words (Americans are very busy people), or because they are intimidated by writing, or because they trust the organization to identify the best approach, and for many other reasons. Some individuals almost always send a personalized message--others almost never do. The act of reading about the issue and deciding to send a standard message still represents an affirmative decision to communicate with Congress, and millions of Americans demonstrate by their actions that they want to communicate in this way.

Once people get comfortable with an issue, learn more about it over time, and participate repeatedly, they often begin volunteer for more complex and personalized activities. Advocacy groups encourage that with all our different volunteer programs. But a substantial number of people will still send a standard message, and might not send any message if required to do more. Depressing the civic participation of Americans is in no one's best interest.

It seems to me that the question is not whether 'quality is better than quantity'; the question is how to make the quantity more useful to Congressional offices. Advocacy groups participating in the Don't Block My Voice coalition effort are committed to doing just that.

The Congressional Management Foundation has significant grounding in Congressional mindsets and practices, after interviewing hundreds of staffers for a report released last year. Its not clear that they have the same grounding in the world of online political action. For that reason, they plan to launch an elaborate research into Americans' online political activities. This may well prove interesting, but there's no need to wait for that research to resolve the current problems that Congressional offices have with email communication.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Oh, and I'll be blogging regularly again!

I'm sure my regular readers have long ago drifted away, so I'll work hard to bring you back. After a long hiatus doing several other things, I'm back Getting The Message Out!

Since the end of February, I volunteered as the PAC treasurer for a local ballot initiative in my home town. I always learn more from campaigns that don't go well than from those that do, so after a devastating defeat I'll be posting about the many things I learned. Lots of folks don't like initiative and referendum, but I still believe its sometimes the best way to bring significant policy reform (sometimes its the only way). Unfortunately it may also be the most expensive and difficult, and the online portion of the campaign is just a small part of it. Look for posts soon on the endorsement process, and on the relationship between the online campaign, direct mail and TV. Again, keep in mind, we didn't win. So take these posts for what they are worth!

Glad to be blogging again.


'Captchas' are not for Congress

A few days after Congressional offices began to adopt “logic puzzle,” a new way to block email campaigns organized by nonprofits and political groups, Micah Sifry posted a note and Allyson Kapin started to blog on it here.

Last week, the nonprofit community answered with a resounding “No”! Almost all the nonprofits see this in terms of our basic constitutional right to freely petition government—and agree that blocking software must go.

On Monday of last week, more than 100 major organizations—including the nation’s largest conservative and liberal groups like,,, the American Family Association, Consumers Union and many more—faxed a letter to Congress opposing logic puzzle. Within 24 hours the leading groups began to hear back from Congressional staff.

A small number of Congressional offices—including Dingell and Roybal-Allard—turned off this blocking tool and we expect more to follow. This is an excellent first step, although I quickly learned that some Congressional staff hold surprising ideas about the email messages they get.

First, many staffers actually believe that nonprofit organizations send messages to Congress on behalf of our members without their permission. They believe we sign our members’ names to messages and send them in mass ourselves. The evidence for this—a few people, after getting a reply from the Representative’s office, said that they never sent a message on this topic. And staffers also thought it strange that a few people send lots and lots of messages on behalf of one or more groups.

To help us respond to these kinds of comments—please take a moment to take this quick survey! Do you regularly send messages from an organizational website? Do you like to send the standard message? Do you communicate more than you would if you had to go to each lawmaker's website and write your comments there? Congressional offices need to hear from you!

There are a handful of predictable ways that individuals could be confused by the reply they get from legislative offices. For example, my partner might take an action through my email account and not bother to switch the personal information, then I get a response about something I don’t remember doing. I personally take so many actions that I don’t remember them all. I have, from time to time, received a standardized response back so tenuously related to my original comment that I had trouble putting two and two together.

For the most part, there’s no evidence that any nonprofit—and certainly none of the major groups accounting for most of the organized email communication to Congress—signs peoples’ names on letters to Congress without their explicit permission. At a basic level, we need to educate Congressional staff about the systems we use and the activities our members take on our systems before a message is sent. Last year’s report by the Congressional Management Foundation, a research organization, identified this misunderstanding by staffers but did little to address it because they only surveyed staff and not the nonprofit community primarily generating the traffic.

That said, a real problem for legislative offices is the ever increasing volume of email. The Internet has expanded civic participation by making it far easier for busy Americans to express their views to Congress through organizations they join for that purpose. That is a good thing.

As a practical matter, it has increased the overall volume of communications. That too can be a good thing if it is well managed. Congressional offices have more information about their constituents—and their constituents’ views—than ever before. They can use that information to improve their constituent relationships. But the increase in volume has outpaced the ability of office staff to adjust—so at a very basic level some hit a wall and just want to turn it off. Clearly that is the wrong approach, but nonprofits can take an active roll in finding a solution that works for everyone.

One simple starting point—a standard message could be “bundled.” Instead of 20,000 separate messages, our systems could deliver the letter once along with all the signing individual information attached. That way the legislative offices know how many people sent the message, who they are and where they live. They can use the contact information to effectively respond by email or paper letter. All the messages carefully personalized by our members would continue to be delivered individually. That would immediately highlight for staff all the individual messages that should be looked at more carefully because our members may have included their personal story or other facts for consideration. Currently Congressional office websites are not set up to receive information this way, but they could be.

The many nonprofits who signed the letter to Congress have started to formalize as a coalition in order to move forward with real proposals for better constituent communication systems that ensure the delivery of all the messages. Visit and either send a direct message to Congress yourself or sign on your nonprofit organization to the coalition. More than 15,000 individuals have already asked their own Representatives not to use “logic puzzle” and we expect tens of thousands more in the coming days. Let’s not turn back the clock on democracy!

Sunday, February 26, 2006


So you're redesigning your 2

We all have a lot to say. Not all of it needs to go up on every website. Instead we must focus on the information and functionality that will make our primary audience feel that they have come to a credible site to do the activity they come to do. I use that word "feel" for a reason.

