The Digital Divide: Closing Doors

As a nonprofit employee, I often found myself excited to take advantage of all the free opportunities on the internet. My organization could save lots of money by promoting its activities and publishing its information via social media, e-newsletters, and on our website. All the low- and no-cost possibilities seemed to open so many doors for us. But what if we closing doors for others at the same time? Hurting more than helping by relying on these means?

The internet was supposed to eliminate limits to information and expression. These limits often times kept people in their place, unable to be upwardly mobile if they couldn’t afford a tutor to help them with math or a resume writer to help them with the best way to present themselves when applying for a job. With the advent of the internet, anyone who had access to a library computer could watch a video explaining the difference between an isosceles and a right triangle or could search examples of the best resumes and resume advice. The great equalizer, right?

However, things didn’t turn out that way. Research has shown us that quite often technology has ended up increasing rather than decreasing social stratification. Hence the digital divide: those who have access to quality internet technology are gaining more and greater advantages over those who do not. Accessibility issues go beyond simply having a device or connection; connection speed, skill level, autonomy, physical ability, and comfort level all play a role.[i]

By relying more and more on the internet to disseminate information and change attitudes, nonprofit organizations often unwittingly contribute to the digital divide. For many organizations this runs counter to their purposes. It seems organizations are stuck between a rock and a hard place – spend limited resources on outreach or continue to contribute to a problem that may be ethically difficult to justify.

Here are some approaches for limiting or counteracting the effects of the digital divide:

  1. Research your audience. What technology do they have access to? Use what they use, even if it means spending money to reach them where they are.
  2. Make sure your information is not only smartphone accessible but also mobile friendly. Pew Research Center found that 15% of Americans have no or limited access to the internet aside from their smartphones.[ii]
  3. Use opt-in SMS messaging when appropriate. According to Pew Research Center, 92% of US adults have cell phones; of those, only 68% have smartphones.[iii]
  4. If your donor base is using different technology than your client base, you can target each group using different methods. However, don’t silence your client’s voices. They can speak in their own words to donors and supporters through technology that you provide, which helps to amplify perspectives that might not be otherwise heard.
  5. Make sure your online information follows accessibility guidelines for people with disabilities.
  6. Provide resources in audio, large print, at a lower reading level, and in other languages.

While it may be tempting to take the fast and easy road, promoting everything online in a format that’s comfortable for you, remember the people for whom we are closing doors. Without their participation, each organization’s impact will only be a pale shadow of what it could be.

What has your organization done to decrease the digital divide? Share your ideas in the comments.

[i] Eszter Hargittai and Yuli Hsieh, “Digital Inequality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. William H. Dutton (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 129–50.

[ii] Aaron Smith, “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, accessed November 2, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/.

[iii] Monica Anderson, “Technology Device Ownership: 2015,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, accessed November 2, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/29/technology-device-ownership-2015/.

Image source: freeimages.com/E_B_A_

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

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.