The Changes at Change.org – Three Lingering Concerns

Change is afoot at Change.org.*

Following up on this summer’s dilemma of success, (when controversy emerged around their sponsored petition contract with the anti-union education reform group, Stand For Children) Ryan Grim reports that the organization has adopted a new advertising policy “to allow for corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns, anti-abortion or anti-union ads and other controversial sponsorships.”  Under the guise of openness, the company is seeking a Google- or Facebook-like policy: “If Google will allow it, we would allow it.” according to Communications Director Benjamin Joffe-Walt.

A lot of progressive advocacy professionals are upset about this switch.  I’m not thrilled with it myself.  As I wrote this summer, I think it’s a bad business decision.  There are a lot more ways that this can go wrong than it can go right.  Best-case scenario is that the organization brings in extra income and continues to grow.  Worst-case is that current advertising partners abandon them and users feel betrayed, turning elsewhere.

I’ve resisted blogging about the topic thus far out of respect for the leaders involved.  Change.org spent months internally deliberating over this issue.  I think their intentions are genuine, and they certainly know their own organization better than I do.

Change’s CEO and Founder Ben Rattray just wrote a response piece for the Huffington Post.  It’s the most thorough defense of the decision I’ve seen thus far.  It still leaves me with three lingering concerns though, and I think those are worth sharing:

1. Power Analysis. In making the case for his organization, Ben writes the following:

In the past two years, Change.org has grown from 1 million to more than 20 million users, and we’re now growing by more than 2 million new users a month. But much more importantly, people are winning campaigns on the site every day: curbing corruption in Indonesia, fighting caste discrimination in India,forcing broadcasters to air the Paralympics on TV in France, shutting down ex-gay torture clinics in Ecuador. In the US, users are getting health care for military families at a poisoned army base, recalled cars off the road, ’pink slime’ out of US schools, and photoshopped models out of girls magazines.**

The language he uses is evocative.  ”curbing… fighting… forcing… shutting down…”  That language is central to his organization’s theory of change: that Change.org is a “social empowerment platform” that “distributes power more broadly.”  Usually I wouldn’t fault him for choosing action-verbs.  But here I think it covers up an inherent limitation of their model.  Change.org campaigns cannot “force” anyone to do anything.

Robert Dahl wrote the classic definition of power in his 1957 article, “The Concept of Power.”  ”A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something he would not otherwise do.”  We can place pressure tactics on a continuum from most powerful to least powerful using this simple definition.  At one extreme, you’d find the mafia (“Do this or we kill your family.”) at another extreme, you’d find poorly worded tweets (“Obama sux!  Herman Cain in 2019!”).

The amount of power you need is a function of what A is asking B to do, and how B feels about it already.  If you’re trying to keep Community on the air, you don’t need to threaten NBC executives’ families; you just have to demonstrate that there’s a robust audience in the target demographic.  That’s the sweet spot for online petition platforms — they demonstrate citizen interest and attract media attention.  It’s in this sweet spot that Change.org’s campaigns are most effective.  Change.org campaigns are great at winning local victories by demonstrating to otherwise-indifferent decision-makers that public interest around an otherwise unknown topic.  Change.org’s campaign doesn’t “force” French broadcasters to air the paralypmpics; it demonstrates to French broadcasters that there’s a bigger, more enthusiastic audience for the paralympics than they’d realized.

But let’s think about a tougher Ask.  Let’s say you want Mitt Romney to release his tax returns, or you want the Senate to pass climate legislation.  In that case, a Change.org petition isn’t going to get you anywhere.  Romney has made it abundantly clear that his back taxes are never going to be released.  He’s going to ignore a Change petition.  The petition doesn’t “force” its target to act; it encourages them to act.

This is a non-trivial distinction because it illuminates the company’s niche in the broader social change ecosystem.  Change.org puts social change tools in the hands of an awful lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have them.  They also provide organizers who help many small-scale campaigns win.  That’s a social good, and they should be applauded for it.  But, alone, it isn’t enough.  Those small campaigns have to feed into bigger campaigns that challenge powerful actors and push them more aggressively.  Change.org doesn’t ever target Congress.  It doesn’t ever work on election issues.  Someone else has to.  And that means the folks at Change need allies and partners in a way that Facebook, Twitter, and Google don’t.

