The Social Proof Shortcut to Creating Social Change

This summer I attended a poorly organized concert. Outside the venue, people were wandering in the hot sun trying to find the entrance, or the line to the entrance, or at least something that indicated where to go next. We were experiencing pluralistic ignorance: after failing to find signage, we were all looking to everyone else for guidance, but no one knew what was going on. Then, a line started to form and move in a specific direction. There was palpable relief as people saw social proof of what to do next.

When we use the behavior of groups of people who are similar to us to help guide our actions or decisions, we are using social proof.[1] This is an excellent way to save time and energy in decision making. If each concertgoer in the example above had to see the entrance in order to know where to go, it would take a lot longer to get everyone seated. However, once people see a group performing a similar action, the rest know what to do.

This intriguing phenomenon can be useful for nonprofits wishing to encourage behavioral or attitude change. Whether your goal is to raise funds to end homelessness or get signatures on a climate change petition, social proof can move people quickly to a decision point. Social proof works best when:

  • The situation seems ambiguous to your audience. For example, in a campaign to fund school art programs, your audience doesn’t know how many parents really support art program funding.
  • The group providing social proof is similar to the group you are trying to influence. Using information about typical school parents will influence specific school parents.
  • The group providing social proof is large enough to have an influence. A majority, preferably a large majority, agrees with funding school art programs.
  • You can state the issue positively. People are more likely to respond to something that is a gain than a loss.[2] Not “parents are willing to spend more…,” but “parents support having more….”

Here are 7 ways any nonprofit can use social proof to further its goals:

  1. Are statistics on your side? Use them! If you can say 85% of parents support keeping arts in schools, social proof will serve as a powerful influence.
  2. Don’t have statistics already? Create a targeted survey to see if support is there.
  3. Hold a rally or event that draws a large audience. The appearance of a supportive crowd helps others deduce that social proof exists. Make sure to share the event through video and photos; social proof doesn’t require first hand experience.
  4. Circulate a petition. Signatures beget more signatures, as well as social proof to policy makers that support exists.
  5. Hold a call-in day targeting policy makers. If they hear from enough constituents, they deduce widespread support.
  6. Find a hashtag that’s already in use on social media that works with what you want to promote. Building popularity for a new hashtag takes a lot of time, but if you see programs with similar agendas already using #ArtforSchools, use it too.
  7. Use imagery and stories that prove your point. Pictures of large groups of kids happily playing band instruments and endorsements from parent and community groups will provide evidence that many find art programs valuable.

While it would have been nice for the organizers to provide clear signage at my summer concert, it was interesting to watch social proof in action, and once we made it inside, the concert was a blast. Where have you seen social proof at work? In what ways have you used it in your nonprofit activities?

[1] Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Revised). New York: Harper Business.

[2] Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Image credit: freeimages.com/Yarik Mishin

VW, Ethics, and Persuasion

The VW scandal has me thinking. As someone who purchased an implicated car just 10 days before the news broke, I feel manipulated, angry, and a big loss of trust. At the same time, I feel resigned that big business, driven by the hallowed dollar, would resort to this type of sneaky persuasion. However, if a nonprofit had carried out a comparable action, I would be feeling far more than begrudging resignation. We expect more social responsibility from nonprofits, yet nonprofits also use a range of persuasive techniques.

Those of us in the business of changing minds, at least in the nonprofit world, tend to shy away from saying that we are using persuasion. Somehow, it seems a dirty word even though typically we are persuading for the purpose of creating a better future for an individual, a neighborhood, a society, or the planet. Out and out admitting we are using persuasion seems dangerous, like we are flirting with the forces of evil to accomplish good.

Yet, persuasion is exactly what we need to use to accomplish many of our goals. Persuasive processes provide useful cues and shortcuts for supporters when making decisions about how to respond to our messages. And recognizing that we are, in fact, employing persuasive techniques could help us maintain awareness that we need to keep ethics in the forefront.

