Sunday, September 22, 2019

When it Comes to News, What's Really on Your Phone?

For decades, pollsters have known people lie when self-reporting about how they pay attention to news. That’s why it’s so hard to trust those kinds of surveys.

When asked what they watch on TV, for example, people might say documentaries about the state of the planetbecause they know they should. 

In fact, what they mostly watch are comedies and other forms of escapism.

Nothing wrong with that. It's just that you don't get accurate information about what people are really reading, watching and listening to.

That’s why counting clicks online has become the media’s best friend.  

It's not the best form of measurement, of course. But through what people click on publishers can tell what people actually like—not what they say they like on self-reported surveys.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism took this to heart it wanted to know how much people under the age of 35 in Great Britain and the U.S. were actually reading news.

They started by asking them what news apps they had installed on their phones—something that shows interest and even intent.

It was simple, really. They asked participants in the study to give them their phones so they could check battery usage for their apps.

As anyone who has checked knows, the apps you use most take the most power.

And the results?  

Although the participants had downloaded news apps, the battery usage reports showed they actually spent very little time on them.

According to the study, no news app was in the top 25 apps used by participants.

In other words, while they may have intended to follow the news, in real life that didn’t happen.

But if you only asked them what news apps they had on their phones, you might mistakenly believe they were avid news junkies.

Admittedly, the researchers had a small sample size; just 20 people between the ages of 18 and 35, half in the U.S. and half in the UK. So we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions.

But the results once again reveal the truth as explained by Derek Thompson in an article in Atlantic Online in 2015: "Ask readers what they want to eat, and they'll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they'll mostly eat candy."

What’s on your phone?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Hey, Media; If You Want to Engage More People, Don't Bum Them Out

Surprise! People don’t like news that bums them out.

That’s the conclusion of a new study reported by Nieman Lab about why people avoid news that makes them feel depressed.

You know, like almost all the news out there these days.

In the article, it was reported that almost a third of people surveyed worldwide for the Reuters Digital News Report said they “often or sometimes” avoid the news.

And why is that? The leading cause was because “it can have a negative effect on my mood” (48 percent).

Twenty-eight percent (the third leading cause) said it was because it made them feel helpless.

Now, some things that happen in the world just can’t be sugar-coated: War, crime, poverty, natural disasters, mass shootings (in the U.S.), starvation.

People need to know about those things if they are to be informed and engaged world citizens.

But that’s not all they need to know. 

They also need to know what, if anything, they can do about it, or what others are doing about it to make things better.

And that is called Solutions Journalism, which I have written about before on this blog. (Here, here and here.)

With Solutions Journalism, people are presented with a problem, but also with ways to respond.

For example, they could be being given links to aid groups when there is a natural disaster in the developing world.

Like this article, in the Winnipeg Free Press, about how to respond to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.

Or it could be interviews with people who are working on fixing the problem—neighbours, social service organizations, faith groups, NGOs, etc.

Something that shows somebody is doing something; it's not all hopeless.

Of course, that requires more time, and likely also follow-up, instead of just drive-by reporting.

It means reporters coming back to the story in a month or more to see if things are improving—along with things learned that could be useful next time around.

And not only that; people who feel empowered by journalism come back for more.

Research by Caroline Murray and Talia Stroud at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas confirms this.

They found when people don't feel bummed out by a report they have a higher perception of the quality of the article, a greater sense of personal positivity, an increased intention to become engaged, and a desire to read more articles about the issue.

“When it comes to solutions journalism, the more information you can provide readers, the better. Adding additional components beyond the problem and the solution (i.e. implementation, results, and insights) can bolster positive responses to your work,” they say. 

This is a change from past practice. .

In the past, reporters were content to see their role as describing problems, then letting others figure out how to fix them.

But that is changing as the media finds itself on the ropes and needing to engage news consumers more.

By working with people to fix problems, the media can be seen not just as a watchdog—an important function—but also as a good neighbour who helps out. 

Someone who doesn’t bum us out all the time, in other words.

Photo at top from the Rescue Time blog.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Shit Non-Profits Say

“Our board chair encouraged us to be nimble, so we created a subcommittee on nimbleness staffed by a rep from each department to draft a Plan For Nimbleness. We are currently on Version 16 of this iterative process.”

That is an example of a Tweet from Shit Non-profits Say, a Twitter account that shares, well, the shit that gets said in non-profits.

The account, which is dedicated to “capturing the aesthetic beauty of non-profit organizational expression (all we need now is a facilitator),” has over 5,700 followers from the non-profit world (including me).

To date, there have been over 600 Tweets that share some of the weird, frustrating, eye-rolling, crazy and absurd—yet earnest and well-meaning—things that get said by people in non-profit organizations.

