December 9, 2009

Social media experiment at Ocean Conservancy

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Flickr Photo by PCSO900

Flickr Photo by PCSO900

Using Facebook to raise awareness about the International Coast Cleanup

Beth KanterA few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of the Ocean Conservancy, and members of her communications team, Laura Burton Capps and Dove Coggeshall, about their recent experiments and learning on Facebook. (The organization is a Packard Foundation grantee.)

The Ocean Conservancy is dedicated to the goal of a healthy ocean by increasing public awareness of ocean issues and bringing significant changes to the way oceans are managed. Here’s an overview of the issues they are working on. For the past 24 years, they have organized an annual grassroots volunteer event called International Coast Cleanup in which hundreds of thousands of volunteers spend a few hours removing trash and debris from coastlines, keeping track of every piece of trash they find. (The most recent event was on Sept. 19.)

Some of the key principles for an effective social media strategy are experimentation, learning, and rapid prototyping. David Armano describes this process as “Listen, Learn and Adapt.” You can’t answer the question “What’s the value?” unless you experiment and learn. Easier said than done.

In our upcoming book The Networked Nonprofit, we devote an entire chapter to something we called “Learning Loops.” It’s a combination of tracking and monitoring in real time as a project unfolds but also incorporates a process of reflection at the end of the project, leading to the next experiment.

It is really hard to carve out time to take a step back and reflect on what has gone well, what hasn’t, and what to do next. Being iterative. or rapid prototyping, is the secret to getting tangible results from your social media efforts over time, yet many organizations find it difficult to do.

What I was most curious about is how an organization’s leader encourages learning and experimentation and decides to implement that first social network experiment. Also, how do you sustain this process of try it, fix it?

In 2007, Vikki Spruill attended a seminar hosted by the Packard Foundation with Clay Shirky and came away both scared and excited about his ideas. The idea of “giving up control” was very different for this organization. But as Vikki herself says, “Nonprofit leaders shouldn’t settle for the status quo. I’m always looking at what’s next and seeing how to incorporate it.”

Creating a culture of flexibility

The first step she took was to make a presentation to staff about what she had learned. She initiated a discussion about how to test some of Shirky’s ideas. Vikki says one of the challenges is overcoming resistance. “We get very used to our routines because they are comfortable and we know they work.” Vikki says it is important to present experiments as a pilot — a test — and that trying something new doesn’t necessarily mean it is a future direction. As the leader, she is creating a culture of flexibility.

Vikki observes that one of the big hurdles for nonprofits in taking an R&D approach is that there is often no ongoing budget or time to do experiments. Often, experiments are done for extra credit. It is important in designing a social media experiment that the work isn’t an add-on or perceived as “extra work.”

Having considered these issues,  the Ocean Conservancy was ready to design a low-risk experiment and begin measuring how social media was working or not. After a series of discussions with staff and some survey research of their existing volunteer network, they identified a learning question:

  • How can we use Facebook to raise awareness about and participation in the International Coast Cleanup event?

Facebook was uncharted territory for the Ocean Conservancy. In addition to their Fan Page, they developed two Facebook applications, Take a Beach Break and Which Ocean Is Your Ocean? In addition, they tested different ads on Facebook that linked directly to the event sign-up on the website. The applications and ads were tracked using email sign-ups, daily active users, application installations, referral traffic and event registration.

The Ocean Conservancy picked very specific, narrow objectives for their experiments and specific metrics to measure them. They resisted the temptation to try to reach out broadly and instead focused on a specific target audience for a specific program on a specific site.

For example, with Facebook ads, they were able to set up a series of a/b tests using different taglines, creative and audience targeting.  By embedding tagged links in the ads to the Ocean Conservancy site, they were able to track the referral traffic for different ads.

Best practices for social media experiments

So a few best practices here for social media experiments:

  • Design experiments so they involve some incremental changes of existing work routines.
  • Try as much as possible to avoid having experiments be extra credit but a part of the workflow.
  • Articulate learning questions on the front end, identify metrics/data to collect to answer questions.
  • Spend time extracting lessons learned and design principles at the end.
  • Incorporate “rinse and repeat” of experiments over time.

What do you think? Do you think Ocean Conservancy is on the right track here?Beth Kanter is CEO of Zoetica, a consultancy for nonprofits. See her profile, visit her blog, contact Beth or leave a comment.

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