A Humble Model of Success - Jeff Regen Interview

Jeff Regen is a pioneering leader in online strategy who has built a formidable digital program at Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, DC. Since 2004, their online community has grown to more than 800,000 e-supporters, tacks one million yearly advocacy actions, and brings in $5 million. Drawing heavily on his private sector experience, Jeff has created an innovative online model that combines the best of emerging web tools with a humble, learning approach to experimentation and change. The model gained the attention of Roslyn Lemieux, our Social Tech Training agenda queen, who drew heavily on it in designing this year’s Social Tech Training.

You’ve created a model called Creative Innovation < > Test & Learn that guides online work at Defenders of Wildlife. What was the philosophy behind the model?

“Create” might be too strong of a word. I’ve been heavily influenced by my past work in the private sector at Capital One, which is probably one of the most sophisticated direct marketing firms around. I’ve drawn heavily on that work to help build a model that will guide our online actions into successful outcomes. The heart of the model is its closed loop. Creativity is key, but it needs to be tested and measured so that, ultimately, you can repeat what worked well, and avoid repeating costly mistakes. It’s been a battle at times, though. Why is that? Database marketing doesn’t play well in the progressive sphere. Done poorly it can be dehumanizing and reductionist. The idea of reducing people and ideas to numbers and dollars can be offensive, especially to those of us working for social change. So we don’t want to reduce everything to dollars and cents, but we do want to add rigor into our work to ensure we’re creating the greatest impact we can. Greater impact means greater change.

How does the Creative Innovation <>Test & Learn model differ from the private sector models you’ve used?

Creativity. There is vastly more weight placed on the creative innovation side of things when working in the online environment. Not only are we all still learning the best way to use the tools we have, but new tools are constantly emerging and evolving. That leaves a lot of room for experimentation and play. In fact, one of our biggest challenges is deciding which projects we can’t do, because there are so many worthwhile ideas to try. How do you make the tough choice about what ideas to try and which ones to leave? You have to know your priorities. Some things that could be tested have little chance of success; others are likely to succeed, but won’t achieve much even if they do. You need to know what you’re trying to achieve and then you can choose the right option to meet those goals. We keep all potential ideas in one list for discussion and possible testing. But we don’t test everything. Only those that stand the best chance to deliver on our current goals. I think a lot of people would be envious that you have a running list of ideas to choose from.

How do you generate that creativity?

Believe it or not, I think that is the one of the easiest parts. We have a team of 8 people, and the thing to remember is that people are naturally creative. If you can put information into their hands and let them bounce ideas off of each other, good material is bound to come up. The big work is in making sure that you, or your online team, have access to the work and ideas happening within your organization in real time. Those will form the fuel for your creative fire. For many people in the online field, gaining that access can be the toughest part.

What advice would you give people who need to get the buy in of other departments in their organization?

There are a few things. One key is to discover the currency your managers care about, and work to deliver results in that currency. If fundraising is their key concern, then you need to target your online actions at raising dollars. If it’s list growth, then you need new sign ups, email addresses, or twitter followers. Another key is coalition building. Ironically, I think this is still a weak point in our industry. Even though web 2.0 is considered to be a more open style of communications, it can be easy to fall in love with what’s happening online and forget to reach out to your team members across the hall. Communications and fundraising departments are natural allies for us, and once program staff see the positive feedback that the web can generate for their work, they’ll want to be more involved. But it does take patience. Change can come slowly.

What direction do you think the online industry will take in the future?

That’s just it. It won’t be one direction but many. None of us have all the answers, and the answers themselves are constantly changing. Ultimately, the answer isn’t one channel. We are moving into a world where more people get more information through more channels. The success stories will be the organizations that learn what channels work best for their work and focus there while continuing to dabble with the rest. If that type of creative innovation is combined with a test and learn attitude, then the table will be set for both long- term successes and the odd home run project.

Jeff Regen is a Vice President with Defenders of Wildlife. His online model has been used as the learning backbone of the Social Tech Training to ensure that STT goes beyond pat answers like “this is how to use Facebook” to demonstrate a cohesive framework for creating, testing, and learning in the changing online world.