Thursday, January 14, 2010

Half-a-Million TwitCause Followers Later: Lessons Learned from Enabling Good on Twitter

The week we launched TwitCause, TechCrunch called us a “Causes for Twitter,” today our platform for supporting nonprofit causes on Twitter has surpassed 500,000 followers, spotlighted dozens of nonprofits, raised tens of thousands of dollars, and won the hearts of celebrities, nonprofits, and caring Twitterers.

Although we’ve come a long way from our early days, we haven’t always gotten things right from the get-go, and we’ve learned a lot along the way by listening to our supporters and doing a whole lot of experimenting. Today, I’d like to share some of those lessons learned with you.

For those unfamiliar with TwitCause, we provide a way for Twitterers to support nonprofit causes they care about. We do this by highlighting (on Twitter and on our website) a cause every week and encouraging people to follow it, tweet its message, and consider making a donation. We also partner with respected brands willing to donate to causes as supporters tweet updates that spread the cause’s message. TechCrunch’s original piece is a good overview, as are these posts on Experience Project, the company behind TwitCause.

With no further adieu, here are 5 lessons we’ve learned on the road to 500,000 followers:

1. Keep your Message Simple and Short: The beauty of Twitter is that it forces even the most verbose of us to be succinct. If you can’t summarize your organization’s mission in 140 characters, try again until you can. In this day and age of short attention spans, it’s critical to grab attention with a short and clear message. We had to do this for TwitCause despite the hidden complexity of our product, and I think that the simplicity of our offering enabled so many people to grasp the concept quickly, rally behind it, and spread it to their friends.

2. Provide Immediate Results from an Action: People like to see an immediate and direct result from their own action, social media users have an even stronger desire for this immediacy. My friend Jessica Jackley who co-founded Kiva told me early on that one of the reasons Kiva works is that you see the exact goat herder you’re helping with your loan (not to mention read his story and look at his pictures). Not only does that provide immediacy, but it creates a fun experience which makes participants want to keep coming back to Kiva and tell their friends about it. DonorsChoose has successfully tapped into the same pathos by allowing you to pick the specific school project you are helping to fund. From our TwitCause experience, we’ve seen orders-of-magnitude more tweeting and retweeting of a cause’s message when supporters know that for each tweet they publish, $1 will be directly donated to the cause by a sponsoring brand rather than a delayed and indirect payoff when their tweets are destined at only calling on others to consider making a donation.

3. Enable People to Pre-Commit their Support: We’re all busy. As much as we want to visit a site once a week and support that week’s cause, even the most dedicated of us will forget once in a while or lose interest over time. That’s why allowing people to pre-commit their future support is a great way to enable supporters to continuously show their support and for organizations to maintain a steady level of active supporters. This approach has been successfully employed by nonprofits that ask donors to subscribe to a monthly donation amount which is automatically charged to their credit cards, without necessitating them to remember the donation every month and go through the process of donating repeatedly. At TwitCause, we’ve found great success with our TwitCause Stars program, which enables supporters to pre-commit to support the weekly featured TwitCause by tweeting a message and following that cause. We do this automatically on their behalf, once they’ve authorized us to do so via the Twitter API. We have nearly 1,000 people that have done this, including major celebrities like Alyssa Milano and Shannon Elizabeth.

4. Don’t Expect People to Pay: I’ve written before about my belief that social media users are great for spreading a message and awareness, but largely ineffective for raising large sums of money. Generally speaking, very few people actually donate, and those that do make comparatively small contributions. There are a few notable exceptions (Obama anyone?), but they are very few and far between and often are not pure-social-media plays. Causes on Facebook has raised a lot of money in aggregate, but a pittance on a per-user basis. If you keep this fact in your fundraising strategy, it’ll save you a lot of heartache later on.

5. Do Expect Brands to Pay: If you believe my claim that social media is a great way to generate a lot of attention (we’ve reached tens of millions of people with TwitCause), and you agree that brands are willing to pay to get attention, you can see how marrying the two in a clean manner can be incredibly powerful. Think of the #beatcancer campaign sponsored by ebay and MillerCoors, the recent Pepsi giving campaign on Facebook, and countless others, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. What’s critical here is that the campaign not turn into a thinly-disguised advertisement and in fact is primarily focused on benefiting the social cause, but allotting the brand to respectfully participate in the conversation in an authentic fashion. TwitCause partnered with Häagen-Dazs to raise money for honey bee research (a cause Häagen-Dazs has long championed), partnered with Lion’s Gate's movie “Precious” to raise money for literacy (the film has a strong message about literacy as hope), and with pro-biotic brand Attune to support Celiac Disease (the Attune Bar is great for digestive health). All campaigns raised thousands of dollars for the nonprofits (100% of proceeds going to the nonprofit) and spread the causes’ messages to millions of people.

