Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, creators of techPresident (the award-winning* place to follow how presidential candidates are using online media), have written a great piece on how messages move in our new internet-driven media environment.

The immediate context of their article is the campaigns, and the candidates failure — as the authors see it — to truly release grassroots energy through their too tightly controlled online approaches. But much of what they say is relevant to any nonprofit group with a message to get out.

The first thing Rasiej and Sifry remind us is that successful viral marketing isn't about technique … it's about doing something remark-able. I.e., it's all about the vitality of the substance, the content, after all. Don't expect viral lightning to strike if what you're peddling is same old, same old … or undifferentiated … or bland or ubiquitous.

Their key conclusion about the campaigns' techniques, equally applicable to many nonprofit online efforts:

“None of the campaign websites devote consistent space on their home pages to independent efforts on the candidate's behalf; every inch of their online real estate is devoted to pushing their message, as opposed to trusting others to spread that for them.”

I concur with the thrust of their point. I believe nonprofits too can do more online to empower their most committed missionaries.

But at the same time, not all visitors to a website seek missionary-level involvement. In fact, probably only a small percentage do. Some are pure information seekers. Some are just getting their toes wet … they don't need scuba gear. And websites need to take that reality into account.

The trick is to use the flexibility of the web to “tease” the visitor with a carefully designed selection of involvement options that allows the visitor to engage at his or her own level.

Yes, “steering” is possible and desireable … organizations do have priorities and pressing needs and messages to communicate. And websites, like the organizations they represent, cannot be all things to all people. Not every visitor is in fact a match for the organization.

Still, the goal is to allow for differing levels and styles of engagement, reflecting different levels of “ripeness” on the part of visitors. And in that regard, Rasiej and Sifry are right … for your missionaries, provide lots of scope for self-initiated involvement. Let them loose. But be remark-able first.

Tom

*techPresident just won the grand prize in the 2007 Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism program, beating competitors like Reuters and the Council on Foreign Relations.

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