Why failing frequently and openly in online campaigns will lead to greater social impact
Michael Silberman is a senior online campaigns strategist. He is a partner and co-founder of EchoDitto, a leading digital strategy and technology team supporting the social change sector. More via @silbatron.
Jonathan Warnow works to harness new media and social technology to catalyze large-scale change. He is a co-founder of 350.org, an innovative global climate campaign that has used a model of open-source activism to coordinate 10,000 offline events in 181 countries.
Ever get a sinking feeling after you’ve launched a great email, set up a great online action, built a thriving online community or implemented a perfect graphic? You know the one: a nagging sense that you’ve failed to truly move the needle forward on your issue--that maybe you’re just re-arranging the deck chairs?
Or maybe you were involved in an online effort that obviously fell flat--and then find yourself going through the same motions with the same failed tactics weeks later?
Failures happen all the time in our sector, but we’re all pretty poor at admitting it. After all, why should we go out of our way to make ourselves feel bad, or put our job or professional reputation on the line?
The instinct to avoid dwelling on failure is natural, but for online organizers and campaigners this tends to take our natural human aversion to failure to some extreme levels. Many of us feel obligated to evangelize the benefits of “new media” and “social technologies.” After all, we’re working to convince cautiously optimistic co-workers and skeptical boards of directors that these digital bells and whistles are more than hype, and it’s often a safe bet that we’re making that sales job even harder if we dwell on mistakes or our (lack of) efficacy.
So we carry on, shamelessly promoting the power of social technology and parroting the buzzwords that reinforce our job security. A quick scan of our sectors’ professional listservs would indicate that we’re all innovating and cranking out an endless parade of brilliant campaigns, websites and gizmos; rarely is there any talk about the real-world social impact that these whiz-bang campaigns had toward fulfilling their organization’s larger external mission.
Instead of zooming out to assess big-picture impacts, we focus on internal micro-metrics. It’s easy to see why: online campaigners have near-instant access to statistics that claim to reveal, with oddly satisfying precision, just how well we’re doing. So we elevate the importance of empirical Metrics Of Success: click-through rates, conversion percentages, retweets and the like. And we iterate based on those metrics, testing different subject lines, page layouts and pithy declarations. But too often, critical questions are left unasked.
Do you know how those 346 Facebook “likes” helped you save lives today? Or can you explain how those 49 re-tweets will help change the committee chair’s position?
We almost take it on faith that upping these numbers is an end unto itself.
Make no mistake: more of our campaigns and organizations could benefit from a strong focus on analytics. Outfits like Obama for America’s New Media Team and MoveOn.org have harnessed insights provided by web analytics to serve their missions more effectively, and they have tangible victories to prove it (Obama’s analytics guru is working to make some basic A/B tests more accessible through a new service, optimizely.com).
But our challenge is not simply to create a culture of rigorous statistical analysis--we need a culture that thinks critically about real-world impact and is willing to see mistakes for what they are: valuable tools for learning.
As Steve Andersen outlines so convincingly, we’d do well to think of ourselves as Scientists for Change. Or as Shayna Englin says, we must stay focused on Connecting Advocacy to Change. We’re beginning to see a community-wide call to support one another in staying focused on what matters, and the various missions or movements that brought many of us into this work in the first place. (The alternative is grim: a culture of distraction, where digital trees obscure the real-world forest, and we’re likely to waste the money, energy and time of our staff and our supporters).
Fortunately, times are changing and our space is maturing. Our exuberance over technology is increasingly giving way to constructive, critical evaluations of how technology is helping us achieve our broader goals and achieve positive social impact. There have been a slew of recentcritiques examining the limits of the most commonly used online campaigning tools: the e-petition and the letter “to” Congress. Our friends at MobileActive just organized a “FailFaire” to examine how we can more effectively use technology to improve the lives of poor people--by examining the shortcomings of efforts tried to date.
We applaud this trend--and seek to accelerate it. Both of us were part of a team that invested countless hours in planning and designing a networked online organizing platform for the climate movement. The program, and its custom or “white label” social networking platform, never achieved its full potential and was ultimately shut down. We applaud the 1Sky campaign in releasing a case study of this project and see great value in sharing lessons from our failures.
The social technology space moves quickly, and it’s hard to find the time to face the moments when we (and the technology we rely upon) have come up short. But it’s crucial. The goals we’re all working toward are too important for us to avoid these conversations any longer. And while we might not have the metrics to back it up, we’re quite sure that we’ll fail to succeed if we don’t collectively succeed at failing.
So what can technologists on the front lines learn from your own, and others’ failures? A few questions, ideas and resources to consider:
- Shared Ownership: Who else within your organization or team assumes responsibility for success or failures online--just you, or is ‘internet’ ownership distributed across the organization? Movement-leading organizations tend to have staff developing, considering or implementing digital strategies at all levels of the organization and, as a result, are less likely to abdicate responsibility to a junior staffer.
- Resource: Web Thinking Manifesto
- Debrief: Make project debriefs part of your culture, and develop a system for retaining lessons and wisdom from campaign successes--and failures. Or start a ‘Failure Fridays’ brownbag lunch event (h/t Joe Solomon): On the last Friday of the month, invite your team to huddle and talk about what didn’t work. Give your failures the respect they deserve and seed new solutions to experiment with and grow in the month ahead.
- Grounded Goals: Set clearly articulated principles to guide your online initiatives. Write them down. Post them up. Don’t forget: you’re working to accomplish a real-world mission.
- Clear Theory of Change, Impact Statement: Can you construct a pithy and plausible argument for your campaign that stands up to critical scrutiny and thinking? Doing so will help steer you clear of some of the more obvious errors that stand in the way of supporter engagement and real-world impact.
- If you do X, it will help our organization/movement do Y which will help us accomplish Z mission.
- Peer Review: Create your own peer review system--who are the trusted colleagues that can road-test an idea with you? Build your inner circle--your kitchen cabinet--of friends and colleagues who can appreciate the need for quick and honest feedback and never will make you feel “judged.”