I'd love to hear in the comments which of these you agree or disagree with as well as what other "lessons learned" you would add to the list.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Brazil 2010: Samba, Soccer, and Startups

In 1999, at the height of the internet bubble, a group of three college students in São Paulo, Brazil came up with an idea for a comparison shopping engine and called it Buscapé, a popular winding firecracker symbolic of their scouring the web for the lowest prices. Buscapé went on to grow a commerce business dominant in most major countries in Latin America. This year, it was acquired for $347 million, making it the 27th largest acquisition of 2009.

The sale of Buscapé, within the backdrop of a robust Brazilian economy, acted as the catalyst for a Brazilian technology revolution, in the same way that the 1995 Netscape IPO sparked the web explosion in America.

In 2010, look to Brazil to make an entrance into the global technology, producing a string of home-grown successes like Buscapé as well as startups that are key players on the major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

To understand why 2010 will be the year of Brazil, we need to first look at why 2009 was so special. Earlier this year, while the world was on the brink of a depression, Brazil weathered the storm relatively unscathed, picking up along the way the world’s approval with Rio’s selection as the home for the 2016 Olympics, and The Economist’s enthusiastic “Brazil Takes Off” endorsement on its cover. While Silicon Valley startups were told to switch to survival mode, a mix of government and private sector programs in Brazil created a healthy pool of capital for entrepreneurs. The Brazilian startup culture also matured during the year with the growth of information resources and events comparable to the budding tech scenes we’ve seen in Boulder and New York.

If 2009 was the year when all the pieces fell into place, 2010 will be the year when Brazil capitalizes on its new-found position. Internet usage is exploding: Internet penetration is rapidly expanding thanks to government-sponsored access, broadband access is proliferating, and mobile web usage is maturing as mobile data costs fall and smartphone adoption jumps. This series of compounding growth factors is creating fertile ground for new independent startups armed with a model of success and an eye on global markets.

Brazil has also started to see the opportunity outside its own borders, especially in the large open platforms. As the 3rd largest Twitter population (based on unique users from Google AdPlanner), Brazil also boasts a popular URL shortener in A Farmville-like casual game, Colheita Feliz, has already amassed 12 million users on Orkut - more than Facebook and Twitter users combined - (still the dominant social network in Brazil) and has set the stage for a home-grown social gaming company in the spirit of Zynga and Playfish.

Brazil has enough technical talent to launch both independent startups as well as big players on the major platforms (tens of thousands of computer science grads every year) – and it has a wealth of creative talent that assures many of these startups be innovative products rather than local copy-cats. For Brazil, 2010 is poised to be a year of world-class soccer, samba, and startups!

Update: To prove my conviction in writing this post, in March of 2010 I decided to move back to Brazil and start Peixe Urbano the first colective buying site in Brazil ("compras coletivas"). Wish us luck!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jack Dorsey's Square in Action (Video)

For those that missed it, yesterday marked the official launch of Jack Dorsey's much rumored new startup - Square.

Square is a device that allows people to accept credit card transactions without the hassle of signing up for a merchant account and buying expensive hardware to handle card swipes and authentication. It's been getting described as a Paypal for physical transactions, and works by attaching a small device (the size of my thumb nail) to the headphone jack in a smartphone. The device gets its power from the actual swipe of the credit card. Pretty awesome stuff.

After seeing a video by MG Siegler of Square in action at Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco (where Dorsey is an investor) I was quite impressed and wanted to try it out for myself. Luckily I had a meeting near Sightglass this morning and decided to stop by and shoot my own quick video to show friends. You can check out Square in action below.

The experience was pretty awesome (in part due to Sightglass' friendly staff), especially considering this is brand new and not very "battle-tested." I'll be keeping a close eye to see where Square ends up and how it disrupts the payments space. I'll be rooting for the success of this innovative product from a remarkable design thinker.

If you like this video please vote for it on digg, reddit, or share it on Twitter and Facebook. And if you want to follow me on Twitter you can find me @JulioV, or if you're interested in SEO you should subscribe to the Daily SEO Tip.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How Small Nonprofits Can Leverage Social Media

Small nonprofits should not forget about social media entirely – they should, however, limit their activities to those that are high-leverage and don’t require an on-going investment of time nor attention. In fact, as Beth points out in her comment on my post disagreeing with her, this approach should not be limited to social media investments but to any other time-allocation decision.

So, what’s a small nonprofit to do? How can you have your cake and eat it too?

The first part of my answer is that you can choose to ignore the outcome you’re likely to receive and believe that you will be one of the success stories. That is a fair point and one that I respect as a startup person, after all most startups are expected but we always believe ours will be the one that makes it.