 

2. Advertising vs “advertising.”  Both Rattray and Ben Joffe-Walt have tried to dismiss this controversy as being about nothing more than advertising policies.  Google often delivers “Climate Change is a myth” ads to my gmail inbox.  The RNC advertises through DailyKos.  Why all the fuss about Change.org, anyway?

Frankly, I think they’re engaging in a bit of strategic double-speak here.  They tell us that until recently they called their advertisers “partners,” and they’ve now revised the term to be more accurate.  Okay, sure.  But advertisements on Change.org aren’t like advertisements through Google.

Change.org funds its open petition platform and its campaign support organizers through “sponsored petitions.”  Organizations like the Sierra Club can pay Change.org to run a petition for them.  After signing it, you’re invited to opt in for more messages from the person/organization that created the petition.  If you say yes, they get to acquire your e-mail address and contact you themselves.  This is a pretty smart innovation.  For peer organizations looking to grow their member roles, Change.org e-mail acquisition provides a high return on investment.  It’s this innovation that has let Change get so big, so fast.

But by labeling sponsored petitions as advertisements, Change.org is sidestepping the real issue.  The concern from progressive activists is that Climate Denial groups, anti-union groups, and other astroturfers can now purchase a big member list via Change.org, then leverage this into expanded political impact on-the-cheap.  Reporters are never going to give National Association of Scholars additional attention because they’ve bought advertisements on DailyKos.  But buying “ads” on Change.org will prove much more effective (“look at the outpouring of grassroots support we find on the liberal platform Change.org.  Americans everywhere want to ban Mexico!”).  Reporters are not going to capture the fine-grained distinction between sponsored petitions and organic petitions in their stories.  That’s the real added value that Change will be offering to Exxon and ALEC: for a small investment, they can use Change.org to invent phantom grassroots support.

 

3. Avoiding the “L” Word Labelling.  The impetus for this decision is that leaders at Change.org believe their power stems from being viewed as a neutral platform.  Rattray writes, “There’s no way [their growth and broad acceptance] could happen at any scale if we had a particular political agenda.”  Their concern is that, particularly as they expand internationally, conservative groups will label them “liberal.”

I used to hear a similar concern for years in the Sierra Club.  The Sierra Club is a non-partisan advocacy group.  We endorse candidates in elections.  Every election cycle, there would be a handful of moderate Republicans that we’d endorse over their more-progressive Democratic opponents.  Fellow progressives screamed at us.  But our reasoning was that, if we didn’t endorse Republicans, then we would be labeled a Democratic group and we’d be less powerful. Endorsing moderate Republicans kept us immune from the charge.

Here’s the thing, though: we were labeled a Democratic group anyway.  It’s the same sort of logic that leads Jennifer Rubin to complain, from the Washington Post about how no one in the mainstream media is covering her issue.  Neither openness nor evidence will protect a successful social change organization from being labeled partisan.  The “too liberal” label is a function of success, not partisanship.  So long as Change.org is only organizing for school lunches and MPAA-ratings changes, they’ll be safe from the partisan label.  The moment they start effectively winning larger victories, they’ll be named part of the Liberal Elite (C.F. Glenn Beck warning his viewers against the liberal Google).

Open advertising policies won’t protect Change.org from these charges.  Tea Party groups are entirely capable of advertising on Change.org while simultaneously casting Change.org as a liberal opponent that is undermining America.

The antidote isn’t embracing conservatives by pissing off their partners and their user base.  Change.org’s real power lies in its ability to offer journalists compelling stories of real people struggling to improve their communities.  Change.org has a symbiotic relationship with the media.  Citizens turn to Change as an outlet for small-scale social change efforts.  Change.org organizers find the most compelling campaigns.  Journalists can trust that the campaigns Change promotes will be engaging human interest stories.  So long as Change does that well, they’re pretty much immune to the liberal label.

It’s entirely possible that the new advertising policy will be much ado about nothing.  Astroturf groups might not notice.  Progressive nonprofits might keep using Change.org to grow their lists.  Peer organizations might (okay, will) find more important controversies to be upset about.  But, after reading Ben Rattray’s response, these three issues linger for me.  Change.org campaigns are great, but circumscribed.  It seems like Ben and company are forgetting that they need partners if they’re going to build a better world.  Advertising on Change is different than advertising on Google, and ought to acknowledge that.  And partnering with conservatives has never stopped other conservatives from labeling you “too liberal.”  That just isn’t the way these things work.