Web credibility is so important and so hard to understand that Consumers Union actually launched an entire web credibility project (with its own website) to research the things that make a site credible to its readers and encourage sites to abide by standards of credibility. Our most elaborate and interesting study came out way back in 2002 and hasn't been replicated, so I am still using it (knowing that 2002 is an internet lifetime ago). The 2002 web credibility study identified a gap between what really makes a site credible to readers and what readers think makes a site credible.

The project has always surveyed web users--who report that a site is more credible if it has a good privacy policy or corrects its mistakes--but in this case they asked web users to use websites and answer questions during that process.

The data showed that the average consumer paid far more attention to the superficial aspects of a site, such as visual cues, than to its content. For example, nearly half of all consumers (or 46.1%) in the study assessed the credibility of sites based in part on the appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.

The study also found that people felt a site was more credible if it was easy to use. If the information is well organized or the function is straightforward, people feel better about their experience—even if they never actually read the information that you post.

This study introduced me for the first time to the Stanford Persuasive Technologies Lab--I find this name very creepy--where researchers try and figure out details of those visual cues that carry a feeling of credibility. In the end this is probably where the art lies--and I do believe there's a lot of art involved. As long as the art doesn't get in the way of the activity your people come to do or the information they seek, then a site's artistry can make a very positive contribution to the feel of credibility.

For example, at Action for Healthy Kids, strong photos of kids faces dominate, while the navigation is focused on getting people onto their state team (a clear, primary purpose). At the National Coalition Against Censorship we see a beautiful entry page with some very sexy topics (including things like pornography and violence), but you have to click through that page to find the site itself and the site organization doesn't follow the teaser topic list.

It may not take an artist to give you the visual cues you need if you can identify a simple motif or image that will appeal to your audience specifically. The ACLU of Texas wanted to reach out to moderates and conservatives in Texas with some common sense reforms. But the ACLU sometimes has a credibility problem when it reaches beyond its core liberal base in a conservative state like Texas. Texans may not automatically believe things the ACLU has to say.

On the other hand, defending the bill of rights is truly patriotic, so the organization focused its web design on a simple flag motif that highlights its patriotism while posting a range of information appealing to all kinds of Texans. This may not be enough to offset the beating this organization regularly takes from the shock jocks, but it probably helps give site visitors a good feeling about the ACLU’s real commitment to serious and credible work.

If you suddenly find yourself part of a site design committee, or you are asked for ways to improve your organizations existing site, or you have just hired a consultant to help you develop a new web site—there are some online resources that might help you sort out the many small and large questions that will come up along the way.

Groundspring has put up a page of guidelines and tips that strikes a good balance between information to help you navigate the big decisions and information to sort out the details. For a list of site design topics and reports that will remind you why you hired that consultant in the first place, visit Web Site Tips. If the headline “How to Use .htaccess, mod_rewrite, and Related (for Apache)” doesn’t give you a headache, you might also like Shirley E. Kaiser’s related blog Brainstorms and Raves. Nancy Schwarz has some great commentary and links for nonprofits about web site development here. And for some common sense tips that can help you avoid mistakes, both small and large, visit Jakob Nielson’s Top Ten Web Design Mistakes.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


So you're redesigning your 1

There's a lot of information about site design on the internet, and an endless array of designers and consultants ready to help you (mostly for a fee) as you prepare to set up a site or revamp an existing site. Its enough to make a poor nonprofit staffer's head explode.

I've put together a few websites now (for different nonprofits) with external consultants, internal controversies and design committees. Any one of these can lead your site down a path to failure--take them all together and you get the nightmare that is probably the average nonprofit staffer's experience of site development. Perhaps I'm an incorrigible optimist, but it doesn't have to be this hard.

When I start a new web design project now, I start with the questions
  • "who is this site for" and

  • "what are those people coming there to do."

  • Then I ask myself
  • how can I best enable the main activity people come there to do, and

  • how do I make the surrounding information credible to the audience coming to do it.

  • Throughout the process I just keep reminding myself of these questions so that the myriad small things that come up don’t distract us from the goal.

    The first question is probably the hardest. If your answer to that first question includes everyone from experts in your field to activists on the street and elderly people clicking away at home, then you will have a hard time developing any design that is going to be easy to use and credible to everyone. So maybe you need more than one website!

    Consumers Union has two very different websites devoted to changing the prescription drug marketplace. The first, Best Buy Drugs, is primarily for people seeking better information about the medicines they take. The audience will be disproportionately older people and they come to the site to read about their medications. We hope to change the marketplace by showing people through credible, comparative studies that they can enjoy better health and save money by avoiding certain designer drugs. If they take that information to their doctor and get a different prescription as a result, we have succeeded.

    We also want to change the marketplace through legislative reforms (Congress and the states), and created a completely separate site for this, Prescription for Change. We simply place the logo for Best Buy Drugs in the information section of the site. This site's audience is broader--anyone who is disturbed by drug company lobby power, misrepresentations, and secrecy. I'm disturbed, and I just see the terrible ads on TV! The site design is entirely focused on directing viewers to state and federal action, with supporting information under "news" and "learn more" tabs.

    Having multiple sites can be controversial, and it can get out of hand I suppose. We have a lot of sites, and I often wonder if I will know when we've reached an upper limit on this practice. But this solution can help you resolve some difficult decisions and make your site design process easier and more focused on results.

    Once you have focused on your audience and the activity they expect to do on your site, you can start to cut away all the extraneous information and functions that will distract your readers and make navigation more difficult. But lets leave that discussion for Part II!

    Saturday, February 18, 2006


    Benchmarks for success

    M&R Strategic Services and the Advocacy Institute last week released a first of its kind study giving nonprofit advocacy groups a reasonable set of metrics by which we can measure the relative success of our online political programs.

    It does not attempt to measure the extent to which politicians are moved by email and phone communications from our members. For that assessment, we must go elsewhere. But it does highlight the continuing importance of email as a primary way to solicit online political activity, and the importance to all our online activists of a credible, layered political strategy (including offline volunteer tactics, good media strategy, lobbying).