The second part of my answer is for those of you with a more balanced risk profile. To you, I suggest focusing on a few high-leverage activities on social media and forget the rest for now. Specifically, I suggest establishing a presence on the larger platforms (in the same way that you should set up a website) and appropriately handling inbound inquiries (in the same way you would with e-mail and phone):
  1. Create a Facebook Page for your organization, populate it with helpful information and resources and invite your supporters to join and invite their friends.
  2. Set up a Twitter account, and link it to your Facebook Page so that every time you update your page it’ll also update your Twitter account.
  3. If you have a blog you can set up your blog so that it automatically updates your Facebook Page. Alternatively, if you update your constituents via an e-mail newsletter you can use that content to update your Facebook Page. If you have neither a blog nor a newsletter, simply update your Page whenever you have a big update (the kind that would warrant you issuing a press release or adding an announcement on your website).
  4. Now that you have a presence on the major social platforms, it’s important to monitor what people are saying about you and to you. Set up some e-mail alerts to let you know whenever someone sends you a message/reply or comments on a post of yours. You should then respond to that feedback in a timely and effective manner in the same way that you would respond to an inbound e-mail. The feedback you receive from your constituents on these platforms can be incredibly valuable, so make sure you’re ready to listen and join the conversation.
This four-legged stool involves a one-time investment of time. Someone well-versed in social media should be able to accomplish #1-3 in an hour or two, while #4 is simply adding a communication channel to your existing mix (assuming you currently respond to e-mails and phone calls!)

What is important about this framework is that it doesn’t entail an on-going investment of time. As I outlined in my prior post, focus is key in any time-strapped organization.

I first learned about social media from John Furrier and Robert Scoble as an intern at PodTech and know full-well that what I’m recommending above is not the absolute best way to be part of the social media conversation. However, I do believe that this is a “60%” solution and the best that many time-constrained small nonprofits can manage. It’s not perfect, but hopefully it’s good enough given the reality.

Finally, it’s important to remain open to extremely high-leverage partnership opportunities through third parties. In these occasions, for a variety of reasons, your partner may take on the brunt of the workload and deliver a lot of value to your organization. On Twitter, the recent #beatcancer campaign (sponsored by ebay and Miller) and Twestival (and subsequent Twestival Local) are good examples. On Facebook, a lot of applications have driven great value to nonprofits – (Lil) Green Patch has donated over $200k to the Nature Conservancy and more recently Zynga’s FarmVille raised nearly $500k for kids in Haiti.

My own experience corroborates this – our company has partnered with both large national nonprofits like the Humane Society and small organizations like Rocket Dog Rescue in San Francisco to raise money for animal rights via Facebook applications. On Twitter, we launched the very successful TwitCause, which has benefited dozens of nonprofits on Twitter (both large and small organizations).

In my next post I’ll cover why I believe that brand partnerships are the key to unlocking social media fundraising for nonprofits.

Why Small Nonprofits Should Tread Lightly with Social Media

After reading Beth Kanter’s post about how small nonprofits can reap success with social media, I felt compelled to write my own post about why I disagree with Beth.

Beth is the person I most respect in the nonprofit social media space, but I often find myself disagreeing with how much emphasis she places on the weight social media should have in a non-profit’s overall resource-allocation.

I’ve had the opportunity to provide free consulting and advice to countless nonprofits over the years, ranging from the largest national and international organizations to smaller community-based outfits. What I consistently hear is that time is a nonprofit’s most scarce resource and that fundraising is the primary goal of public outreach campaigns (with driving awareness or education as a close second). The scarcity of time and attention is especially true for smaller organizations that often have dedicated skeleton crews working around the clock to pursue their goals. Beth focuses on these smaller nonprofits and so will I.

Given the scarcity of time, small nonprofits should primarily look at activities that provide them with the greatest leverage -- those where a small time investment can generate a disproportionate level of returns (either dollars raised or attention generated). Not only that, but I would stress that this time commitment should be concentrated and infrequent rather than spread out over time. A new activity that needs to be done a little bit every day becomes a distraction, fragments your attention, and reduces focus on the things that matter most (actually achieving your organization’s goals and serving your constituents).

When I look at how social media performs based on that “leverage” criteria, it does so very poorly. The expected return from social media is simply too small, and the on-going attention it requires to be done “right” is too fragmented over time.

Beth provides the example of a blog reader as a success story for the value nonprofits can derive from social media. Certainly there are many stories of successful use of social media by nonprofits, but those are exceptions rather than the rule. Making decisions based on evaluating only success cases is akin to playing the lottery because you saw last night’s winner on TV. Certainly Beth knows this and has on multiple occasions provided industry-wide data that is more representative. That said, I believe that most small nonprofits using social media see little to no return on their time invested (and I’m not even counting the steep learning curve that is involved).

