I'm not going to lie: I'm having trouble getting past these election results. Do you have any suggestions for how I can snap out of it and start gearing up for what's coming?
If you’re still reeling from the results of this election, you’re not alone. Most of our friends and partners — and millions of others — are feeling the same. Many of us have felt shocked at the outcome and overwhelmed by the deafening post-election clatter. In this week of Thanksgiving, I expect we may collectively experience more reflection (and digestion) than gratitude as we brace for the year ahead.
How do we brace ourselves for what’s to come?
2017 may prove as erratic and confounding as 2016 — who knows? Without getting too deep into the state of the news media, it’s safe to say journalists and analysts and scholars are hot on the case, so I’m hopeful we’ll see more credible and high-quality media output on that question in the forthcoming weeks (and hopefully be more measured in our consumption of it).
Despite the heavy weight of uncertainty, one thing is clear: Next year is sure to bring positive and negative transformation to social sector organizations. This change will force us to develop laser focus on immediate risks that need our defense and, more offensively, what is most important to achieve in the years ahead.
Among the forthcoming policy setbacks, programmatic shifts, and surges in support and revenue that we can expect, digital changemakers will play an important role helping their organizations be more nimble and effective in response. Constituents will engage in new ways online and — like Clay Shirky outlined in his book "Here Comes Everybody" — that will give people the power to organize at will, which will challenge institutions to go beyond the normal state of affairs and uncover new ways to channel participation into durable attention and engagement. Our founder Nicco Mele, now director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, also wrote about this cultural phenomenon in his book, “End of Big” (if you’d like a copy, you can find it on Amazon or another online retailer of your choice).
Digital media also will continue to play a powerful role in influencing public perception and behavior. Owners of digital content will have to satisfy increasing demands from constituents who want clear answers and pathways to action on critical issues, especially where they may lack direct knowledge or experience about those issues. It is going to be a frenetic year for those faced with the challenge of balancing urgent, tactical responses to threats with long-term strategies that are designed to turn new or intermittent supporters into dedicated brand loyalists.
Our job will be to make engagement less volatile and design initiatives to be sustainable. It’s important to focus on this, so that when the fervor of this election fall-out subsides, the relationships you built with your users will have strong ties that last well into the future.
How should you go about planning for 2017?
There will be a lot to cover in 2017, but our focus is on setting you up to channel next year’s rapid response and short-term leads into longer-term gains. To get you started, we’ve put together this priority list that you can use to create a plan that aligns your activities, stakeholders, processes, and resources:
1. Draft a vision and roadmap.
There is always a risk when our attention turns to defense that our tactical needs crowd out our longer-term focus. This tension is especially present when critical programs and policies are at risk and we must use our full attention and resources to respond.
It is important to remain highly responsive to needs that emerge daily. It is equally important to remember that you are building constituencies that have high potential to remain loyal supporters in the long term if you manage your engagement with them strategically and well. You really only have one shot at making a good impression, so it’s important to get it right.
There are two traps I often see social impact organizations and their digital teams fall into in times of great mission urgency and when resource availability shifts:
Scaling digital too rapidly or aggressively.
In times like these, many organizations see upticks in supporter engagement. This often brings new revenue growth that can be channeled into new digital initiatives, which can be very exciting for digital changemakers. There is a dark side to this excitement, however — it often leads to making decisions that are short-term in nature and to spending on initiatives that cannot be sustained into the future (when, in years ahead, revenue slows). This leads to an increase in depreciation and waste over time resulting from resources being applied to launching products without any plan for maintenance or growth.
A roadmap can help you prevent this by making smarter, more strategic decisions to govern your work, thus avoiding falling into the well-known trap of "haste makes waste."
Losing sight of users.
When organizations are in defense mode, they’re focusing most of their attention and efforts on fighting immediate threats — preventing policy setbacks, taking legal action, organizing for change, developing new research and analysis — and less on longer-term mission outcomes. Quite often, the end-user is lost in this work.