    First, I must state for the record that M&R provides consulting services to Consumers Union. I know these guys. They won't mind my saying that the major findings--based on actual system data for 15 nonprofits and three large tool vendors--are unsurprising. If you send more email to more people, you can generate more communications to legislators. And if you spend more money you can build a bigger email list and raise more money.

    That said, even experienced online organizers will take away some real lessons:

    Because a study of this size and scope is beyond most of us on a day to day basis, I'm thrilled that M&R and the Advocacy Institute issued these results. I've conducted pieces of this analysis at different times, and our internal results confirm most of their major points. We see better results from email that speaks to people in terms of where they live, and issues or interests don't seem to matter as much as you might think (see post on this topic). Paid promotion through carefully selected email partners performs far better than other promotions, although we've had some email that tanked. A big chunk of our list (about a third) reads our email but doesn't take action much.

    Nonprofit organizations can use this study to benchmark our own results and find the areas where our performance is perhaps below par. The authors illustrate each section with sample activity by a specific nonprofit that can be used as a model, and close with "Best Practices."

    That said, I wish the study had taken its "Best Practices" a couple of steps further. Understandably, the authors did not attempt to identify why certain individual messages performed better than others, although their statistical results defy conventional wisdom. I generally preach that shorter emails perform better than longer ones. For these nonprofits message length was not determinative except that the message shouldn't be too short (under 250 words). Nor did writing grade level seem to matter. Day of the week matters somewhat, but time of day didn't seem to matter.

    But the study touches on something that matters a great deal. Strategy.

    Here we get less helpful guidance. The authors note that you must define your goals, learn about your audience (I would say audiences), understand your tools, be relevant, and integrate online tactics with other tactics. That is all excellent advice, but if your organization does not routinely run volunteer-based grassroots campaigns, it might not be that helpful.

    I've said before that people will open your emails, read and take action if they believe that your strategy is likely to bring success. We are all tired of feeling like our side is losing. We are exhausted by constant, defensive battles. We want to win something for a change. But we are also all quite sensitized to hooey--happy happy joy joy re-spinning defeat into victory.

    What does it take to communicate a real strategy for real success? I'm going to make this sound easier than it really is. First, believe in your ability to succeed. Second, analze yourself, analyze your opponent, and analyze the terrain between you. Take out a calendar and actually lay out key dates that affect your campaign (legislative session dates, major holidays, election dates, corporate board meeting dates, study committee meeting dates, filing deadlines for ballot initiatives). Add to this calendar the timing for online communications from your e-activists that might influence different targets and move your campaign forward. Then add to it things that offline volunteers can do, things other organizations can do (your allies) and things your opponents are likely to do. Identify the best moments for offense, and the likely moments for defense. Finally look at your internal capacity and start to pare down the things you want to do to a core calendar of things you can actually pull off. Now, you have a strategy to communicate to your list.

    If each volunteer activity (whether a simple email action or a complex field endeavor) actually helps put pressure on a decision maker, bring in a needed new ally, or split off a problematic opponent, then your volunteers and e-activists will gladly dive in and do what it takes. You will see the results immediately in your open, click and action rates.

    I recommend that we all pay attention to the study, and use it to improve the ways we communicate our successful political strategy to our members! Thank you, M&R and Advocacy Institute!

    Saturday, February 04, 2006


    You're standing in a bar...

    A great email has a great subject line, a quick, sharp formulation of the proplem and proposed solution, and a brief landing page with the action people can take. This is harder than it sounds.

    When we know a lot about a topic, its easy to over estimate the amount and type of information that people want to know before they will help us move reforms on that topic. If we are communicating by email, its important to distill out the key points that will generate a sense of shared urgency--and not overload people with our expertise.

    To get back to basics, I often imagine myself in a bar--its crowded, noisy, and distracting. Standing next to an interesting new colleague, someone says, "so, what are you working on these days..." and I know I have just a moment to convey to this person (who I like and want to like me in return) the most compelling thing about my current project. Suddenly I've reformulated the wonky, detailed policy proposition I started out with as a real problem with easily identifiable implications for my new friend, and my strategy sounds fun and potentially successful. All in a couple of quick sentences delivered in a strong tone to cut through the surrounding chatter.

    This simple, mental roll play works for me because it changes my relationship with my audience from one of writer/reader to that of an active participant with my new acquaintance in a conversation. I must first figure out in a blink how to spark some interest and then draw out further conversation from that interest.

    It also works because it takes advantage of the enormous power of our brain's unconscious congnition processes--the process that allows us to just say something, without thinking about it ahead of time, and its perfectly...right. In his recent book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell identifies this power of rapid cognition with the "zone" described by athletes or the insight certain art experts enjoy instantly when they see an artifact.

    "Whenever we meet someone for the first time, when ever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we're faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use that second part of our brain," he writes. I believe this applies directly here. The things we say and do directly, without thinking too much ahead of time but with the benefit of our years of experience and knowledge of a topic, are often the best formulations we can create.

    Once I feel like I've formulated the problem and my strategy in a couple or three quick sentences that would inspire a new friend in the bar, I make sure that I've identified the most positive aspects of my work that encourage optimism, and I try to frame a subject line around that optimism.

    This week I got a great email from MoveOn. The subject line was so simple: "Amazing." I must confess that I don't open all my MoveOn email, but I opened that one. What was amazing? Did something good happen? God knows, I want to have some good news the way things are going these days. I opened the email just to find out what was amazing. And the first line told me that MoveOn's last fundraising appeal brought in more than the goal. Now I didn't contribute to that fundraising effort (in fact, I didn't even know about it, no doubt because I didn't open the previous email), but I experienced a small, warm feeling anyway that something amazing had happened that would help MoveOn do amazing work in the near future. Amazing. You may even feel just a shade of that positive feeling as you read this paragraph. That's the power of a good subject line, and the power of a positive attitude.