On the Causes application on Facebook (arguably the largest-participation in causes on social media), we can calculate some summary statistics from back in July when they announced their $10MM raised milestone (there’s also some varying analyses on the right way to interpret the data):
  • Less than 1% of users have made a donation (0.3% to be exact)
  • Average dollars per user is 14 cents
  • Only 10% of causes have received any money
  • Average received per nonprofit is $189 (per cause it falls to $37 per cause)
Sure, Causes does not equal social media, but it’s a (significant) data point we should look at. Now, on to Twitter.

Wefollow is the biggest categorized directory of Twitter users. Its “nonprofit” category has around 4,000 users in it. If we look at the median number of followers for the accounts there we see 250 followers. Taking into account that maybe only around 20-30% of Twitter accounts are active and half have never tweeted, we’re likely talking an expected audience on Twitter of around 60 people.

In the end I find social media a great way to build relationships and establish a presence for a non-profit (which in turn may lead to dollars raised), but not as a direct source for funds, especially for severely time-strapped small nonprofits. I’m sure many (most?) of you may not agree with my point of view and I’d love to be proven wrong, so please comment away. I’ll also write a couple of follow-on posts about how I think small nonprofits can use social media in a selective high-leverage fashion.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Google Removes E-mail Export Functionality from Orkut in Hopes of Stemming Mass Migration to Facebook

What happens when one of the principles you champion starts contributing to your downfall? “Ignore your principles” appears to be the answer Google is ascribing to in its latest step to try to save Orkut from being overtaken by Facebook in India and Brazil.

I recently noticed that Orkut’s contact exporter tool has taken away users’ ability to export their contacts’ e-mails – probably the single most important use case for the tool. The tool still works and lets you export things like name and gender, but the e-mail address is now conspicuously absent:

So what is likely to be the reason behind deliberately crippling the feature? Stemming a mass migration of users from Orkut over to Facebook, facilitated by Facebook’s friend import tool that has caused a good deal of controversy to date.

If you haven’t been following the drama, back in September Facebook started aggressively promoting, to Indian and Brazilian users, a friend importer tool that facilitated Orkut users to recreate their friend graphs over at Facebook. The move helped accelerate Orkut’s decline at the hands of Facebook in both India and Brazil – Orkut’s biggest strongholds, and two very strategically significant countries.

Now this is where the story starts looking more like a Bollywood or Latin American novella. A few days after the Orkut exodus began, Orkut’s contact exporter coincidentally broke, and after the inconvenient “bug” was widely reported, Google proceeded to fix it.

However, Orkut’s “fix” was in fact a severely handicapped feature, with a user interface that included additional steps and poorly design flows (confirmation buttons hidden below the fold, difficult to share URLs, etc.). This may seem trivial at first glance, but for anyone that has done any UI testing, you know how these usability ‘mistakes’ can lead to dramatic user failure rates in accomplishing the desired task.

Apparently the UI handicap wasn’t enough to slow down determined Orkut abandoners from figuring out how to export their data. So, what did Google do? Completely removed the ability to export e-mail addresses from Orkut.

Google’s move is a practical one, but one that flies in the face of the “Data Liberation Front’sra-ra-ra about users being "able to control the data you store in any of Google's products," pretty much discrediting that group’s credibility. It also flies in the face of some of the public comments Google CEO Eric Schmidt has made about not trapping user data. What the move seems to have Google saying is basically that data portability is something they support… as long as it’s convenient and to our advantage.

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Introducing the Daily SEO Tip

Over the last few years I’ve come to appreciate the power of search engines as a source for highly-qualified traffic on the web, and for the practice of search engine optimization (SEO) in helping engines properly find, index, and rank your content. At Experience Project where we receive millions of monthly visits from organic search results, we have tried to institutionalize SEO knowledge and best practices, and in doing so, I’ve developed a series of ad hoc training materials and resources for getting employees up-to-speed on SEO.

Today, I’m launching The Daily SEO Tip, a blog / website with the goal of sharing some of the key SEO lessons we’ve learned firsthand, as well as the countless others we’ve learned from talking to others. If you work with the web in any capacity, you need to know about SEO and I hope that The Daily SEO Tip will help you do that as well as share with us what you learn from your own practice.

Every day we’ll post a new, short, SEO tip on the site that you can receive via e-mail, by subscribing to our feed, or following us on Twitter. We’ll do our best to classify the tips as beginner, intermediate, or advanced and also give you the option to only subscribe to the specific feed(s) that interest you. We are also set up to collect tips, case studies, and wisdom from anyone that cares to provide us with a submission, which of course, we’ll properly attribute to you.

I’d appreciate it if you check out our site and try out subscribing for a bit. Hopefully you’ll find it of great value, and if you don’t, please let us know how to make it better.