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 HearUsNow.org 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 PrescriptionForChange.org 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 http://www.creditcardreform.org/ (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 Salon.com 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. CitizenSpeak.org 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. ActionStudio.org 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.

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