So when does persuasion go bad? Methods of persuasion range on a continuum from providing information to coercing compliance through propaganda. Gass offers a balanced definition of persuasion as: “the activity of creating, reinforcing, modifying or extinguishing beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, and/or behaviors within a given communication context,”[1] and I would add, per Soules,[2] that this activity can take place either consciously or unconsciously on the part of the sender or receiver.

Propaganda, often considered a more pernicious form of persuasion, is defined by Ellul as “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, … through psychological manipulations…”[3] Propaganda involves power: it is consciously employed by those in power in order to gain or maintain compliance of those who are not in the dominant class, or employed by those who aim to become the dominant class, such as in revolution. Fortunately (or some might say unfortunately), nonprofits are rarely operating at this level.

While it is likely that few, if any nonprofits are participating at the intense level of manipulation that VW is, public benefit organizations are still using persuasion. Some have crossed the line of good ethics. We have all seen the stories. Some have done so knowingly while others find themselves caught unawares.

How do you stay clearly on the correct side of the ethical persuasion line? Here are some fairly simple guidelines:

  1. Provide accurate and truthful information, even if it doesn’t shed the best light on you or your organization. Have to share some mishandling of funds? Be honest about what happened, then state how you are rectifying the situation and what you will do to prevent future problems.
  2. Provide a fairly even exchange in benefits between the organization and its supporters. Asking for volunteer time or money? Make sure volunteers and donors feel rewarded in the ways you have promised they would.
  3. Keep compassion, cooperation, and common good at the core of your message. More likely than not, if a message divides or feeds on stereotypes, it could do more harm than good.
  4. Check your gut. If you were on the receiving end of the communication, how would you really feel about it? If your internal guide has mislead you in the past or you’re just not sure, find a trusted colleague with whom you can discuss the situation, especially if he has a neutral viewpoint (e.g. outside of the organization).

Ultimately, ethics depends on perceptions of truth, meaning that the line between ethical and unethical persuasion is not always clear. What may appear ethical to one person may not be ethical to another. However, the more you stay definitively on the correct side of the ethical line, the more trust you build with the public and supporters. If you do venture into a gray area, having a reserve of trust means they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

While I am enraged at the greediness and manipulation of a car company, I hope to never see an equivalent transgression made by a nonprofit working for the public good. We have a lot more to lose than customers or money. Our work depends on public trust, and violation of that trust by one organization can reflect on us all.

[1] Robert H. Gass. (2007). Persuasion, social influence, and compliance gaining (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, pp. 33–34.

[2] Soules, M. (2015). Media, persuasion and propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[3] Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. (K. Kellen & J. Lerner, Trans.). New York: Vintage, p. 61.

Image source: freeimages.com/Tom Campbell and Ton Koldewijn, with edits by the author

The Persuasive Potential of Interactivity

3 AM. Sucked in again playing with the internet. Why are we so drawn into this medium? Some say the interactive nature of web sites makes us stay engaged, even mimicking one-on-one human interaction in some cases. Others say interactivity just distracts viewers from thinking.

A recent study adds ammunition to the argument that interaction can increase the effects of a message, particularly persuasive effects.[i] This is good information for nonprofits with an aim to create social change through attitude and behavior change – an extremely challenging goal.

In the study, researchers had college students view a web site with anti-smoking messages. Some conditions included interactive features such as slider bars that morphed images and/or navigational controls that allowed users to create their own path through the information on the page. Adding these features made the students feel more absorbed and encouraged positive feelings toward the web site and its messages. The ultimate result for the study participants? Greater exposure to messages that smoking is unattractive and bad for your health.

There are caveats, of course. The slider encouraged fairly superficial thoughts about the messages, which may mean that the reactions to the web site might be short-lived. The navigational controls elicited deeper thinking, but only seemed to have an attitudinal effect on those who didn’t consider smoking to be a highly important subject.

