The Fish Ladder of Greater Participation

How do you promote deeper participation from your web membership, collect valuable demographics from them, and avoid triggering common negative reactions to data collection?

With a clear set of objectives for your web site, and some new ways of structuring features, you can help guide your members to action on behalf of your organization; all while collecting the information you need without turning off supporters with scary data-collection forms.

Thank you all for coming. Here are some brochures. Now please leave.
In many cases, organizational web sites are “brochure-ware”; filled to the brim with static content: mission statements, downloadable pdfs, and “Who We Are” pages with smiling headshots and bios. This type of site serves a basic purpose: to have a presence on the internet for visitors to get information and establish a certain amount of legitimacy. For membership-based organizations and advocacy groups however, this type of flat, non-interactive site is quickly becoming unacceptable to the growing number of members who demand to be included in more ways than a semi-annual direct mail campaign asking for donations.

In response to the growing role of online activism in our culture, many organizations have made some progress towards fostering a greater amount of participation from their members through the internet. Almost all the major membership orgs have online donations, membership sign-ups and email lists. Some have more sophisticated tools like online petitions and ‘send to a friend’ features that serve mostly to feed the email list. Beyond this however, are very few examples of organizations who provide a place for members to become part of a true force for advocacy and messaging for the organization’s causes. The reason for this is partly because this level of participation is a fairly new dynamic between membership organizations and their members. Members have begun to do more to promote the cause of their organizations than send checks and receive updates. It is partly also due to the failure of many to look at what prompts a person to participate in the various levels of civic action.

The civic fish ladder
When talking about prompting people to civic action I like to use the analogy of a fish ladder. I’m sure this analogy originates from my childhood in Seattle, watching salmon returning to Lake Washington from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. As people began to dam and block the river ways that fish use to spawn, they realized that they had to provide some way for the fish to return or they would quickly die out. The solution to this problem is a set of ascending pools of water alongside the man-made obstruction that the fish can use to jump up, one-by-one, until they reach the top and can continue on their way. Interestingly enough, a fish ladder will only work when the correct amount of counter-current is present. Too little, and the fish cannot determine which direction to swim; too much and the fish become exhausted and unable to swim upstream any longer.

As political consultants and issue advocates, our goal is to help our constituents take their first jumps into the lowest pool and prepare them for the next jump – usually something very simple, such as signing up for an email list.

This analogy applies strangely well to encouraging civic action and participation with people at almost any level of engagement. Without some counter-current, people will become bored and fail to continue to move up the ladder. I’m sure the parallels between the critical life cycle of salmon and the equally important role of civic action in our society will not be lost on advocacy and political organization leaders.

At the lowest level of civic engagement is a large, disengaged population group that are functionally at the bottom of the ladder. They they might only glance at newspaper headlines, or not pay attention to politics at all. The most action they may be taking is the act of voting. As political consultants and issue advocates, our goal is to help our constituents take their first jumps into the lowest pool and prepare them for the next jump – usually something very simple, such as signing up for an email list.

MoveOn provides a great illustration of possible first levels of civic participation. Signing up for their email list is a very small action that doesn’t take too much time. You might not be ready to take the next jump, but you are interested in staying informed. All of MoveOn’s little jumps move upward from there. For example, MoveOn might send out a call to action that asks its members to call their congressmen about an issue. When people make that call, they jump into the next pool of civic participation. You can use this same theory. The fish ladder metaphor works all the way up the ladder of civic participation, from signing up for e-mails to running for office or working on a campaign. Or, to use another metaphor, if you want to feed your party, you do it one bite at a time.

Determining what pool your members are in, what level you want them to be, and what the steps are in between is critical to growing the population in the top pools of your fish ladder. First, it must be determined what the targeted level of participation is for all types of members: newcomers, current supporters and even donors. Some people will stop at a certain point – a comfort zone – and that’s fine. For a healthy, active membership the organization should ensure that there are people at all levels of participation. No one wants to be alone on their road toward greater civic participation. To continue with my previous example, MoveOn casts an extremely wide net. Anyone who pays any attention to politics is a potential e-mail registrant. Once people have signed onto their email list, MoveOn sends gigantic blast e-mail campaigns in an attempt to prompt even a small fraction of its list membership to take action, and the net effect is still enormous.

