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Notes from NTC: Participatory media and the future of online outreach


Although "Leveraging the Power of Participatory Media" and "The Future of Online Outreach" were held separately, I thought that they related so well I'd report on them together.

Although these two panels were held separately at the Nonprofit Technology Conference 2007, I thought that they related so well that I’d present them together.

Leveraging the Power of Participatory Media

The Future of Online Outreach

Participatory media is a campaign that utilizes content created by the users/members/visitors of the campaign – and in may cases, this creation of content is the campaign itself. Colin began by offering an example of a participatory-media approach that had backfired for a corporation, the anti-Chevy Chevy Tahoe ad. (This ad campaign would also show up in Marty’s presentation.)

Colin pointed out that Chevy had decided to leave the ads online because they had the effect of driving lots of traffic to the website – thus turning a negative backlash into a positive result. In his presentation, however, Marty said there had been a significant drop in sales of the Tahoe the next quarter – possibly due to the rise in gas prices, but possibly also due to this negative publicity.

After recommending that campaigns engage in participatory media for the simple reason that your users are doing it anyway (giving the example of the “vote different” video), Colin outlined the basic motivations:

  • engagement
  • leveraging collective intelligence (Marty might call this being network-centric)
  • publicity
  • because they’re there

Colin pointed out that email discussion lists and fora were a basic form of user-generated content. Beyond that lay blogs, then video and photographs, altered images, stories, social networking projects and “ideas” themselves.

There are several levels of engagement possible with participatory media:

  • observation (one-way, receiving information)
  • interaction (responding with information, as in a blog comment)
  • contribution (creating information, as in posting a blog)
  • solicitation (asking others to create information in response to yours, as in a video response or a contest)

A prime example of participatory media that Colin gave was Late Night with Conan O’Brien’s The site solicits hot manatee action from its users, to great effect.

Michael then took the helm, demonstrating two participatory media campaigns EchoDitto had worked on (which coincidentally both won awards): Since Sliced Bread and the Pearl Harbor Survivors Project.

For the Survivors Project, Michael talked about the strategizing they had done in order to collect the stories of the several-hundred remaining survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. They had set up a toll-free number so that technologically-challenged seniors wouldn’t have to interface with the website, but to their surprise that was the primary mode of submission. In another twist, they established a MySpace profile not expecting much response from a youthful crowd, but soon went on to find 20,000 friend requests.

Michael pointed out that the nature of participatory media was still new enough that it is able to earn media for the organization – the Survivors Project really took off after a feature in Parade. The very existence of the campaign was a news story, in a way a traditional museum-style exhibit on Pearl Harbor would not be.

As for Since Sliced Bread, Michael explained that it was an attempt by SEIU president Andy Stern to solicit ideas directly from workers, because he felt like DC lobbyists and consultants working on labor issues weren’t concerned with the real issues facing his union members.

Users were thus invited to submit their best ideas Since Sliced Bread, with the winner receiving a prize of $100,000 and runners-up receiving money as well. The project had what Michael called “a panel of sort-of celebrities” which narrowed the tens-of-thousands of entries to a slate of 21 finalists. The community then voted on the winners from those 21.

Michael talked about the issues confronted by the team when losers in the contest turned against the site – a much higher volume of nasty blog comments, to the point that the blog became de-emphasized on the site to try to remove the flashpoint. The site also generated some serious victories as well, including the winning project going on to being approved by voters in a Washington state ballot initiative.

In the question-and-answer period, numerous participatory media campaigns were offered, including the March of Dimes' Share Your Story and the Picture the Cure (cached copy, site seems down) initiative for the Canadian Cancer Society. Alan Rosenblatt said Care2 had done a study demonstrating that people who participated in discussion fora were 74% more likely to take action.

Marty began by making the argument that the differences in social networks (connections) today – aptly covered by David Weinberger earlier in the day – should necessarily change the way we go about social organizing. It is not as much about building individual leadership or organizational capacity, he said, but about making strong and effective connections.

In other words, what would your organization do with 10,000 people for ten minutes?

Most people today are under a barrage of information. When the FCC’s “Do Not Call” list was launched, 50 million people signed up in just a few weeks – without any advertising whatsoever. These people have “walked away from the current models of civic engagement.” They don’t sign up for email lists because they’re afraid of ever getting off – a barrier to exit becomes a barrier to entry.

Network-centric advocacy focuses not only on the individual or organization, but more importantly on the network “as a mechanism for exerting influence.” Recent political examples of this include the Gray Davis recall campaign, the Howard Dean presidential campaign, and the Network for Justice Against the Death Penalty campaign, which used an innovative model for encouraging people to encourage their friends to sign up (and publicly display the results). A more visual example is ForwardTrack, recently deployed by the Oxygen network in Oh! Speakup!.

A strong network depends on five key components, according to Marty:

  • strong social ties that become a “tangible, measured and carefully cultivated strategic asset” for organizers
  • a common story that allows the core actors to understand each other
  • a communications grid that allows for one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many conversations, including self-segmentation
  • shared resources for coordinated tasks
  • clarity of purpose and given the context to refine this purpose

What networks are particularly good at are:

Additional examples given were’s Bush in 30 Seconds and the unaffiliated Congress in 30 Seconds – both participatory media campaigns!

The session closed with time for people to meet in small groups and discuss network-centric advocacy in the context of their own organizaitons.

With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Marty: “Networks are leaderful and bossless.”

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