    Your activists want some good news; they want to know that their actions count, and they want to see some progress--even if its only progress to a fundraising goal or a supportive editorial in the daily paper. In order to give people a positive but honest assessment of the impact of their participation, you will eventually need to start measuring that impact in more creative ways but I'll save that for a future post.

    I find that examples help, so here's an email we sent last month that resulted in a good open rate (over 30%) and a reasonable action rate (over 10%).

    Dear Kathy,

    Last year, more than a dozen states passed strong identity theft laws. Now Indiana will join them and bring you the right to control your credit information so that thieves can't open new accounts in your name.

    Take a moment now to support newly filed legislation that will help you defend against identity theft.

    Dozens of security breaches at major banks, data vendors and retailers put millions of people at risk of identity theft in 2005. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that almost ten million are victimized each year. When an identity thief has the right information about you, he can open new credit accounts in your name and just start charging. The mess takes years to clean up and can cost you a fortune.

    But Indiana is about to change all that, with your help.

    And please, tell your friends to take action too. State legislatures are just now getting started, and now is the time to show support so that legislation will quickly move and pass in 2006. Don't delay!

    In the coming year, you will be part of a movement to pass bills in states, hold legislators and corporations accountable, and show the media the human faces demanding financial privacy, clear disclosures, fair credit card contracts, better cell phone service and much more. We can successfully pass major reforms together. Take a look at what these incredible people, with just a little help from Consumers Union, accomplished in 2005!

    Gail Hillebrand
    Consumers Union
    1535 Mission Street
    San Francisco, CA 94103-2512

    I hope others who write a lot of email will chime in here with other good examples from their own experience--emails that got a good result and can show us all how to improve our work.

    Saturday, January 07, 2006


    The issue doesn't much as we think

    Let me start by saying that I don't like the word "issue," at least in the way we tend to use it as nonprofit policy people (this is a popular issue, that issue doesn't poll well, what issues do you care about...).

    As policy wonks, we care deeply about (and have sometimes invested years of our lives promoting) particular kinds of economic, social or environmental reform. I personally spent many years promoting open government reforms. It was my "issue," and I thought it was a good one!

    But our focus on "issues" (and the value judgements we make about them) obscures what I think are the far more important factors that motivate people to volunteer, take action and contribute--in particular, our campaign's success as described in increments over time, and the transparency of it's successful strategy. Even worse, we sometimes assume that because someone helped out with one issue, we shouldn't talk to them about others--that our issues have their own audiences.

    Over the years as I worked with volunteers, and later as I analyzed different kinds of information about Consumers Union's online activists, I couldn't help notice that active people would routinely answer questions about their preferred issue with either a "don't know" or a litany of things. In a web survey, if we provide a list and people can check multiple boxes, a large number of respondents will actually check almost every box, a large number will skip the question, and a small number will actually select just one or two things. We also noticed that a good fresh message and subject line on a newly introduced topic motivated people to take action just as effectively as an email about a campaign through which we had recruited thousands of people.

    So could it be that all those hours spent dissecting the appeal of our "issues" was a waste? Well, not completely, but its probably not as central as we think.

    Most people don't have "issues." We have activities (really busy lives), values, trusted relationships and sources of information. From those things we construct priorities that are in a constant state of moderate flux. A nonprofit that wants to interest someone in a campaign and hold their interest over time has to connect with people at one or all of these levels: trusted relationship, trusted source of information, activity and values.

    The biggest predictor of a person's likelihood of doing something (activity) is that they've done it before. A volunteer who has stuffed envelopes or phonebanked for a candidate is likely to agree to stuff envelopes or phone bank for a favorite nonprofit. People who have emailed their legislator before will likely do so again. People who donate online to one cause will likely donate to another.

    Then there's trust. I think most of us work very hard to be a trusted source of information, and nonprofits routinely gather and disseminate excellent information on many topics not covered anywhere else. But what is that trusted relationship about? In politics (if that's the kind of nonprofit you are), I believe its about having a winning strategy. Our activists want some good news, and they want to know that their volunteer time (whether its two minutes to take an online action or an afternoon leafletting) is time well spent. If they feel good about the strategy they are helping implement, and they can see signs of progress, they will likely help again on another project. We have solidified a trust relationship.

    There's more than enough blather about values these days, but this is where the choice of issue might matter. Reforms--say access to affordable health care--can be supported based on a variety of values with better or worse language. Some reform topics are somewhat easier than others to discuss with a broad range of people based on their personal values, but I tend to think that almost anything can appeal to our values if presented well.

    Just today, while reading my pile of magazines, I noticed two different Cisco Systems ads for their business networking solutions. In The New Yorker, a beautiful woman walks down a glamorous urban street in heels with shopping bags. It looks like an ad for designer clothing until you read--"Shoes have a shoe box. Suits have a garment bag" and Cisco network solutions protect your customer transactions! This ad sells "security" to an audience likely tilting female. In Wired, on the other hand, the company promotes its small business networking under a lovely picture of a small vinyard where, apparently, the vintner can connect all his data and turn "memorable vintages into robust fiscal years." Not a word about network security, although I'm sure the vitner has all the same security protections as the urban shopper. Presumably the profile of Wired readers is different from that of New Yorker readers.

    In marketing, there's a myth of the product that sells itself--but to most people who actually do marketing, I'm sure the job is to sell the product your company actually makes. When we focus so much energy on finding the right issue, we're forgetting that the issues we know best can appeal to people if we focus on the best approach.

    That said, when we plan to spend significant money for an online promotion or a direct mail appeal, research will show that there will be a "best" combination of topic and language most likely to draw a good response to an introductory appeal. We should take care to choose which messages we put in the front of all our work, and that does require us to examine all our reform goals for those with strong "newstand" appeal. But after the introduction, our campaigns will continue to appeal to people if we communicate based on their values, their activity and their desire to be part of a successful movement. Oh, and it helps if we are in fact a successful movement, but more on that for another day!

