Tag Archives: inspiring

800,000 people have read this article

Telling you that 800,000 people have read this article is a) a lie… but b) more than likely the reason you’re reading this right now.

The reason for this is an evolutionary impulse behavioural economists call “social proof” and it could well be the key to inspiring action in our supporters.

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk in the online not for profit community on how to cultivate action. American “nudge” enthusiast Richard Thaler proposed charitable donations will increase if they are easier to make. Philanthrocapitalism author Michael Green argued that it’s all about the fun whilst Rob Dyson promoted the virtues of gamification.

I’m not going to disagree with them (in fact I love gamification and will, when asked, talk fervently on the subject and recommend some very good books). I am, however, going to throw my hat into the ring and say this – it might be simpler than that.

Following the crowd

What if people gave (or got involved, or volunteered, etc) for the same reason you’re reading this – they thought everyone else was doing it?

Reuse your towel sign
The reuse your towel card displayed in some LA hotels

Dan McKayLet’s travel back in time and across the pond to LA in the mid-noughties where a group of three UCLA professors are trying to prove just this. The trio are swapping the “reuse your towel” signs in a local hotel’s bathrooms to ones that include the line “the majority of other guests reuse their towels.”

Unsurprisingly (given that I’m using it as an example) the results were staggeringly positive. Those with the new signs became 26% more likely to reuse their towel – proving that we’ll happily alter our behaviour to emulate the actions of our peers.

That’s social proof – the act of imitating others.

Subconscious suggestion

It’s not something you should find particularly new. Museums and street performers (whilst not the most common of bed fellows) have been aware of this for years. It’s why the former will add a little seed money at the beginning of the day and the latter’s donation boxes are made of glass. The resulting visible piles of cash show us that others are giving and subconsciously bullies us into doing the same.

Need an example that’s a little more contemporary? Let’s look toward social networks. Facebook is the very embodiment of social proof. If you take a peek at your Facebook news feed right now you’ll likely see examples of the social network nudging you to take action with posts and ads that have been liked by “John Smith and 20 other friends”.

It’s the reason so many people watched Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video and Rebecca Black’s “Friday”. I’m not saying that there isn’t pleasure (or interest or enjoyment) to be gained from giving money to a museum or watching Miss Black “sing” but rather that often the initial prompt to take the action is that simply x number of others have done it before.

Rich potential for non-profits

As a sector many of us are already using these techniques to influence our supporters. If we look closely enough we can see examples of social proof littering the not for profit landscape.

Totalisers – for example, especially in scenarios such as Comic Relief and Children In Need – are reminders that others have performed an action – prompting millions to do the same. Similarly, Child’s i Foundation’s “Buy a Brick” and Unicef’s “Own a Colour” visualise the number of digital donations made by others – clearly identifying a group of people you’re not yet a part of.

It need not be on such a large or complex scale as that though. There are loads of free services out there (including JustGiving Pages and Facebook Events) that will automatically monitor and display the number of donors or attendees you’ve attracted (in real-time) – hopefully stimulating even more to become involved.

On an even smaller scale – social proof can inspire through something as simple as a carefully thought out line of copy.

And this leads me to my final thought: an example from my own organisation, The Blue Cross, where we recently ran a small text-to-donate campaign. After 24 hours we posted a message on our Facebook wall thanking “all of the many kind supporters who have already texted a donation.” The implication was that those who hadn’t donated were in the minority and what followed in the next 15 minutes was a flurry of donations that doubled our overall total.

“And when everyone’s super… no-one will be!”

The problem with working in comms, I’ve discovered, is precisely this.

Maybe that doesn’t make a whole heap of sense as a statement. Mainly because I have yet to reveal that by ‘this’ I mean language. I am writing this using language that you, in turn, are reading and (I would hope) understanding. We start to pick it up at an awfully young age – earlier than we can remember and use it on a day to day basis.

This is called communication… and it has got a whole lot more complex than it ever used to be.

We IM. We Twitter. We Facebook. We write emails. We talk (shock horror). We make phone calls and send texts. We read newspapers. We write blogs… some of us even write letters.

In short we all communicate… every day… nearly all the time. Which is what makes it so hard to work in a communications department… everyone’s doing it – so what makes us special?

There is a line in The Incredibles that I’m reminded of: “…and when everyone’s super… no-one will be!”