The perfect fish ladder for any organization ultimately depends on the specifics of the organization and its members.

Comparatively, a political campaign has much different goals. If I run a campaign for federal office, then chances are there is already a group of supporters online. Further, if I have been courting them correctly online, then I already have a community of people who read my web site, watch my videos, and maybe post comments on my blog. They have already made their way up a few steps on my fish ladder. As a campaign, we can make a lot of assumptions about what these people are willing to do in terms of spending time and energy supporting the campaign. If the campaign is for a Democratic candidate, then most of our core supporters are probably already on MoveOn. They are probably very well informed about the issues. They know our background. They are registered to vote and will most likely donate and turn out at the polls to vote for our candidate. They may even go on other blogs and talk about how fantastic the candidate is. If the campaign is for a Republican candidate then we can assume our supporters are mentally unstable, and possibly dangerous. All this information is valuable in determining what steps the campaign’s fish ladder should be comprised of.

Building a fish ladder: a working example
The details of the perfect fish ladder for any one organization are a bit too numerous to sum-up, and ultimately depend on the specifics of the organization and its membership, so we’ll extend the example of our national political campaign and describe some possible steps on the fish ladder for our online supporters.

Firstly, we know our supporters are already as active as we need them to be online. They advocate for us on other websites, comment on our blog, invite their friends to sign up and identify our candidate as their choice. They are committed and have a great sense of identity around the campaign and candidate. The next step on the fish ladder for them may be the holy grail of a political campaign’s web campaign: real-life action. What can we do to prompt real-life action to help get the campaign’s message out into our supporters’ communities and start filling our ladder’s first pool with new supporters?

A lot of organizations take the shotgun approach and blast their visitors in the face with features, hoping that they will take advantage of some of them to achieve some possibly ill-defined goal. More often than not, they lose many supporters along the way paved with WIKI! FORUMS! BLOG! TAKE ACTION! DONATE! ENGAGE! PLEASE SIGN UP FOR OUR EMAIL LIST FOR WEEKLY UPDATES!. A focused plan, with a well-defined set of steps towards greater participation will always yield better results. All of the features listed above are perfectly valid tools, but how does one move from signing up on an email list to collaboratively authoring content on a wiki? When presented with so many options, and no clear direction for my level of exposure and buy-in, chances are I’ll be too confused to continue. You need to know what you want to get from your site first and then determine what features are going to implement to accomplish those goals.

In order to build a better site, you have to know where your audience is starting and where you want them to end up. Otherwise, how are you going to know what you want them to do? Build a road map, even if it is small, at first. If your end goal is to build a blog that contains all of your deepest thoughts, then you don’t have much work ahead. Just put a blog up with comments. You probably don’t have to worry about learning much about your readers. If, however, you want to mobilize a massive get out the vote effort, then you need a completely different road map and a completely different way of knowing and engaging your supporters.

In order to build a better site, you have to know where your audience is and where you want them to end up.

Returning to our campaign example, lets determine how to get our core online community activists outside and talking to each other and their neighbors. A great example of this is and Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in early 2003. Thousands of supporters had signed up on the Dean email list and were actively donating money and time online. Once was offered to supporters as a tool to organize meetings in real life the campaign really took off. This was a perfect way to foster several levels of participation. The dedicated supporters could be utilized to bring buttons and bumper stickers to hand out, collect contact information of other meetup-goers, and provide campaign provided talking points. It also provided a way for those who were just curious about the campaign to come and talk to other supporters in their communities, possibly sign-up, and eventually move up the ladder to become advocates themselves.

So, using this example, lets say we want to accomplish a similar goal, but with a more directed purpose than just meeting for coffee and handing out campaign swag. We’d like to be able to call on local groups to do targeted tasks as needed, perhaps to help bring people to campaign stops and speeches, or to write and call local media outlets to combat some negative press. One way to do this is to create features that allow the forming of local groups, online chapters, or small sub-organizations. In of itself, this is somewhat useless because simply forming a group isn’t the point. But it is a step up the ladder.