It is important to not lose sight that you are in service to your constituents no matter what your organization is experiencing programmatically and that you need to look beyond their role as just inputs to your advocacy and fundraising goals and see them as co-creators of the work that you are doing.
You don’t want to turn your relationship with your constituents into one that is extractive and feels draining to them — causing fatigue and, eventually, abandonment. A vision and roadmap will force you to protect your audiences. It will help you define core personas and set user experience rules that will keep you applying your supporter base in the right way — one that is empathetic and designed to meet their needs.
A good vision and roadmap for your digital work will allow you to respond to urgent threats while bolstering your theory of change and preserving a value-based relationship with your constituents. It will help you to identify digital priorities that intersect with those demands and create prototypes that you can release and test in the short-term, then mature and sustain in the long-term. Ultimately, this will help you focus on sustainability in decision-making, so you can make more informed decisions about how to apply your resources to what matters most.
2. Create a cross-channel donor experience.
One thing that research has shown is that it is difficult to fully know whether your donors’ motivations are purely altruistic, or based on some perception of reciprocity or gain — especially when gifts are made in times of crisis.
There is research to support that self-interest often plays as much a role in giving as generosity does, especially among new and infrequent donors. Being aware of the two modes of giving and their interplay is important in transforming occasional donors — particularly those first-time donors who come in heightened times of crisis — from giving purely for self-interest (I gave to make myself feel better) to giving as an essential part of the mission (I gave because the mission is critical).
In other words, no two donations are alike. To turn happenstance donors who have weaker ties to your mission into committed donors who understand your work and are strongly engaged with helping you succeed in the long term, you need to create a donor experience that is meaningful and immersive. This means using your content and user experience efforts to develop continuous, interrelated interactions across all channels and touchpoints that stem from your users’ unique interests and needs.
This is a challenge for most organizations — and rarely achieved. Different donor segments have very different behaviors that require unique and specific transactional use cases. Fundraising cycles are used to short-term timeframes for cultivation and conversation and therefore also have independent goals. Donors are often segmented into their demographics (who they are) for reporting purposes, ignoring their more qualitative psychographic traits that motivate how they want to engage with you (personality and lifestyle factors).
When you handle donors purely transactionally, you lose focus on how you are going to engage with a single donor across multiple campaigns and channels over time.
If this sounds at all familiar to you, then I am sure you’ve asked these questions a few times:
- How do we know whether we’re providing good service to direct mail donors who prefer to go online to give?
- How to we grow our online donor base and turn them into repeat, sustaining donors?
- How do each of our digital channels function together to attract and cultivate new donors?
- How do we use our digital channels to cultivate existing donors in a way that increases their giving and support over time?
The answer is simple, though implementation is not and may require revising your processes. You need to develop a cross-channel user experience strategy that considers your core user personas, their engagement with you across touchpoints, and what central through-line is appropriate to carry them from interaction to interaction while strengthening their relationship with you over time.
Some examples of cross-channel engagement:
- If a direct mail donor receives a packet and, preferring to give online, bypasses any custom URL going instead to your main website to give, the creative (copy, artwork) from that packet should be very exposed wherever they land.
- If your donors gave to a single campaign, then they should receive regular updates on the progress of that campaign. If you communicate with the donor about something different (related or unrelated advocacy campaign, for example), that communication also should include a description of how it relates back to the original campaign they engaged with.
- If the website works as a channel for acquisition to attract new users and convert them to email subscribers, then your email and social media strategies need to be designed to turn those new subscribers into first-time donors, then repeat donors, through highly predictive and tailored interactions sustained over time.
All of these are fundamental to a cross-channel donor experience. Heading into 2017, you want to be positioned to work across communication, marketing, advocacy, programs, and fundraising to define a cross-channel user experience that improves your chances at successfully capturing new supporters and uses immersion to turn them into long-term donors and brand advocates.