Things like this:

“Our executive director has asked to review all tweets in advance.”

“We don’t just have ideas, we have visions. And not just any visions, we have bold visions.”

“Why can’t you understand that capacity building is you giving me a multi-year grant?”

“After a three-hour facilitated discussion, the board concluded that our target audience is the general public.”

And so on.

As someone who spent most of my career in non-profits, the things found at Shit Non-Profits Say comes pretty close to some of the conversations I’ve heard over the decades. 

Whether it's NGO-speak or insider code words, these are comments that make people exchange puzzled glances in meetings: Did that person really just say what I just heard him or her say?

Although nobody's name is attached to Shit Non-Profits Say, I get the sense it is run by an insider—someone who respects and loves non-profit work, and appreciates the pressure non-profit staff are under, yet at the same time is driven crazy by the shit that sometimes get said.  

While the comments poke fun at life in the non-profit world, they also expose some uncomfortable truths about life for people who work there.

These are things like lack of resources, poor work-life balance, low pay, impossible fundraising targets, over-reliance on grants, impenetrable pose, interminable process, boards that meddle, and meetings—so many meetings!

At the same time, some of the things that are shared are really funny. And who couldn’t use a good laugh now and then? (Or even just a knowing smile.)

One thing that isn't clear is whether these comments come from the account owner's own experience, if they are submitted, or just made up. 

In on respect, it doesn't matter. The comments sound true, no matter their origin. All of us have heard variations at one time or another (or lived through that same kind of lengthy and unproductive meeting.)

Anyway, here are a few more gems from Shit Non-Profits Say. Any of these sound familiar?

Person 1: “I need your feedback on the content of this presentation. Just the content.” Person 2: “This isn’t our current Power Point template.”  Person 3: “I’d like to make an argument for two spaces after periods.” Person 4: “You should capitalize the word program.”

“This one-page memo has eleven authors.”

“We are totally committed to spending $800 in staff time to investigate your documentation for the $2.14 coffee that you want reimbursed.”

“Can we somehow make process our goal? Because we’re exceptionally good at that.”

Person 1: “I just found 10,000 copies of an out-of-date brochure in the storeroom.” Person 2: “Hang on to those. We may need them someday.”

“We don’t have answers, we have SOLUTIONS. And we don’t just have solutions, we have INNOVATIVE solutions.”

“Our strategy in this space is to leverage dynamic change resources to launch utilization of transitional scaling agencies and community supports.”

And especially for people who work in communications and marketing, these two gems:

“If we just do good work, the media will take notice and money will begin flowing in our direction.”

“There was a mean article about us in a newspaper six months ago. We have been internally editing a letter-to-the-editor ever since.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Heart Attack & Two Strokes Away From Insolvency: A Lesson from the Closing of Pacific Standard Magazine

A heart attack and two strokes away from insolvency.

That’s the way the precarious financial situation of a charity was once described to me.

That charity was so dependent on the generosity of a few people that if they were suddenly unable to donate, the work of the organization would be over.

Thoughts about that charity came to mind when I learned that the magazine PacificStandard was shutting down after ten years due to its main funder pulling out.

The magazine, which reported about social justice and environmental issues, was dependent on a foundation for the majority of its $3.5 million annual budget.

The reason given was the foundation was no longer in a position to fund the magazine, or any of the other charities it supported.

The loss of the publication, and the jobs that were lost, is lamentable. Yet it proves once again the danger of being overly-reliant on one source of funding—be that individuals, foundations or governments.

Over my career, I’ve seen the good and the bad of large gifts.

On the plus side, they make so much important work possible. On the negative side, they can lead organizations to become lazy in actively seeking new donors to make sure they don’t end up like Pacific Standard.

As anyone who does fundraising knows, you forget the donor pyramid at your peril: Lots of smaller givers on the bottom supporting the fewer larger donors on the top.

The idea behind the pyramid is that the larger and steady base should allow an organization to weather the loss of a large donor or two near the top—even if the loss really hurts.

Ten thousand people giving $100 is better than one person giving $1 million, in other words.

Especially if that large donor might soon have a heart attack or stroke.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Simple & Effective Way to do a Video Interview (Also, No White Saviours)

No White Saviours is the name of a new Instagram account about how white people from the west can stop trying to save Africa—or other countries in the developing world.

According to the founders, “we never said 'no white people.' We just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story.”

That’s an important message to hear. But that’s not why I am sharing it on this blog.

The reason I’m sharing it is because of the simple but neat way the BBC chose to interview the two women behind the campaign.

All the BBC did was a basic Q & A, posing the questions in text and then letting the women answer them in video.

There are no amazing graphics or photos; just two women talking.