Once we launch our tool, our stalwart members are going to immediately form their own groups, declare themselves the captains and organizers, and look for more to do. This is a great foundation and is necessary for the system to work, but we also need to provide some steps to joining a group for our ‘drive-bys’, or the visitors who come by for information, from another site, or perhaps by total accident. For these visitors we need to provide a much lower step to jump up to, and the right amount of counter-current so they know the right way to go.

To find a solution for encouraging our drive-by visitors to stay and become more engaged with our campaign, lets look at one of the most popular web sites on the Internet today, MySpace. One of the reasons why MySpace is so popular is the way it allows people to find friends, friends of their friends, and strangers with common interests. People go back to MySpace to establish relationships with other people and to see how they fit-in with their peers. No one has ever said, “I’d really like to find a group of strangers who have nothing to do with me or anything I’m interested in. Indeed, I may even want to get together for coffee or engage in some civic action in my community with these very strangers”. That’s not how MySpace coalesces, and it is certainly not how a federal campaign becomes successful. The primary reason your blog has readership and your campaign has a community of supporters are the common interests that your candidate or values represent. It also doesn’t hurt to note that wee bit of narcissism even the most sacrificing of us possess, which likely drives a certain amount of this engagement. After all, what would MySpace be without the innocuous little ‘pics’ link under the main profile image?

No one has ever said, "I’d really like to find a group of strangers who have nothing to do with me or anything I’m interested in. Indeed, I may even want to get together for coffee or engage in some civic action in my community with these very strangers."

Taking this into account, one of the best things we could present to the drive-bys might be pictures of the last group meeting closest to them. A ‘see what you missed?’ sort of teaser, linked to an image gallery of smiling, active supporters having a grand old time at the local coffee shop. These pictures come from attendees we asked to take and email (jump) to the group captain who populates and maintains the chapter image galleries (jump). All this prompts the visitor to click the rsvp link (jump) to check out why those people are so happy, or to maybe see if that cute guy/girl will show up the next time. Even further up the ladder we may have field captains who can ensure that meetings are happening, check-in with captains, and provide a way for the campaign to communicate effectively with the individual groups. These field captains will also serve as our local, trusted point of contact who we can use to organize attendance at rallies, speeches and public appearances. We have effectively created a vast field operation from volunteers that scales to a level that ordinarily would have been unmanageable by a staff the size of an average national political campaign.

Balancing-act: Welcome visitor! Give me all your information. Wait, where are you going?

An organization with a successful website knows its visitors. Who they are, what they care about, what the reasons are for coming to the site. In order to best utilize and support members, supporters and advocates online we have to know what their concerns and demographics are. Knowing what is important to your members affects everything from the blog posts on the homepage to direct mail campaigns. Pick up the wrong side of an issue and you can bleed support and traffic, pick up the right one and you will benefit from swarms of cross-posts and new supporters.

Unfortunately, traditional methods of collecting the information are often the first barrier to participation a potential new supporter faces. When faced with a lengthy information submission form, filled with requests for personal information, many will simply leave. I personally have found myself frozen, mouse hovering over the submit button, even after spending the time to fill out the entire form. Nine times of ten, I close the browser instead of submitting the form. I doubt this is unusual behavior. For membership and advocacy based websites the balance between the collection of demographics and low barrier of entry is most critical.

For membership and advocacy based websites the balance between the collection of demographics and low barrier of entry is most critical.

One of the questions that often comes up in early discussions about revamping or building a new community web site is ‘How do we collect information about our membership without scaring them off by forcing them to login or enter personal information?’. The suggested solutions generally range from ‘We need the information, so if the visitors don’t feel like signing up, then they don’t get to utilize certain features on the site’ to ‘We can’t afford to have people leave the site because of a login form, so all the features must be accessible to non-logged in users’. Often, a balance can be struck if we examine what specifically the site’s purpose is, and what the desired relationship between the visitor and organization is.