3. Make user research a priority.
When we’re busy producing products and campaigns, we’re not always leaving space to listen to our users and understand who they are. We tend to see our end-users as the targets of our outputs, without asking for their advice on how we can better use our channels to serve and engage them. It’s odd that research is so often overlooked, because talking with users is the very best way to get a precise understanding of what they need and want. It replaces guesswork with a plan. It creates a culture of respect for the user.
Ultimately, your digital channels are responsible for attracting users, capturing their attention, and converting them so they can be cultivated over time. It is rare, without a significant trigger event (like a natural disaster or political crisis), that you’ll get an uninitiated visitor to your site who has no prior relationship with you to make a donation. To convert a casual visitor into a donor takes time and requires defining a specific user journey anchored to research-based user personas. And for those users who come to you based on trigger events, it can be difficult to keep them around.
Your first objective with your website, email, and social channels is to habituate your users to them — to get users used to coming to you when they have needs. In response, you have to anticipate your users’ needs and deliver a highly valuable experience each time they engage with you, so they feel rewarded in their choice to engage. You’re not going to know what these preferences are without spending time conducting research.
There are four primary types of user research that we consider critical to the lifecycle of a digital products, drawn from the Practical Handbook of Usability Testing:
Exploratory or Formative Study
An exploratory study is conducted when a product or campaign is in the initial stages of conception and is used to define early models. This can be done through focus groups, contextual interviews, and surveying.
Assessment testing is the most typical type of usability testing conducted and is usually tested when a high-level prototype or design of the product or campaign has been established. This test typically takes place in the middle of an active or ongoing design cycle.
Validation testing is usually conducted late in the development cycle and is intended to measure the usability of a product or campaign against standards of performance prior to the release. It helps you to test the ability of the product in helping users to perform their desired tasks.
Comparison testing, also known as A/B testing, is not associated with a specific point in the in product or campaign development but is used at different phases to test concepts, elements, or how approaches stack up against other approaches.
In 2017 and beyond, we recommend adding to your regular metrics reporting a plan to conduct user research at least quarterly, which will give you qualitative and quantitative insights to help shape your user experience and content strategy approaches. When conducting research, you want to consider:
- Your user’s relationship with your industry or sector,
- Your user’s relationship with your organization within that context, and
- Your user’s relationship with your channels.
This will help you go beyond demographics to define how your constituents want to engage with you over time.
4. Favor activation over innovation.
In the past few years, we’ve seen and encouraged a movement away from big spending for one-off digital initiatives, like website redesigns, toward a greater investment in ongoing product planning and development, process design, and performance management. Time and again we see digital teams exhaust their resources on large, "innovation"-driven projects without defining how the important work of implementation and maintenance will be structured to sustain those projects in the future. This almost always leads to cycles of depreciation and waste.
Oftentimes, innovation projects are anchored to promises of transformation that fail to look beyond the moment of launch. Innovation certainly can unlock great ideas and creativity. But when given too much emphasis, it ignores the tough and equally critical work of maintenance and iterative evolution — where you can apply insights and testing to prioritize decisions and make the greatest gains.
As you frame your work in 2017, we encourage you to look beyond the lure of innovation toward an approach based on activation. Framing your work as "activation" means that you create a practice of motion across all phases — always focusing on:
- Generating and prioritizing highly qualified and refined ideas,
- Moving them quickly into prototypes, then
- Testing and refining them so you can mature the best approaches and replicate them across your organization.
With this approach, you’ll ensure that you’re thinking through resource, process, and governance models needed to make sure your efforts succeed.
Many of the clients we have worked with have successfully transitioned to activation practices and have seen improved ability to:
- Define strategic priorities and plans,
- Make cases with boards and funders for increased support, and
- Adopt a culture of seeking, testing, and learning that leads to smart, continuous improvement.
This work is best done iteratively — starting small and conserving resources until you are able to test concepts and gain insights that help you decide how to invest your resources. It also requires an ongoing commitment of funds to your product maintenance and evolution.