    Wednesday, January 04, 2006


    We are all in the trenches

    A well-told war story can really grab and hold us--but there's almost nothing more dull than a war story that wanders off into endless side skirmishes but misses the big narrative. OK, so its a cliche, political discussion as a war narrative about an enemy and allies, an army and a terrain. I don't even read war stories (with a few exceptions like Fields of Fire).

    But we have to remember when we send one email after another that we are telling a serialized story of our overall battle, not just pumping up the hot item of the moment. That story needs to be a great one or even our strongest allies and biggest supporters will lose the thread, get tired, and drop off.

    There's always lot of loose talk about email fatigue, and it's no doubt the case that every one of us gets more email than we can personally manage. We all must decide which emails to read and which ones to push to one side or delete--and we make these decisions in a fraction of a second. But the solution does not lie in some rule about the number of emails an organization should or shouldn't send each month (we have all wasted far too much time on that debate). Instead, the answer lies in the compelling nature of the story we tell (and of course the compelling words in the subject line and lead :)).

    Unless we have won our battle -- and in that case I'm all for declaring victory and going home -- we tell something very much akin to a serialized war story with armies, skirmishes, heroes, victims, generals and movement on the front.

    I have a personal New Year's resolution to tell a better story: profile our hero activists who get the bills passed, identify individuals on the other side who block our progress, and give all my readers a regular update on our consumer movement, not just an update on a particular bill outcome.

    Sometimes I've lost the thread of our narrative, as I'm sure my email readers can vouch. We are a multi-issue organization with activity in health care, finance, product safety, food safety and much more. When Congress sneaks a bad amendment into a larger bill or states start to pass troubling industry bills, we stop and tell our readers and ask them to talk to their legislators. This can quickly become a disjointed series of shorts on different topics with no narrative arc. In my experience, the real story (and the thread I struggle to keep in the forefront) is about the growth of an effective movement to re-empower people to negotiate this marketplace effectively. That story has all the armies, skirmishes, heroes, victims, generals and movement (both directions) that we need.

    I'm sure I'm not the only person struggling with this, and I hope others will comment here or point me to other blogs where such comments are getting posted. We have much to learn, and 2006 is a great time to do it!

    Tuesday, December 27, 2005


    Going begging for bloggers

    When a nonprofit or a political campaign has invested in a high quality animation or video, we frequently try to release it first to bloggers in hopes that it will get posted and gather steam for "viral" traffic. Clearly the nonprofit has a "promotion" motive--we've put money into this and want to get it out to people who don't know about us already. Posts on blogs present one way for nonprofits to reach new audiences who might support their activities. I find the process brutal, but I'm like a kid in a candy store when a few posts begin to surface.

    This process is critical to a launch. We can't afford to hope that our wonderful video gets spotted by someone and then spreads like gossip. We have to do something to start the gossip.

    I'm sure over the past few months I've sent hundreds of emails to bloggers after checking out their sites and trying to find a personal approach. I always identify bloggers working on related subject matter--so for example I (and two people working with me) sent quick emails to dozens of personal finance bloggers when we released our recent "Christmas Time for Visa" animation about credit cards. We also looked for bloggers who like humor, and bloggers talking about Christmas.

    We saw an eclectic range of responses--some pretty funny themselves. We probably saw twenty or thirty posts by Christmas day, including posts from some of my favorite blogs. Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution gave us the best compliment ever: "Consumers Union: putting the "fun" back in "fundamental political reform." A quick comment from Will Brady (who is somewhat skeptical about our ability to pass credit card reforms :-) next year) resulted in additional posts, like this one at Slowly She Turned.

    Nonprofits building large email lists to support political activity must work with bloggers, and ultimately must invest the time and energy required to join the great blog discussion--and not just at the time we have something to promote. At the same time, I hope that bloggers can see a benefit for their readers to posting these kind of nonprofit initiatives. Obviously, no one will benefit from a poor item or a flawed strategy, but if you think the item is fun or the reform initiative useful then your readers probably will too. Thanks to all the bloggers who helped Consumers Union in 2005!

    Monday, December 26, 2005


    Animations sprouting up everywhere

    Song/animations for issue campaigns have sprung up everywhere, and nowhere more commonly than at Consumers Union where we enjoyed huge success with "The Drugs I Need," followed by more cautionary results with subsequent projects.

    Bits of the recent landscape in quick review: to fight less restrictive gun laws, the Brady Campaign gives us the Shoot First campaign cartoon; those clever guys at JibJab created a year-in-review starring G.W. Bush; Arianna Huffington's race for governor brought us this hybrid car race; the still circulating and frightening ACLU "pizza order" database video; and if you've a yen for better health insurance, there's Pig People from Outer Space (PPOs) from the California based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. For a comprehensive (and impressive) list of political animations and videos (some to encourage direct action and others just for fun), visit Daniel Kurtzman here.

    Consumers Union produced three more animations in 2005 after the startling success of our first effort, "The Drugs I Need." Unfortunately, I didn't really know why it was such a success. Maybe the lyrics were great, or the timing was especially good, or the special smarmy sweetness of the animated pill perfectly accentuated the musical jokes. Maybe it was all about the email that Jib Jab sent because the JibJab brothers just thought it was that funny. An estimated two million people have now seen "The Drugs I Need" and many thousands came to our website and opted in to get our email. The animation worked as publicity and it worked to recruit new activists. It was cost effective and continues to amuse and spread--albeit much more slowly--months after the launch. Maybe it was a formula that could be replicated, or maybe not, but we had to try.

    The next animation ("The Tower") launched in the fall, spreading more sluggishly and to far fewer people. Several things were different, and some of the differences might have been avoided had I known their importance. I went back to our original creative team, and the Lizards once again gave us a funny, politically astute song covering the far less concrete issue of media consolidation with aplomb. However, the song ran nearly three minutes--quite long for an online animation. We released the animation, but no other group stepped up to augment our own email announcement with emails to other lists so we didn't see the kind of focused traffic we expect with that extra email support. After a bit, we advertised on AtomFilm, a big video site, but didn't see much crossover to our own action site and our own list. The initial release was disappointing, although it still got our message out to tens of thousands of viewers and brought them to where they could see all the work we do on telecommunications topics.

