The science of slacktivism

Online advocacy has a bad name.  Specifically: slacktivism (or clicktivism).  Seth Meyers put the prevailing opinion into funny words on SNL:


“Look, if you make a Facebook page we will “like” it—it’s the least we can do.
But it’s also the most we can do.”

This frames the debate well.  Some think that online activism is a prelude to future action — a way people signal they are interested in your cause and are working to do more.  Others think it is a way for people (and here they will often say Millennials — check out my posts from a couple weeks ago as to why this is bull) to feel good about themselves while doing very little.

So what does science say?

I’ll give you the TL;DR version now: campaigns that are good help future action; campaigns that suck don’t.

OK, perhaps that wasn’t all that satisfying.  But you wanted to read about the science anyway, right?

There are three interesting studies on this that I wanted to highlight.  The first is from Lee and Hsieh here.  They found that people who signed a petition were more likely to donate to a related nonprofit afterward.  This makes sense given what we know about the importance of consistency in persuasion.  

The more interesting part of the study is that they also found that people who didn’t take the advocacy action were more likely donate to another unrelated nonprofit thereafter.  They call this moral balancing.  The idea is that people feel a bit guilty that they didn’t take a pro-social action, so they want to balance this with an unrelated prosocial action.  I’m not sure yet what practical effect this has (unless I can rent a list of another nonprofit’s non-petition signers), but it’s interesting and it shows that people perceive an online petition as a positive thing that they generally should be doing.

The second study I would recommend is from Kristofferson, White, and Peloza. They come right to the question of whether a token action leads to greater action in the future with five different studies.  My favorite, and the easiest to explain, is one where had three groups: one who were given a poppy to wear in honor of veterans, one who were given that same poppy in an envelope so it would be for private support, and one who were given nothing.  At the end of the hallway, the groups were asked to donate.  Those who showed private support (poppy in the envelope) gave an average of $.86, public supporters gave $.34, and the control gave $.15.  They further refined this study in other ways and found that generally, people who gave private support were more likely to support in the future; people who gave public support were either no more likely or less likely to support the cause than those who did nothing.

The third study, from Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich, found similarly — that Facebook activism (perhaps because it is public) doesn’t often translate to any further activity.  Looking at a Save Darfur campaign, 99.7% of people did not make a donation and 72.2% didn’t recruit anyone else.  Of those who donated, 95% did only once and of those who recruited, 45% recruited only one other person.  Hardly a sustainable effort.  The authors hypothesize that this is because Facebook is full of both strong and weak social ties, so you want to advertise your best self to this group.

However, there was a committed group of people on Facebook: it was just very small.  The top one percent of advocates made the 80-20 rule turn away in shame, responsible as they were for 63% of membership recruitment and 47% of donations.  The study also found that recruits were more likely to donate and donors more like to recruit.  So once you got someone over a very high threshold, some people would work wonders, but these were unicorns in a world of horses.

So here are the implications that I see for advocacy campaigns:

  • Do them.  A properly run advocacy campaign can increase the likelihood that someone will donate and take other actions for your organization.
  • Make them private.  Public petitions appear to satisfy a person’s desire to manage their reputation, so they were less willing to take other actions.
  • By extension, don’t do them on social networks.  Not only are they not public, but you do not have the easy wherewithal to communicate with them to get the first gift or convert to other activities.
  • Make the ask.  It can be as easy as having an ask for the donation on the confirmation page or receipt for a petition.  Folks who take private actions want to help and are in a mindset of helping.  I personally have seen advocacy campaigns with a soft ask after taking the petition raise more money than a hard ask to a full list.  Crazy, but true.

Hopefully, this has given you the data to incorporate advocacy into your campaigns the right way.  For the rest of the week, I’ll be talking about how to incorporate in the mail, acquiring online advocates, and converting advocates to donors.

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The science of slacktivism

Is your direct marketing hot or not?

You are likely being inundated this week with best of 2015 posts in your feed.  This is not that kind of post.