Here’s hoping that it all works out for the best.

 

*Sorry, the pun is unavoidable.  I don’t like it either.

**He includes hyperlinks to these examples in the HuffPo piece, but they didn’t transfer with my cut&paste.  Please read the article and click through to learn more.

NBC and the End of the Broadcast Era

The news broke yesterday that NBC will be canceling 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and Community.

(…On the bright side, I suppose I’ll be more productive next year when there’s nothing interesting to watch on television.)

As a media consumer, I was shocked.  Everyone who watches Community knew the show was in ratings trouble.  But the other two shows have been a Thursday night tentpole and didn’t seem to be in danger.  Considering the hit-or-miss quality of most NBC programming, does anyone believe that they’ll find three replacements that are better?

As a media analyst, this strikes me as evidence that NBC just doesn’t understand (or accept) how the tv game has fundamentally changed.  The network has the attention of a valuable niche audience, but insists upon wasting it.  NBC was once the most popular television network in America.  But that was during the era of broadcast television, when limited consumer choice meant that three or four networks enjoyed the luxury of competing over an entire national audience.  NBC was home to The Cosby Show and Cheers in the 1980s, Friends and Seinfeld in the 1990s.  Those hit shows brought in a whole national audience.  Today’s NBC shows attract an appealing niche audience rather than the whole nation.

The difference is cable tv and the Internet.  Cable television existed in the 1980s and 1990s, but had a different texture.  Cable stations offered niche programming, while the networks offered staples.  Many households did not have cable back then.  While HBO started developing its own programming relatively early, we were still a long away from AMC competing for “best drama” Emmys with Mad Men.  Lacking the social web, audiences were passive.  Lacking the rich online data environment, advertisers settled for coarse metrics of audience interest.

Today, NBC fills a pretty sweet niche with its programming.  Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, The Office*, and Community anchor a lineup of generally pretty-smart comedies.  They attract devoted fans who riff on the shows constantly online.  My students at Rutgers frequently mention that they watch 30 Rock or Community.  They never mention Two and a Half Men.  My friends and colleagues are the same.  Amongst the social clusters who watch Mad Men and The Wire, NBC is the broadcast network that we most often tune in to.  NBC could choose to be happy with that audience.  It’s a tech-savvy crowd, with enough spending power and cultural capital to keep advertisers happy.  But that would mean relinquishing the dream of recapturing 1980s audience-share.  Apparently the network decided to go another direction.

If some upstart competitor is smart, they’ll view this as an opportunity. Cult favorite  Arrested Development is already heading to Netflix.  Netflix or another outlet (Current TV 2.0, anyone?) ought to round up these shows and corner the market on creative-class cultural favorites.

Arrested Development is a great example of the broader trend: how can a show that is so intensely popular not be worth airing?  In the era of broadcast, when there were limited timeslots, I can understand that logic.  You cancel it because the “real estate” of prime time television is too scarce and too valuable.  But can anyone honestly argue that Arrested Development wouldn’t attract a solid niche audience on a weekly basis?  Now that we have hundreds of channels, plus hulu, plus netflix, plus youtube for remixes, plus tumblr for memes, plus twitter for riffs, no channel is going to attract Seinfeld-sized audiences.  But that also means there’s expanded opportunity for quality programming.

If you can’t make money off of Arrested Development or 3o Rock, Parks and Rec or Community, it’s time to get out of the money-making business.

 

*The Office is sticking around for another full season.  I will pay cold, hard cash if someone can explain the logic of that move.

Spider-man Fan Marketing: No Geeks Need Apply

The Spider-Man Movie Network is looking for a male and female to be the “Face of the Fan” for its online Spider-man 3 promotions online. It’s a savvy move to turn to the internet for help when marketing properties with a huge, existing fan base—see Nancy Baym’s blog, Online Fandom, for some great examples—and it’s also wise to give fans the info they need to increase their chances of being selected. It may be less wise to fling insulting stereotypes at that fan base without any apparent subtlety.