Of course, the clip is edited for effect and length. But that happens in print or video.

Take a look. And if you are looking for simple and effective way to interview volunteers, recipients, staff, board members or others, consider giving this a try.

Read more about No White Saviours on Medium.

Read more about ways the BBC is trying to improve the online information and news experience.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

From the BBC: Ways to Make Online Stories More Appealing to Younger Readers

Earlier I wrote about how the BBC was experimenting with different formats to attract and keep the attention of younger readers on mobile devices.

They tried 35 things, like expanders, jump-offs and viewpoints.

And what was the result?

“The clear favorite prototypes were about explaining things better and showing the many different sides to stories,” lead researcher Tristan Ferne says.

Among the things showing promise are expanders, incrementals, summarizing and asking why.

An expander is an in-text yellow ellipsis after a key term/event/name/etc. that pops out some more information when clicked.

An incremental is an embed that provides more options for learning about the story (e.g. a short video clip).

Another thing that seems to work is personalizing information for users (although the BBC doesn’t like the word “personalization”).

The BBC found users were happy to swap personal information like ZIP codes for adjusted news. News could then be adapted for the reader’s location.

Once the location was known, the BBC could then supply information that answered the question: “What does this mean for me?”

In the answer, readers could know the implications of a national policy change for where they live.

Summaries are also important. Readers can’t be expected to know what the bigger picture is all about; why is food needed in South Sudan? What is the genesis of the crisis? Or even where is South Sudan?

Another idea is what the BBC called “consequences.”

Similar to “what does this mean for me?”, it offers readers a button to learn more about the impact of an issue. (e.g. what a government cutback to health care might mean where they live.)

Asking why questions is important, too. It anticipates questions readers might have about an issue.

Why are people hungry in South Sudan? Why are LGBTQ people afraid in Kenya? Why don’t girls go to school in Afghanistan?

Again, it’s a way of not presuming the reader knows more than they do—or as much as the writer knows about the subject.

More information about the results of the BBC research can be found here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Brilliant Spillover, or Why do People With no Fundraising Experience Think they Know Best?

Why is it that people who have no experience in fundraising and marketing think they know best when it comes to writing appeal letters?

That’s the question I discussed with a fundraiser friend recently.

He is working as consultant to two non-profit organizations. In each one, the executive director has nixed appeal letters he’s written for them.

For one director, they were too long—she doesn’t like to read long letters.

He showed her research proving that longer letters get better results, but it didn’t matter.

As a busy corporate executive, she doesn’t have time to read long letters. Shorten it!

For the other, the letters were too donor-oriented. He wanted more information about programming.

My friend tried to explain the average donor makes a decision from the heart, not the head. But it didn’t matter for him, either.

As a programmer, the director wanted more details. That's what interested him. .

For both executive directors, the problem was they wanted the kind of appeal letters they liked—not the kind their donors would respond to.

I’m sure these aren’t unique situations. Many other non-profits have the same dynamics and experience.

It drives marketers and fundraisers nuts. Why do we invest all this time, energy and training to craft good appeal letters, if our bosses, or colleagues, say no?

What makes them think they know better?

After all, when it comes to programming fundraisers don’t tell their program colleagues what to do.

So why should programmers have the final say when it comes to fundraising?

I can think of a few reasons for why we got into this situation.

One reason is we all get appeal letters, and we know what we like.

Another reasons is what a former fundraiser called “brilliant spillover.” 

Because they are good at one thing, such as programming or running projects, they assume they are good at others—including fundraising.

As my friend put it:

"It’s the kind of thing that leads some people to presume that their brilliance and expertise in an unrelated area, such as international project management, automatically makes them experts on communications and fundraising. 

"It rarely does. People should concentrate on what they're hired to do, not try to do other people’s jobs."

Finally, it’s because they forget they are not the target audience for the appeal; they know too much.

It’s hard for them to remember that the average donor rarely, if ever, thinks about the need, country, cause or project at hand.

And if they do, they have minimal knowledge about it.

What most donors want to know is: Will my donation make a difference? Will it solve a problem? Will it change a life? 

Most don’t care how that happens. That’s what they trust programmers to do.

I’m not saying programmers and executive directors shouldn’t be involved in helping draft appeals; they should.

They need to know that what’s being sent to the public is true, and doesn’t misrepresent the issue or situation.

They need to feel comfortable with how the need is being described so they can stand behind the appeal and support it.

But they should not be the final say on what is written. 

They need to respect the wisdom, experience and prowess of their fundraising and marketing colleagues, just as fundraisers should respect their ability to run programs.

Otherwise, let's let fundraisers have the final say on programming decisions, and see how the programmers like it.

Also check out my post about why IDS students should take marketing and communications courses.