One of the easiest and most basic rules is: don’t make your sign-up list too long. Small organizations fall into this trap all the time. The sign up page is so preoccupied in collecting all the demographics under the sun that it collects a lot of pointless information, while scaring people away. Activity patterns and interests are just as important as demographics – if not more so. It doesn’t matter if the information you collect comes from a form, a door-to-door canvasser, activities on your Web site, online games, or polls. These things allow people to classify themselves in a more interesting way and provide a more rounded view of the individual.

Look at some of the most popular social networking sites, such as MySpace and LinkedIn. One of the things that makes these sites so popular is their ability to provide ways for people to find other connections and common interests within the site membership. Notice that most of the data collection occurs after the sign-up process; which is relatively lightweight, can be interrupted and picked up later, and contains portions that are obviously optional. Subtle prompts can be used after an initial login process to urge the user to continue filling out their profile information. For example, perhaps you have a user who is browsing lists of users or content that is tagged with a certain issue or area of interest. You could provide a subtle link to the profile form with a notice that the site can help connect the user to other common areas of interest if they finish filling out their interests profile field.

Presenting content in a meaningful, context filled way is critical. As in our campaign’s group tool example, this can be as simple as posting pictures of the people who attended an event near the user. Or as complex as introducing people with similar interests to each other. Both are examples of how you can encourage people to continue browsing your site in a directed way by publishing content that directly relates to them. Once you hook people on the initial impulse to browse and look at more information, then you can prompt them to tell you a little bit more about themselves.

Additionally, you can also use browsing behavior to instruct you as to what that user’s interests are without asking them explicitly. For example, if someone visits the same profile on a dating site five times in one week, then we can infer that that person is romantically interested in the other person’s profile. Likewise, if someone says that her biggest political issue is abortion, but spends most of her time reading articles on homeland security, then you can assume that homeland security is also a big issue for her.

You can encourage people to continue browsing your site in a directed way by publishing content that directly relates to them.

An excellent illustration of this is the web site OkCupid, built by six mathematicians as a pre-dating site. Instead of collecting data by asking an endless list of standard dating questions, they present users with a series of quizzes that range from 20-50 simple questions. They will collect your answers to these quizzes and then rate you based on a large set of criteria before matching you to other people. It can determine whether you are 90% compatible with someone in terms of politics, 86% compatible in terms of tastes in music, and 14% compatible in terms of socializing. Once we start taking these quizzes to see the results and how we match up to others, it is likely that we will continue to take the quizzes (let’s not forget the little narcissist inside us all). Of course, the more quizzes we do, the more accurate the site’s profile of you becomes. While OkCupid is not an advocacy or campaign site, it’s important to note how it obscures the data collecting process as a fun activity.

Peer pressure is also an excellent tool to get people to provide additional information and jump to higher levels of engagement. For example, if we provide a way for members to raise money and compete with other members, and provide a public way to display these results, then many people will be more willing to engage if the spirit of competition is invoked in them. Besides the primary benefits of higher levels of engagement and additional income, we can use the referrers and donors on individual member’s fund raising forms to determine where they are active and what other online communities they are active in. One user’s form has a lot of referrers from facebook? Probably this person spends a lot of time there. Another has many donors from California, but the member lives in Georgia? Probably they have family and friends in CA, and may be useful in organizing efforts there.

Finally, the oldest and often most misused tools for determining interests in web visitors are web traffic statistics; gathered from server logs and tools like Awstats and webalizer, or cookie/javascript based tracking tools like Google analytics or sitemeter. Google analytics is particularly useful as it gives you nicely formatted metrics to help determine popular pages, entry and exit points for visitors, and general traffic trends. Many content management systems, like Drupal and Joomla!, provide various statistics and tools that track things like the number of times a post has been viewed, or a users’ posts and comments.

In conclusion,

In the end, all the statistics, demographics and features in the world will not provide the ultimate online community of your dreams. A good outline of what you expect to get from your relationship with your online membership, and equally important, what you expect them to get from you, will inform all subsequent decisions. Start small, define the primary features that will achieve your goal and roll that out first. See how the community grows, and then roll out additional features based on that reaction. Don’t be afraid to allow your supporters advocate for you, and allow them to help steer your voice and decisions. Hire an online community manager to act as liaison. Make sure this person is patient. Have fun, and prepare to change and be surprised.