Nonetheless, these findings suggest several important strategies for the way nonprofit organizations can use the internet:

  • Add interactive features to your web site, such as infographic zoom, image 3-D rotation, location sensitive maps, mouse-overs, and more
  • Allow users to open additional content while staying on the same page (e.g. text boxes that expand and collapse) instead of navigating to separate pages or stacking information into long pages
  • Produce online documents like annual reports in a program such as Acrobat that allows interactive features
  • Provide links to your interactive web features in social media posts
  • Ask questions in your social media posts to start conversations
  • Create a space for conversations on your web site
  • Alert supporters to interactive features in newsletters and emails

I hope the next time I find myself still awake at 3 AM to the glow of my laptop or phone, it will be because I can’t seem to leave the site of a nonprofit that is trying to change the world.

[i] Oh, J., & Sundar, S. S. (2015). How does interactivity persuade? An experimental test of interactivity on cognitive absorption, elaboration, and attitudes. Journal of Communication, 65(2), 213–236. http://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12147

Image source: freeimages.com/len-k-a

Branding Your Nonprofit – Good or Bad?

What’s with the branding controversy? Branding has been around since the first rancher stamped his cow with an identifier to distinguish ownership at market. With the proliferation of mass-produced products during the industrial revolution, the practice of branding provided product differentiation. Over the last 100 years, brands have evolved to become symbolic representations of companies or organizations.

Nonprofits of the past seldom concerned themselves with branding because differentiation was clear: a nonprofit represented a unique issue or a unique group. Clearly, this is no longer the case and some form of branding is useful for differentiation.

But there is a bigger reason branding is important. Humans have a natural affinity for symbolic experiences. Just look at the power of storytelling. Nonprofits use storytelling every day to create meaning and emotion in their supporters in order to garner powerful backing for specific programs or projects. The same can be true for an organization as a whole. If an organization can tell a big-picture meaning-laden story about itself through its brand, it is in a position to create powerful change as a whole.

Defining your brand provides at least three considerable benefits:

  • Branding helps clarify the main story of your organization. Getting clear on this story will help hone priorities, messages, and audiences.
  • Branding means focusing on relationships. The practice of branding forces organizations to think of the long-term impact of their actions and messages by considering the relationships they need to build and maintain with supporters in order to remain strong. [1]
  • Branding creates community. The people who respond to a specific brand have characteristics in common. Because of those commonalities, members and supporters of a well-branded organization feel part of a community, virtual or live, and reap the benefits that communities provide: support, encouragement, teamwork, synergy…

But what about the down side of branding? The 1999 publication of Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, helped to summarize and popularize many concerns of the anti-branding circle. Brand critics state that the emphasis on brand image and the subsequent move away from products and production has led corporations to take advantage of people and environments in less developed parts of the world, often in direct contradiction to the image they are trying to sell. Critics also charge that corporations have claimed almost everything public and privatized it, as well as undermined our democracy by reinforcing the self-centered, individualistic nature of our society.[2]

It is true that people in less developed countries are frequently bearing the brunt of our consumer needs. I could cite hundreds of examples linking environmental degradation and human exploitation to many different industries. Issues with privatization of public space and undermining of democracy are equally prevalent.

Do public benefit nonprofits want to be part of something that has caused so much harm?

I argue that much of the concerns around image branding should be taken seriously. However, I contend it is our system of capitalism, not branding, that encourages corporations to act in this manner.

Branding can actually help resolve some of these issues: nonprofit organizations can use branding to strengthen their own relationships, clarify their stories, and create community. If nonprofit, non-commercial institutions use branding powerfully, they can help to rebuild institutions that emphasize community instead of individuality and caring instead of spending. Organizations can help to provide the knowledge people need to make informed purchases and help others gain the financial ability to make choices, countering some of capitalism’s downsides.

Branding will continue to be an area of contention. In the meantime, supporters of branding can use the impact and effectiveness of good branding practices to bring the world closer together instead of driving it apart.

How have you used branding in your organization? What benefits or challenges have you discovered?

[1] Who’s wearing the trousers? (2001, September 6). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/770992

[2] Goodman, B., & Dretzin, R. (2004). The Persuaders. Boston, MA: WGBH Boston. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/

Image source: freeimages.com/Petr Kovar

Use the Four Walls of Framing to Build a Strong Message

How do you get a message to connect with your audience, no matter the circumstances? Frame it with four strong walls: speaker, audience, message text, and culture.