    We produced the third animation for our Prop 79 campaign effort (a California ballot initiative to lower prescription drug prices). Originally I hoped that this animation would help us recruit people to the campaign site, but the project took far longer to complete than expected. Our entire electoral effort online lasted just over two months. The animation was complete in time only to promote our final GOTV "forwarding" appeals.

    In the final days before election day, the most important work our online supporters could do was foward key information about Prop 79 to everyone in their address books. To test the animation's effectiveness, we sent three different "forwarding" messages to our list: a "straight" appeal describing the importance of forwarding and listing the key information, a funny "Top Ten" message about Pharma, and the animation link with a request to forward it along with the key information. The animation out performed other messages in our test segments by about 20%. The difference was significant but certainly not worth the expense of the project. We could have spent that money on direct, paid email messaging and reached more individual voters.

    The final project--"It's Always Christmas Time (for Visa)!"--has been the most successful effort since the first, but it has not yet reached the national consciousness. Since Christmas will be back (those predicting its near demise are apparently wrong for another year) we will likely bring this campaign back for another holiday effort if credit card legislation doesn't pass in 2006.

    Since this one wasn't a blockbuster either, we have had to figure out how to measure our success and determine how good is good enough and what worked better in this case than the others. First, the issue had holiday appeal--something that I think is increasingly important as we try to effectively get our message out year round. Second, we created a special website for the animation with key information about credit card issues--enough to support the action and engage the curious but not too much. Third, we did heavy promotion to bloggers. This feels a lot like going begging (more on this for another post). Fourth, when we didn't get committments from other nonprofits to send email to their members, we added a very small email ad buy and it "hit" strongly, resulting in both blog posts and direct traffic to the animation. Finally, we saw our greatest success with the Christmas card people could send from the "thank you" screen. This campaign is not quite over, but I expect that we will decide that the online recruitment was costly but not too costly (under $3.00 a name is my goal, but only our first project achieved that goal), the publicity was very good, and the campaign was fun for our activists. Clearly, campaigning around Christmas themes with a Christmas song can work, at least during that holiday window from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

    So after all this, what exactly have we learned? These are very risky projects. They cost between $10,000 and $15,000 depending on the talent, the type of animation, the length of the piece and other factors. It's important to decide in advance what yardstick you want to use to measure success, and whether there are more cost effective ways to achieve your goals. For recruitment, these projects can be very expensive indeed. If the action you ask people to take is compelling and interesting, we've seen people take action at rates as high as 38% of animation views. If the opt-in is easy, we've seen new recruitment rates at around 5% of animation views (much lower conversion rates with the most successful project that reached a really large, non-activist audience) and if your campaign is compelling over time, the new people stay on the list almost as well as people recruited in other ways. But a 5% new recruitment rate means that your cost of acquisition is relatively high unless you go truely "viral." That's the risk. It may, but most likely it will not.

    These days, political animations are a cottage industry. There are so many out there, that I feel sure many people are learning some of the same hard lessons that I've learned, and I hope they will chime in here and pass on their own experience.

    Sunday, December 25, 2005


    Wow, you just have to admire the "war on Christmas" campaign!

    On IH35 this afternoon, with John Prine blaring and the sun blazing, we drove between the Tree of Life mega-church advertising Jesus and the Snake Farm across the highway advertising, well, rattlesnakes. While it may take my husband a few days to compose the requisite country song to commemorate this pleasant irony of snakes and sinners, I thought it would be a nice visual spring board for one more (probably unnecessary) comment on the "war on Christmas."

    Happily for all of us on the sidelines of this overwrought "debate," Media Matters has nicely pricked O'Reilly's balloon, here. We can lean back from our huge Christmas dinners comfortable that Christmas will arrive as usual, right before Thanksgiving, and continue to represent 40% of America's retail sales in 2006.

    That said, it appears that the snakes have crossed the highway to the steeple and taken over the megaphone. While most Americans are simply puzzled, and some christians are downright embarrassed, the Bill O'Reilly team is congratulating itself on a successful engagement and withdrawing for another year to count the profits from Gibson's book and enjoy the support of its newly re-invigorated base.

    Perhaps we haven't adequately recognized the genius of the "war on Christmas" as a holiday political campaign designed to stir up excitement in the base (religious conservatives), knock the opposition (Democrats, liberals, political progressives) off balance, and sell a bunch of books. It has, by all appearances, been supremely effective and we can all learn some lessons.

    First lesson, let's all use the holiday season to our advantage! O'Reilly doesn't own December!

    I've learned from hard experience that most people in this country don't have time for much else than holiday planning during the month of December. With the kids out of school and shopping to do, with sometimes multiple family dinners to plan and long lines at the shipping office, people are just busy. Christmas is like a strong, wide river and if you aren't flowing with it you are going to have a much harder time getting the message out.

    This year Consumers Union launched two initiatives the first week in December designed to set up our campaigns for next year. At about 10,000 people took action for prescription drug reform after a large email appeal. This isn't too shoddy, but it doesn't compare to the 23,000 who joined us in support of (launched the same day) with its inaugural Christmas song "It's Always Christmas Time (for Visa)!" and its sly Santa theme. More important to that campaign, about 2,500 people sent another 9,000 people the money-bags Santa Christmas card we placed on the thank you screen. The campaign could have used a couple more weeks to build, and next year we'll launch our Christmas efforts a week or so before Thanksgiving, right about the same time that Bill O'Reilly declared his leadership against the "war on Christmas" (November 18) and the launch of Gibson's book of the same title. Timing, impecable.

    Second, we should remember that its a reasonable political strategy to build base for its own sake, because we will need that base for something important some day. Since the fall of communism, its been pretty hard to be an anti-communist, but the war on Christmas gives the closet anti-communists fresh fodder. They will be ready with fresh lists and new volunteers when liberals reveal themselves to be the communists they obviously are. For the anti-communism behindthe "defense" of Christmas, see this quick note from and this refreshing satire by (confession) my wonderful spouse, Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast.

