[Editor’s note: The following is from the December 2012 issue of NTEN:Change, NTEN’s quarterly journal for nonprofit leaders. Read the complete issue on “Collaboration” when you subscribe to the journal for free!]
By Rachel Weidinger, Upwell
Developing a High Touch, Human Platform for Collaboration
At Upwell, we’re inventing a new way to work together. We’re a nonprofit, data-driven social media PR agency with one client, the ocean, and one goal: more people talking about the ocean. It’s our mission to make the ocean more famous online. Competition is real in the marine conservation space. “Blue” orgs get a small fraction of environment funding. With just a year and about $1 million to prove our model, this pilot project (incubated by Ocean Conservancy) had no choice but to invent a new way to collaborate. Taking on this project felt like jumping off a cliff.
In my past work life, incentives made it too easy to focus on my own small slice of the pie. I struggled frequently, though I was often successful at bridging boundaries. At Upwell I wanted to hack the competitive dynamic, to disrupt the nonprofit communications “institutionitis” that keeps our heads down and focused on building our own email list, optimizing clicky action, and thinking of the people on our lists as statistics. Our philosophy at Upwell is that we’re part of a big ocean team that includes marine conservation organizations, marine scientists, and ocean activists. Our competition is Justin Bieber, not each other.
single items of online content, such as a tweet, a blog post, etc., that contain one of our mission key words.
Attention on ocean issues is the currency of our collaboration. “Sharability” is the mechanics of how we make attention abundant. We monitor keywords in social media, determining a baseline of attention for the ocean and seven marine conservation topics: sharks, whales, overfishing, sustainable seafood, ocean acidification, marine protected areas, and the Gulf of Mexico. We work to spike the level of online attention focused on each of these issues. Instead of awareness, list-building, advocacy or fundraising campaigns, we run attention campaigns. We measure the success of the campaigns based on the number of social mentions they generate, and how much they elevate the baseline of attention for each issue.
As Upwell has evolved, so have our models for collaboration. For example, leading up to World Oceans Day (June 8), we strategized all sorts of bridging campaigns to amplify the messages of our informal network of marine conservation professionals. Unfortunately, when it came time to roll the campaigns, many organizations couldn’t participate. Their organizational list building goals for that day were a higher priority. Our social mentions from World Ocean Day were unremarkable.
So we tried a different tack. Instead of asking marine conservation organizations to collaborate on messaging, we facilitated their sharing campaigns and messaging ideas with each other, and provided tips and data to help them with their organizational campaigns. And instead of trying to create a new event, we decided to piggyback on one that was already getting a lot of attention.
Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week has a reputation among conservationists as being sensationalist. It also brings the single biggest spike in attention for three years running to ALL of the eight marine conservation topics we monitor. If you’re campaigning on ocean issues, Shark Week is the best chance all year to expand your audience. Plus, we discovered that the bulk of the online conversation is by fans talking about how they love sharks, and think they’re awesome. It turns out, Shark Week is a massive shark fan convention online, and a huge opportunity for conservationists.
We decided to host a series of “Sharkinars” for organizations. During each brief webinar, we shared our analysis in quick, memorable bites, and asked organizations (if they felt comfortable) to share their Shark Week campaign plans and challenges. Rather than asking the Sharkinar participants to add their plans to a wiki (which we knew they would be too busy to do), we took notes about participants’ plans, dug up working links ourselves, and curated them in a toolkit, which we shared after the call. We’re big believers in high touch sharing, not just asking people to drop stuff in.
The kind of collaboration that works for us involves surfacing shared interests, disparate resources, and the elbow grease of getting it all organized.
Once Shark Week was over, we tracked our aggregate impact with our social mention tracking system in Radian6, and shared the impact with the Sharkinar participants. The result: we blew away our own expectations of what was possible in terms of raising the baseline conversation, increasing social mentions, and facilitating collaboration in the marine conservation sector. We learned that the kind of collaboration that works for us involves surfacing shared interests, disparate resources, and the elbow grease of getting it all organized. When we frame our work as competitive, we miss the chance to gently collaborate for a much bigger impact, like we facilitated during Shark Week.
I suspect that as do-gooders, we can do better by each other. Part of the framework of Upwell is a reaction to all of the institutional processes that keep us from working together, and from initiating, creating, and making real collaborations with our peers. I want to abandon the frame that keeps us from being our most expansive, network-building, big listening, and hopeful selves at our desks. We don’t have to work alone.