Rather, I’m looking to spend this week delving into academic studies of nonprofit giving that may have been missed or underreported in the popular nonprofit press.  If this isn’t your cup of tea, I wish you a happy new year and I hope to see you again on January 4th.

However, I like the idea that other people are paying money for me to learn things about nonprofit giving, especially with the alternative is for nonprofits to pay for me to learn things through failed tests.

So today we’ll look at the impact of attractiveness in the photography that you use in your communications.  Think for a moment about the picture that for-profit businesses use alongside their inbound call center’s phone number.


Hi. I care deeply and passionately about your call.
Let’s ignore this stock photo watermark and get down to business.

BTW, you can order this stock photo here, where the intent of the photo is clear from the title they give it: Attractive blond call center rep.

Anyone who has worked at a call center, or thought much about what a call center looks like, or thought much about what the average member of the human race looks like can easily deduce that this is not likely to be on the other end of the photo line/fiberoptic cable.

Yet these images are often used.  Why?  Because for-profits think that attractive people make us want to buy.

A study that came out last month from Jenq, Pan, and Theseria shows this effect works for nonprofits as well.  They looked at direct philanthropy on Kiva, a microlending site of which I am a fan.

The authors asked research assistants from Singapore and the US, male and female, to rate the photos of the people requesting loans on Kiva on several criteria, some of which were:

  • Attractiveness
  • Physique
  • Skin color
  • Whether the person was smiling
  • Neediness of the person
  • Trustworthiness of the person
  • Creditworthiness of the person

They then looked to see if these factors impacted funding.

Let’s pause here to ask ourselves WWSD — What Would Spock Do?*

Spock would not care about the photo.  Rather, he would care 1) maximizing the social impact of his loan, 2) maximizing the likelihood of getting repaid, so he could regift and maximize someone else’s social impact afterward, and 3) there is no number three — he would care only about those two things and certainly not some photograph.

Yet, we are human.  Studies show that attractiveness has an impact on pay, dating profiles, perceived intelligence, perceived competency, tips, success in customer-focused enterprises, etc.  

So it should not be surprising that people take a non-Vulcan approach to photographs.  The study found that, all other measured things being equal:

  • Those people who were one standard deviation more attractive had an 11% shorter time to get full funding.
  • Those people who were one standard deviation heavier had a 12% longer time to get full funding.
  • Those people who had a skin color one standard deviation darker had a 8% longer time to get full funding.

For perspective, asking for 10% more money increased the amount of time to complete the loan by 13%.  So, in essence, being more attractive and skinnier than the average was the equivalent of getting almost 20% more money.  Just on the photograph that you use to ask for a microloan.

It’s important to note two things here:

  • Reporting this is not to justify this.  Attractiveness and skin color have no relationship to need, desire, or any other factor under the skin that would merit investment.  We should interrogate ourselves and our choices to try to dismantle this unconscious bias.
  • This is where we are right now.  I try to be a pragmatist.  In trying to get to the world to where we want it to be, we have to start at or near where it is right now.

So the implications of this study for nonprofits?  There are three in my mind:

  • Put your best foot forward.  Other than those pictures that are designed to show the harm you are trying to solve, the photos on your Web site should largely be smiling, happy people (happy people generally show as more attractive than unhappy).
  • Invest in photography.  Good lighting and posing can take someone like me and bring them to the median.  OK, it can bring me closer to the median.  OK, let’s just say it can help and leave me out of this.
  • Invest in professional retouching.  This is not to advocate for going the full fashion magazine airbrushing and Photoshopping; as Meghan Trainor would remind us, we know that [stuff] ain’t real.  But simple things like increasing the size of pupils can increase trust and attractiveness.  Similarly, increasing the size and darkness of the limbic ring (the ring around the outside of your iris) can increase attractiveness.  Look at that: three more studies for the price of just the original.

So, now you can ask yourself, knowing that (sadly) it matters, is your fundraising hot or not?

* Those of you who prefer can think of it as what econs would do in Richard Thaler’s description or what those thinking slow would do in Daniel Kahneman’s description.  

Is your direct marketing hot or not?