One question I am often asked is how much to invest in your website’s maintenance apart from other digital spending. In our work, we’ve seen the most successful results among teams that reserve roughy 30% of the cost of any redesign or major platform upgrade as an annual website budget. This means that minimally you should be planning $25,000-$75,000 per year on basic website management and maintenance (more if your site has extensive interactivity or transactional functionality).
In addition to this maintenance budget, we recommend planning a separate budget for site research and enhancements, set at 18-20% of your maintenance budget each year. Underfunding growth and maintenance can lead to depreciation, waste, and loss of support for future resources.
As you head into 2017, you can use this model to make sure your organization is conserving the right amount of budget for your website maintenance and growth, separate from any email, social media, search, or other digital spending.
While I have focused heavily on the concept of activation and evolution over innovation, there are some cases where a major redesign or overhaul is necessary. Most software applications go through major version releases every few years and have ongoing updates between those releases — content management systems (CMS) are the same.
You should be making improvements to your digital platforms quarterly and looking ahead to major shifts in technology to help drive your planning and funding for major upgrades. In late 2015, for example, Drupal announced that Drupal 6 was moving into end-of-life and Drupal 8 was being released. A major CMS upgrade is a reason to overhaul your website, and can be used as a way to determine timeframes for requesting major releases.
Note: If you’re on Drupal 6, we recommend moving to Drupal 8 in the next year. If you’re on Drupal 7 and your site is responsive and effective, we recommend looking ahead to 2018-2020 for your next major redesign and CMS upgrade.
Similarly, rolling out a major feature set to serve a particular user group — customer portals, data visualizations, peer networks, learning platforms, etc., — require their own resources and funding separate from your core website.
5. Fine-tune your digital team.
Once your roadmap, cross-channel strategy, user research, and activation plans are in place, you need to establish the right team to maintain them.
In 2017, as you begin to roll out the above practices, you will want to make sure your digital team is functionally staffed to cover product management, data management and analysis, community management, content and editorial strategy and production (see my latest blog on how to approach content strategy), and creative design and development. This may be a team of internal staff or a blended team of internal staff and external consultants.
When advising clients on what skills to bring in-house and how to structure digital teams, we encourage them to first identify what functional roles would require deep insight and expertise into organizational operations and governance and prioritize those as the most critical internal roles. Functions like data analysis, product management, community management, for example, are often suited to internal roles.
After those internal roles are defined and covered, we recommend augmenting that team with internal or external expertise in areas such as user experience, content strategy and production, interaction design, and technical development. In cases where expertise is better gained from working across many diverse contexts and remaining abreast of industry standards, practices, and innovations, then it often is beneficial to partner with external subject matter experts, in order for them to bring broad external exposure and expertise to solutions to bear on finding solutions to internal problems. This also is the case for practices like user research which require specific academic and professional training.
Even if you have a well-established team, we recommend drafting a staffing model and plan with clearly defined functional roles that you revisit annually and also review with your full team (staff and contractors) quarterly, in order to discuss how you are performing against the model, make any improvements necessary, and anticipate any shifts you may need to make in the longer term.
I covered quite a bit of ground for your 2017 planning. If this seems daunting, we recommend picking one priority to start with, so you get started without feeling overwhelmed. Eventually, you want to be managing against all these priorities each year.
And while these priorities are not exhaustive (they don’t include extensive fundraising or advocacy planning, for example), they should be the foundation of your digital strategy and practices in 2017. In addition to the above, all your digital work should be centered on these guiding principles:
- That your brand and content strategy should be disciplined and goal-oriented,
- That your digital user experience should be cross-channel, insights-driven, and highly motivating,
- That your product development should be high-quality, scalable, and extensible,
- And that your practices should be repeatable, flexible, and mature.
At Echo, we’re obviously big evangelists for all of the above and love to support organizations in adopting and succeeding with these practices. If you’d like to pick our brains or learn more about bringing this work to your organization, drop us a line.
And, thank you for all the work you are doing and and the very intense and important work you will do during these critical times. We are so grateful for you!