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!

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