In which Phillip D. Smith attempts to cure me of my curmudgeonly ways

7 May 2009

I’m a big fan of Grist. They do a great job of aggregating the most valuable enviro news of the day, plus they write good stuff of their own (Dave Roberts‘ reporting on cap and trade v carbon tax is some of the best out there – oh btw Mother Jones has pub’d him too; ditto on Tom Philpott’s coverage of the swine flu epidemic ). They’ve also done a terrific job figuring out who they are, what kind of voice they want to have, and how they want to be connected to their community – and they’ve delivered on it consistently, year after year.

Offhand, I can’t think of a website with a more coherent identity than these guys: they’re smart without being in the slightest bit pedantic, funny without being nasty about it (must be something about being based out of Seattle), and they cleverly walk the line between a journalism organization and a community site. I was personally really pleased when Grist joined The Media Consortium, a network of about 50 indy media groups I was helping to pull together a few years ago.

Plus I love how they do their online fundraising. They’re so damned witty! Who else but the Grist folk would first invent a character to (literally) represent Grist, name her (of all things) Umbra (by definition: “a region of complete shadow resulting from total obstruction of light,” – i.e., the opposite of their tag, “a beacon in the smog,” – clever, I tell you!), give her actual bodily form, and then announce she’s been kidnapped and ask for donations to pay her ransom! Pretty danged cool.

So this morning when I fired up the tubes on the MacBook Pro, there was an email from Grist from ED Chip Gillert announcing “GRIST staff forced to live in office [VIDEO]  as part of “Operation Fundraising Lockdown”. . . until readers donate $50,000!

Maybe it was because I hadn’t finished my first cup of fair trade french roast, but my first reaction was: no way. Won’t work. Or at least won’t work as well as a straight-up message about the actual work donors are paying for.

Harrumph, sez I.

The other thing I was thinking about was how the fundraising camapign for Marcy Wheeler (aka emptywheel) over at Firedoglake has been doing. Sure, they haven’t reached their $150,000 goal, but last time I checked they’ raised over $66,000 from about 1100 people. Pretty damned good, I’d say. And they did it with a straight pitch: you know Marcy, you know her work, the big liberal donors won’t touch her, so we’re turning to you, our community, for support. And it worked.

Well, if it works for FDL, why not Grist, I wondered?

Well the emails started flowing inside Mother Jones (since we all get Grist’s stuff) and the debate was engaged. It wasn’t long before the twitterati picked up Grist’s “lockdown” story and it started pinging back and forth in 140 characters or less. Which is where I read @phillipdasmith‘s retweet of @melanieredman :

“Awesome fundraising strategy – lock your staff in the office!”

Awesome? Harrumph again, sez I, and proceeded to email Phillip – who’s a technology/community wiz and pal from the Great Nation to the North – about my curmudgeonly reaction to the Grist email. Here’s the exchange:

Me: We’re having an internal MoJo debate about Grist’s latest campaign (btw did you see that Joe Trippi also picked up on it, as have several other twitterati – so even if it doesn’t work $raising-wise, they’ve already earned beaucoups value reputation-wise…but that’s a topic for a different email…)

Phillip: Attention currency: the only currency left to pursue online, no?

Me: I’m the curmudgeon. I say it sounds slightly desperate and way cutesy.

Phillip: All true… BUT… that is what has worked for them historically. Check out . . . the “Save Umbra” campaign from last November; I believe it was one of their most successful yet (and for a fictional character no less).

Me: And it doesn’t actually have a strong call to action built on what Grist actually does and does well.

Phillip: In my experience, what the campaign lacks in the call-to-action it
makes up for via:
1. The level of personalization in the campaign,
2. The way they use a timeline/storyline in the campaign, where each e-mail builds on the previous and prepares the recipient for the next. Typically, I’ll receive about four or five e-mails for each fundraising campaign.
3. They also know that I’m on the Grist e-mail list, so they know they don’t have to make the case that they do great work. If they did, I probably wouldn’t be a subscriber.

Me: Or another way to put it: it’s depending on the strength of the community’s identification with Grist’s “voice” for impact, and much less on Grist’s own content and impact in the world. Maybe that’s a smart way to go (I mean really, who the f*** knows?), but I’m skeptical that it’ll do gangbusters…

And Phillip wrote:I think it _may_ be a smart way to go, if and when the “voice” is really what differentiates your organization from others. In Grist’s case, that’s clearly their signal of clarity in the noise environment (pun intended). They *know* that Treehugger and the other enviro news sites aren’t “funny” in the way that Grist is. And, I think that what Grist saw in the “Save Umbra” campaign, and another recent campaign that used photos of their staff, is that when they’ve “opened up” the organization and have shown their supporters that there are “real people” inside it working hard, it helps to create that connection with the reader that’s required to compel them to give.

So I closed by saying: I would love to be proven wrong, because I think Grist is great.

Well, we shall see. I reached out to Chip G up at Grist, and when he’s down here in the Bay Area next week, hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk this through over a beer.

What’s your thinking?

Update 15 May 2009: So Chip and Betsy from Grist joined Laurin, my super dooper co-worker, and me for a quick coffee while they were down here in the Bay Area fundraising. The upshot: Phillip’s right. Grist will do just fine with this campaign, according to Chip. What’s more, this is the right voice for Grist to talk with their audience/community about $, he thinks. It works for them.

But guess what: I’m right too! (Hah!) The internals of Grist’s fundraising (no, I’m not giving it up) look a lot like MoJo’s except that their email list (and if I understand Chip correctly, email is the killer fundraising app for Grist too, just like most other NGOs) is substantially larger.

Update 2: Meanwhile over at Firedoglake, fundraising for Marcy Wheeler is up to $89,816 from 1,457 people. Very cool.

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