    So if anti-communism can be revived with a simple holiday campaign, anything can be accomplished and we should all put our thinking caps on. There's only 364 days til next Christmas!


    November 2005 Lessons

    Political campaigns with a three month timeline to an election and the need to move voters in highly targeted ways may not need blogs. That appears to have been among the lessons touted at a recent "lessons learned" meeting of high level online campaigners in D.C.

    This should surprise no one. Blogs take time to develop, must have an audience to succeed, and reach a technically savy, already politicized audience (as one presenter apparently noted, they definitely reach the opposition's campaign staff). They are not designed to deliver specific campaign messages to voters in key districts.

    But bloggers should not be disappointed, and there's much much more to learn about the confluence of email, blogs, MSM, direct mail and volunteerism in politics--particularly for the longer term projects that most nonprofits support.

    In a long term issue campaign (say, to pass a bill in Congress), organizations must effectively appeal to a variety of audiences and retain their interest over a long time. These are busy people with families who support our causes but don't have a lot of time (email works great), politically savy people with original ideas that might move the cause forward (blogs work great), members of the media (blogs work great), politicians themselves (blogs work great), volunteers who want to help but don't want to have to think up their own personal strategies (email works great), people who have personal stories that relate to the cause (email clicking through to a forum with dialog works great).

    In a two or three month electoral context, we're starting to learn a lot about the limits of online campaigning generally, and the limits of blogging is just one component.

    Consumers Union recently joined with Health Access California in support of Prop 79, the initiative for a good prescription drug discount plan. We had little time, no television and no direct mail, so we focused our efforts on earned media and an email campaign to build volunteers. The volunteers "self-selected" by ordering door hangers that they could distribute in their own neighborhoods, where ever they happened to live.

    This was wildly successful and drew hundreds of volunteers (there was no existing field structure so all these folks were generated by online efforts) who distributed tens of thousands of door hangers. A few people volunteered directly for other activities, but the door hanger group became a very active volunteer list for almost all the other work. Many of these folks had never volunteered for a campaign before, and some were motivated by personal experience.

    Our biggest success was the inclusion of many new volunteers in a political fight. Our biggest loss was...well...the election.

    Without TV or targeted direct mail we didn't have a delivery system that could get our message out to the people who needed to understand it and vote our way. Polling showed that if people knew Prop 79 was supported by consumer groups and Prop 78 was supported by Pharma, then they overwhelmingly moved our way. But how could we get them that information?

    While email is relatively easy to target, email list building is more difficult to do in a targeted way. Relatively few people signed on to the campaign from Southern California, where we needed greater support. Almost more daunting, the conversion rate of e-list members to volunteers in some districts implied that we would have required a truely massive list to get people on the ground in districts where we needed them or even to fundraise at a competitive level. The drug companies spent over $80 million on TV ads and direct mail. We didn't stand a chance.

    Some of these lessons are reflected in the very thoughtful comments by
    Micah Sifry after he concluded his work on the New York City Public Advocate campaign. Its one of the most honest and interesting discussions I've been able to find. Frequently it seems like we get caught up in our old debates (blogs vs email; open democracy vs. top down campaign control) and forget that we have to win in order to, well, win! We need everyone on the team to win, and we have to figure out how to use our skills to successfully get our message to a wide range of people--sometimes in a very short time, sometimes over years.

    I hope to get the chance to manage the email and interactive components of an online electoral project again, but before I do I hope that many people in the trenches can meet and openly discuss what we've learned from unsuccessful as well as successful efforts.

    Friday, December 23, 2005


    The resource question

    I had the pleasure recently of speaking on a panel about web-based organizing to a group of people advocating against the death penalty. I immediately lost my audience when I began to talk about message testing--and I really lost them when I hit the topic of online promotion.

    It took me a moment to realize what had happened. My audience thought that all this sounded like a lot of money and staff time, and these were mainly folks from small organizations with neither. Many of the people in the room were dedicated volunteers, or the sole staff person supporting all the organization's work.

    Small organizations can benefit from web organizing as much or more than large organizations, and the size of the direct benefit depends on the amount of money the organization already spends on direct communication to its members. But gaining that benefit does require some committment of time, and ideally a small committment of money. Its important not to tune out at this moment!

    Most people think the internet is free. Email is so cheap to send that spammers make money even if only an infinitesimal share of people actually fall for their scams. People know they can put up a website using any number of helpful online services and a simple template. Blogspot lets us all blog away for free! And yet, soon after we put up our website or start our blog, we realize that someone has to actually have something to say on a regular basis and someone to say it to (readers!! what a great idea!!).

    Small organizations sometimes spend considerable time worrying about their web content--how to keep it fresh and interesting, and what kinds of reports and documents to post. Clearly you must have something there for your readers, but the web really isn't a static roadmap of places that are interesting or uninteresting--nor are nonprofits small cities competing with each other for highway traffic.

    That common metaphor for the internet doesn't capture some key truths about its invisible motion. The internet is a giant, instant communication system where millions of people can share ideas and direct others to new information in seconds. And the invisible flow of information on the internet is largely driven by email (and instant messaging, which is starting to supplant email for some users). So even a generally static website that seems way off the highway can have its day if a particularly interesting post is linked through an email to many people who forward it to many more.

    Most people who would like to see a more fair death penalty -- people who get a pang of conscience when they read about an innocent person on death row -- will never actively seek out a nonprofit website on the death penalty. But if a friend sends them an email about a particularly egregious case that has a link to a page on that website, they might click through and read. In fact, its likely that the readership on that day due to that single email will surpass the website's entire readership over several days or a month.

    With the exception of the very most popular blogs, the very most popular national media websites, and the very most popular search engine sites--web traffic is largely driven by email. Today, people increasingly get their information by email, and they select lists they wish to be on in order to get the kinds of information they want delivered to them directly. If you have ever taken action after a friend forwarded you an email from an organization you don't usually think about, then you have directly participated in this instant mass information sharing phenomenon.