Message framing means presenting information to encourage a specific response. Communication, PR, and marketing professionals in nonprofits use framing by choosing which information to include and which to leave out. There is nothing inherently nefarious about this; it is impossible to communicate everything about an issue and given limited space and distracting environments, we must choose our messages carefully. What we choose to include is necessarily highlighted while what we leave out is diminished in the audience’s minds. This selection process helps to define a problem, attribute a cause or blame, provide a moral evaluation, or indicate a solution in an efficient and effective manner.[1]

When choosing how to present a message for the maximum effect, there are four aspects to consider in building a strong message frame:

      1. Speaker – The speaker needs to be credible, likeable, influential, charismatic and/or relatable. Conservation International has recently relied heavily on influential speakers in their video series Nature Is Speaking by featuring famous actors such as Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford. While most of us don’t have the means to acquire speakers of this stature, finding someone with whom the audience can find commonalities can be just as effective. Mercy Corps uses this to good effect in their profiles of recent Syrian refugees, highlighting a boy who just wants his normal childhood back, playing soccer and swimming with friends.
      2. Audience – Knowing your audience will make a big difference in the impact of your message. Sadly, I see too often that organizations fail to narrow their audience carefully enough, or when they do, they don’t carry out enough research to understand them well. But if you take the time to fathom the particulars of the group you most want to reach, you can find speakers that will resonate, use cultural references that are meaningful, and capture images that speak volumes.
      3. Message text – I like to think of message text as poetry. In poetry, we are told that every word should be carefully chosen to convey the exact meaning intended. Words that can convey nuanced meaning or multiple meanings can be even more valuable. Perhaps most important, words that don’t serve any purpose are discarded. Such should be the case with message text. And, of course, when you keep in mind the specific characteristics of your audience you can choose the most meaning-laden and resonant words available for them. Check out World Wildlife Fund’s Facebook page for some pithy messaging examples.
      4. Culture – No individual, and therefore, no audience can become who they are without the influence of the culture in which they live. Culture has, in fact, intimately shaped our experiences and understandings of the world. Tapping into these experiences enables communicators to easily trigger resonance and meaning. We often see memes floating around the internet. Many are silly, but this one featuring Morpheus from the Matrix actually makes a more serious point. Most of us living in western societies over the last 30+ years have seen the Matrix movies, or at least heard about them in detail, so the implications of the meme are apparent: the world is not always the way we think it is.

Framing your message with these four components will strengthen your communications much like the four walls of a well-built house: together they can create a message able to withstand the forces of a crazy news day on Twitter, an inbox full of spam, a personal crisis, or whatever else may be going on in the lives of valuable donors and supporters.

Image source: freeimages.com/Claudia Meyer

[1] Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51–58.

The Compelling Influence of Reciprocation

Have you ever wondered why, when a dog gives you his ball you feel compelled to throw it for him? It’s more than just the cute look on his face. According to Robert Cialdini, professor and author of the well-known Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,[1] reciprocation is a universal motivator for repayment. We’ve all seen it at work in commercial settings, from the cheap swag handed out at networking events (branded pens, candy) to the subtle suggestion of an offered bottle of water when purchasing a car. This well-researched phenomenon is a powerful tool for nonprofits as well.

The idea is that when an uninvited favor is offered, we automatically feel obligated to reciprocate. The dog has given you something and, whether you wanted that slimy ball or not, you feel compelled to return the favor. In fact, there is so much social pressure to comply in human-to-human situations, that numerous unflattering words exist for those who take without giving back, whether the favor was wanted or not: freeloader, moocher, sponger…

How can we use this tool without being crass about it? Some organizations include a nickel in their direct mail; others provide free calendars or tote bags in exchange for a certain level of donation. These all work, but there are even gentler ways to employ the technique by thinking of it in terms of making a concession. When an organization makes a concession, reciprocation works because there is social pressure not to exploit someone who has made an allowance.