I think there’s definitely an air of that in comms… especially digital comms. People seem happy to concede they don’t know how to write a press release or navigate their way around Photoshop (I’ll admit my naivety in the first instance but like to think I have a little knowledge of the latter). However most people I come across in my day-to-day life (in and outside of work) believe they have some kind of insight into digital comms.


Let’s look at the facts. 800 million people in the world use Facebook at least once every 30 days. There are over 175 million twitter accounts out there (although it’s thought that there’re only around 70 million active Twitterers). Online shopping accounts for well over 10% of all retail activity in the UK and… maybe most shockingly of all we Brits (on average – not even just the techies) spend a day… twenty-four whole hours… each month online.

Which means people are writing posts, liking statuses (and, they pray, creating statuses that are liked), reading blogs and generally surfing the net a LOT. And, as they say, practice makes perfect… and when we’re all spending this amount of time doing it who isn’t going to think they’re closing on perfection.

I don’t think that anyone believes that this makes them an expert at ‘digital’ (at least I hope not) but just having that solitary finger in the pie seems to have created quite a few semi-professional-amateurs.

So what’s the problem?

Let’s go back to Syndrome. “When everyone’s super… no-one will be!” It becomes increasingly hard to explain a vision of how our digital provisions can progress when everyone else has a differing vision backed up by their amateur expertise. I can’t count the amount of times someone has said something like “What we need is an app” or “We need to make this go viral.” The answers (in case you’re wondering) to these questions should always succinctly be “Why?” and “How?” respectively.

(Recently I was told of a person who sent an email to a digital marketer that simply said “Have you seen this?” and contained a link to Google. I’m still unsure if they wanted the marketer in question to create something similar or just generally thought they’d stumbled over a hidden gem of the net.

This attitude (that for the pure awesomeness of it I’m going to label ‘Syndrome-Syndrome’) can be, I believe, one of the biggest time wasters for a digital dept. As well as ensuring that our days are filled up replying to these Google-type-emails, building unneeded apps and striving to make something viral it is often the cause of the triple stage brief.

What’s the triple stage brief? Let me tell you. It happens (unsurprisingly) in three stages:

1 – The digital department puts together a brief (or spec) for an imminent project. This is usually well thought-out and reflects the current trends of the sector, nationally and internationally. It often includes developments in new and emerging technologies and, one would hope, will be in the best interests of the organisation.

2 – Soon after everyone meets and the digital team pitch their idea. Then, as if from nowhere, someone else (maybe a member of another department or a manager – usually someone who’s recently been to a conference) pitches their idea. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t always bad but they are normally always different to the original pitch. Exasperation sets in as you start to wonder why you have even been invited to the meeting in the first place.

3 – All parties spend the remainder of the meeting fighting for various aspects of their idea until a Frankenstein’s monster hybrid is settled upon.

In short – it’s a bit of a pain… but shockingly it can actually be one of the most positive things for any digital department.

Up until this point I’ve painted Syndrome-Syndrome as something crippling… horrifyingly frustrating to all within digital. However there is one silver lining to this cloud: People are interested in what we’re doing.

This may seem like something obvious but lets take a moment and consider what this means. Lots of departments often have to battle for budget and buy-in… however in digital others are actively engaging (In fact my current employer has made digital in general a high priority area of the organisation).

Create digital ambassadors.

Turn these people with an active interest and making them digital ambassadors. In my digital department have a number of roles (including social media and case study officers) that we give to interest employees that are able to provide a localised service that we would otherwise be unable to do.

Seth Godin described in his book Tribes how he created buy-in for his first project post-college by sending out bulletins detailing what he was doing and how people were getting involved. Godin describes how at the culmination of the project most of the organisation had, in part, contributed to its success.

Digital departments need to take heed of this example. By nurturing and developing the skills of those internal stake holders who show an interest any organisation can quickly and easily develop a digital department that far outnumbers those in the office.

Share your knowledge.

Create regular reports about what’s going on. Each month I create a digital stats reports which details, through easy to understand infographics, what has been happening within the department. More and more we have other departments getting in contact to enquire about SEO, AdWords, social media and the website in general.

Before each meeting do some research and produce a short document on current trends that may have some kind of affect on the project. I’ve done this at a few meetings recently and it has improved the quality of the meeting endlessly. We’ve also been providing training on things digital to those interested – meaning we have an abundance of S-S sufferers (SSS-ers?) that actually know what they’re talking about.

Have you had any experiences with SSS-ers? Got any good stories to tell? Any thoughts on how to engage these interested employees? Please use the comments section below to share these thoughts.