The above link leads to examples of “low quality” and “high quality” submissions. The “high quality” example offers text on the screen to point out how well you can hear and see the host, how she follows the script and keeps under the time limit, how she is “enthusiastic” and “charismatic” and “self-confident,” etc. The “low quality” example points out how the host does the opposite: how he deviates from the script to talk about his parents, how he is “insecure,” how he has “no charisma!” It also uses him as an example to warn submitters, “focus on you, not your toys!” Perhaps it should come as no surprise by this point that the positive submission is offered by a well-dressed Black woman and the negative submission is offered by an overweight White guy in glasses and a sweatshirt.

It’s commendable that the people behind this promotion are interested in presenting a non-stereotypical “face” for Spider-man fandom, though the extra disparagement on the side seems likely to alienate some fans. This may actually be intentional: as certain fan practices that used to be considered “geeky” are lately considered more the norm, marketers may be finding it necessary to separate the stereotypical un-hip fans from the profitable fans of the 21st century. I can see why you’d want the latter to host your viral marketing podcasts, but I was surprised to see such a division so blatantly drawn in this example. After all, plenty of self-proclaimed geeks make up that target audience.

Disney uses DMCA to shutter blog critic; may ironically help blogger

In yet another example of the abusive use of DMCA Title II, Disney has effectively silenced a weblog critic who was waging a successful PR campaign against one of its stations for patently offensive content.

The blog, Spocko’s Brain, posted audio files of right-wing talk show hosts from Bay Area ABC affiliate station KSFO. As MediaPost recounts:

KSFO features hard right-wing talk show hosts who endorse torture, call for the public hangings of New York Times editor Bill Keller and other journalists, and demand that callers mock Islam.

Spocko posted audio files of the shows as part of a fairly successful letter writing campaign in which he had successfully scared away many large advertisers. But then Disney (which owns ABC) sent a letter demanding that Spocko’s ISP take down the blog. It apparently went dark for a short period of time, but it is now back up and running–audio files and all.

Ironically, this has only brought much more publicity to the Spocko’s campaign, and it will only make it harder for corporate advertisers to stay with KSFO. A blogger criticizes a media outlet? That happens hundreds of times per hour. A blogger is scary enough that the media outlet abuses copyright law to silence the criticism? Now THAT’S a story!

UPDATE: Here’s an SF Chronicle story providing some additional details. It makes it sound like Spocko’s Brain never went dark per se, with Spocko just pulling (but apparently again posting) audio clips.

Labels using P2P traffic for marketing

Music companies and others who have a product to sell (e.g., Coke) are using P2P as a marketing tool.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Jay-Z (who provided the material for half of the Grey Album and never thought of suing; btw, read this letter) is using peer-to-peer traffic to promote his tour and to sell Coke. It also turns out that P2P traffic can be an excellent vehicle for advertising for products musical and otherwise. Groups from Audioslave to Ice Cube are jumping on board, and Dashboard Confessional is insistent that P2P traffic took them from obscurity to fame and fortune.

Of course, the Grateful Dead were letting fans swap concert tapes for decades before HTML existed, and all that did was turn them into the most successful touring rock band ever. And the unauthorized sampling of old funk music by hip hop DJs has resurrected interest in dozens of long forgotten artists from the 60′s and 70′s.

P2P traffic helps musicians promote their music and is an unharvested billion-dollar ad venue? That’s NOT NEWS. (U2 had a master recording “stolen” in time for an album to hit the networks early, following the same move by Eminem and Wilco.) What IS news is that the big labels have finally begun to admit this, even if just a little bit.

If the labels had listened to EFF’s P2P proposals years ago, maybe they wouldn’t have had to sue their best fans and poisoned the well for years to come.

GM’s viral marketing backfires

General Motors has invited the general public to create their own ads for the new Chevy Tahoe. They’ve provided a decent amount of footage of the new SUV and some sound beds and told folks to go crazy.

Thousands of environmentalists and other SUV critics have gone Adbusters and created viral videos criticizing the SUV for contributing to global warming and for injuring and killing those who choose not to drive SUVs. (As someone who bikes in Philly, where all drivers are under the influence of PCP, I find this latter message persuasive.)

See some of the best “ads” here, and snicker as you read about GM’s sloth-like response.

Unsurprisingly, GM’s contest rules scream, in all caps, that any attempt to “UNDERMINE THE LEGITIMATE OPERATION OF THE CONTEST MAY BE A VIOLATION OF CRIMINAL AND CIVIL LAWS.” I somehow suspect that GM will avoid a Diebold-like confrontation over copyright law.