Most fundraising requests incorporate concessions when they ask for a big donation first and then retreat to a smaller one. Instead of scaring people away, as long as the larger amount isn’t outlandish, this tactic typically makes donors want to contribute a little bit more that they would have otherwise because the organization has made a concession and the other donation levels seem smaller in comparison.

Here are more ways you can incorporate reciprocation and concessions into your nonprofit work:

  • Offer free admission to your next workshop or event to someone who you suspect will be a big supporter. Not only are you giving them a chance to see your work in action, you have set up an opportunity for repayment.
  • Ask someone to take on a large volunteer job. If rejected, offer something simpler. This can work because, like the donation request example, the new job seems smaller by comparison, but it also is effective because it gives the volunteer a sense of responsibility and satisfaction about the situation. The volunteer now may feel responsible for the terms of the agreement since it appears she influenced you to change it. She also could feel more satisfaction through a sense of control over the situation. Both responsibility and satisfaction have been shown to lead to better outcomes.
  • If there is an organization you are hoping to partner with on a big project in the future, offer to help them in small ways now such as favoriting and sharing their social media posts or passing on links to articles you think would benefit them. In this way, you are building a positive relationship as well as a desire on their part to repay you in the future.

Just think how joyous you make that dog feel when you reciprocate his “gift” by throwing the ball for him. You can do the same for valuable donors, volunteers, and partners by using the gentle influence of reciprocation. Making others happy while rewarding your own organization’s needs – now what could be better than that?

What ways have you used reciprocation to your organization’s benefit? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

Image credit: FreeImages.com/Wendy Domeni

[1] Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Revised). New York: Harper Business.

Re-Engaging with Our Roots

Probably all of us have felt the typical “burnout” that happens in nonprofit work. You enter thinking you can save the world, only to be confronted with the realities of life: a big donor has to cut back this year because she has kids in college; a stellar volunteer has to reduce hours to help his sick brother; your new social media campaign gets drowned out with the latest political scandal. Many times it even seems people just don’t care.

It is during moments like these that we need to get back to the reasons we were inspired to change the world in the first place. I started as an activist. It was the 1980s and the US and Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we were 4 minutes to midnight: on the brink of nuclear war. I was compelled to act, so I joined a march that engaged 500+ people to walk 3,000 miles across the US calling for nuclear disarmament. The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament was part of an ongoing social movement that had been working for disarmament for many years.

What are social movements and what do they have to do with nonprofits? Social movements have been defined as somewhat coordinated groups of people organized around a goal of creating or resisting change in a society, culture, or world order, that have a shared collective identity and maintain continuity over time.[1] Nonprofit organizations can play a large role in social movement issues, and in fact, many nonprofits were created by those involved in social movements in order to advance the issues in a more organized and coherent manner.

A great example is the Occupy movement. As a movement, there were challenges in conveying messages and accomplishing goals. But hundreds of organizations have been born from this movement and continue to operate today, challenging trade agreements, advocating for better climate change policies, promoting pedestrian friendly cities, and more.

Being part of a social movement is an invigorating experience. You are on the front lines, watching change as it takes place. You are surrounded by others, often hundreds of others, who are just as passionate as you. Through collective vision and action people are brought to a greatness that could not be achieved individually. Yes, there are challenges and disappointments. But there is nothing so rewarding as being in the middle of it all.

Next time you’re feeling burned out, try touching base with what first inspired you to get involved. Were you called to join a march like I was? Join a weekend march or protest. Were you moved to help people in need? Find time to lend a hand directly to someone who would most benefit. Were you inspired by the words of a great leader? Share those words with someone you care about. Whatever it may be, take the time to look your compatriots in the eye and see the connection. You make a difference. You are part of a movement. You are change.

[1] Diani, M. (1992). The concept of social movement. The Sociological Review, 40(1), 1–25. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1992.tb02943.x
Snow, D. A., Soule, S. A., & Kriesi, H. (Eds.). (2004). The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Image credit: FreeImages.com/Michele Migliarini