    You can start sending compelling email (I'll have to save some discussion of compelling email -- and message testing -- for another day) if you have only a few supporters' email addresses. Give your supporters an action they can take to help the cause, and remind them that their most important job is to forward your compelling messages to others. Those new people get information they wouldn't otherwise learn, and hopefully a way to agree to get your email in the future.

    At that moment, you have just a few seconds to convince most people to give you permission to communicate with them again through email. In today's world "attention" is a precious thing and you won't keep their attention for long. Most of these folks are not going to wander around your website for thirty minutes or read your last opus on death penalty law and policy. They want to see that you are credible (more on that later too) and that you have a good strategy to fix the problem you presented in your compelling email. Now of course, I'm speaking in generalities here, and lots of people don't fit this description. But you can start building your email list on this model and then adjust as you get to know your own new audience better over time.

    This simple approach to email communication can be started by any small organization with just a small investment in a few tools. Democracy in Action provides a good starting tool for action alerts and simple email communication for a small organization. They even offer a good "letters-to-the-editor" tool for campaigns directed at your local media. offers an easy to use, free action alert tool that lets you connect people to policymakers, but it doesn't provide a way for new people (the friends of your constituents) to sign up for email when they take action. offers basic action alerts with more robust list development for $50 per month plus a penny per email sent to your constituents. Tides has invested in GroundSpring, which offers email and fundraising but not action alerts for small to medium size nonprofits for a very low monthly fee. Eventually there may be far more options. Jeff Patrick has noted that the small nonprofit market for good email tools is essentially untapped.

    As you move forward, you can post questions and start some dialog about the tools you are considering at TechSoup, on their community-building board. I find that the discussion is dominated by site developement discussion with far less about building a good email list, but there are some very good people there who respond to questions. The folks blogging over at IdealWare have also put together some good information about the tools that are out there for small nonprofits.

    I hope some of the good activists in my audience at the death penalty conference, and any one else trying to do more with less at a small nonprofit, will comment here about getting their action and email system started.

    Friday, October 28, 2005


    Email and blogging--together again!

    I am coming to the world of blogs rather late, and don't know much. I'll start by being very up front about that.

    I do know a bit about email, and about the "flash mob" behavior of people online. Email us and we will come (those of us who don't blog at least). In remarkable numbers and with remarkable consistancy. The transfer of information among blogs is much more mysterious, and seems to rely on a combination of reputation (individual bloggers with readers) and persistance.

    It seems to me that email and blogs work together to pass information to the full range of people who use the internet, and that any non-profit attempting to reach a mass audience must have both tools and use them both well.

    I once surveyed my email base and asked how many people were bloggers. I guess I expected bloggers to be fairly well represented, and was quite surprised to find out that almost none of the people who take our emails also blog. Really, almost none. Instead, my email advocates tell me pretty consistently that what they like about being on our list is the brevity of the messaging, the immediate access to actions they can take, and the fact that they can do it all very quickly. Lots and lots of folks are reading nonprofit and advocacy email alerts at work, and lots of others are doing so in between very busy life activities. So they want reliable information from a trusted source about urgent issues with a quick way to participate. They want us to respect their time.

    I believe that these folks -- people who primarily respond to email and don't have a lot of time to surf the web or dig through lots of complex information -- represent the vast majority of people using the internet.

    But blogs capture a different audience and bloggers are a different sort. Perhaps one day I'll really be one, and be better able to assess the veracity of this hypothesis. But I see blogs -- particularly niche blogs, which I find the most interesting -- as a way to reach policy makers, the news media, issue mavens, and political junkies. Most people don't think about politics at all, and even right before a major election they think about it perhaps a few minutes in a day. But issue mavens and political junkies think about this stuff all the time and make sure that ideas are circulated, commented on, poked and prodded. And that helps nonprofit advocates really get a handle on whether the information they are putting out and the issues they have picked will resonate when they hit the floor of a state legislature or a local city council. You reach the most active and interested five percent of the population, and your issue gets a vetting that it probably needs.

    So email reaches most people, and if you do it with respect for their time, you can really motivate people to civic activity (I'll post more about motivating people to take off line activity another day). And blogs reach a few key people who can help you figure out if your issue is interesting, your plan well crafted, and if you are ready for the opposition you will face when you roll it out in real world political forums.

    Thursday, October 27, 2005


    Why start another political blog?

    Because politics on the internet is just that interesting!

    A few years ago my organization threw me headfirst into online grassroots organizing. Its been quite a ride. And in all that time I never thought to start blogging, if you can imagine, because I spend all day every day crafting email-based campaigns. And after writing all that email, its hard to imagine getting back online to join the great blog cacophany.

    But I've learned a bit about blogging in the past year from my lovely spouse--Scott Henson, of GritsForBreakfast. And I've helped create two organizational blogs for the ACLU of Texas and for Consumers Union (Consumer Scribbler). The first is already good. The Scribbler needs a lot more scribbling.

    When I thought about what I may have to contribute to the already significant and substative ongoing dialog about the role of the internet--I decided to focus on how nonprofit organizations need to change and adjust to get their message out in this modern media universe. Because the messages from good, hard working nonprofit advocates are important. Nonprofit organizations do some of the nation's leading research and policy development in dozens of areas rarely covered by the major media--criminal justice policy, consumer product safety, media consolidation, hunger, malaria and other preventable disease, and so much more.

    But many nonprofit organizations are really struggling to get their message out. All of us who join organizations and volunteer are flooded with email. We read what we can. We screen out a lot. And nonprofits don't necessarily find ways to talk to people where they are; instead we assume that if we talk enough or put out enough white papers, that people will join us where we are. Mostly that just keeps the conversation circle really small.

    I don't expect anyone to read this blog for the time being. I have everything to learn about blogging, but the best way to learn is by doing.

    This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?