Book Review

Mobilizing Generation 2.0: A Practical Guide to Using Web 2.0 — Technologies to Recruit, Organize, and Engage Youth

By on Monday, February 11, 2013
Whether you are one of those nonprofit organizations poised to gingerly dip its toe into the web 2.0 pool, or one that has already leapt off the high dive and plunged right in, you’ll find plenty of useful advice in Ben Rigby’s and Rock the Vote’s Mobilizing Generation2.0: A Practical Guide to Using Web 2.0 Technologies to Recruit, Organize, and Engage Youth.

Throw off your assumptions. Don’t think this book is just for policy wonks architecting online outreach strategies for political candidates. It may carry the Rock the Vote logo on its cover, but the book offers practical tips for any organization seeking new ways to engage young people online. It’s also an excellent resource for those who haven’t quite figured out this whole “web 2.0 thing” and need a basic primer that explains the different technologies and how they can be applied.

Rigby cites some well-known examples that will be familiar to those who follow technology, but it’s not a tired re-hash. Rather, these well-known and highly publicized incidents joggle the memory and reinforce the power of web 2.0 tools to the reader. They include George Allen’s macaca utterance, and the infamous Strom Thurmond comment by Trent Lott – both of them heavily publicized with web 2.0 techniques.

Following the introduction in each chapter, Rigby examines how these tools are being used in the field, undertakes an explanation of the basics in using them, and then undertakes a discussion of strategic considerations. It’s a formula applied to each chapter, with essays interspersed throughout. At times the book feels disjointed and like its editorial voice meanders. A methodical tightening might improve its resonance and pack an even more powerful punch.

Now, an overview of the chapters:

Blogging – it’s not what you thought. Rigby points out that recent research by the Pew Internet and American Life survey shows that 12 million Americans are writing blogs, while about 57 million are reading them. Surprisingly, only half of the bloggers are under 30, so don’t think you won’t encounter your members, donors and supporters using this medium.

The “Five Brothers” blog which made Mitt Romney look less plastic through the blog postings of his sons is mentioned, but rightly criticized for not permitting interaction or comments. Amnesty International’s blog which tries to level the playing field between grassroots activists and staff by fostering a community of voices is also profiled.

Pointedly, part of a blog’s strength lies in “closing the feedback loop,” which allows for supporters to see the end results of taking action. Also mentioned is a blog begun by the Community United Against Violence (CUAV) during the trial of the men accused of murdering Gwen Araujo. It may have been a story that the mainstream media wrote off, but the blog gave CUAV a way to provide original reporting, create context, and draw attention to prejudices against trans-gendered people.

A box of tips on using blogs to improve internal communications offers great advice but seems oddly out of place without the anchoring of a good example. The more tech-savvy may want to skip the segments on how blogging works, but touch down again in the discussion around strategy and reaching out to bloggers. It’s great to see a candid discussion of the issues organizations deal with (and start freaking out about) when considering hanging out a shingle in the blogosphere. Blogging requires both engagement and vulnerability. In organizations bound by top-down approval processes, branding straitjackets, and fear of what people might say – blogging can be a scary idea. Rigby tries to assuage fears by pointing out the benefits of blogging, and an excellent essay by blogging wonder woman Beth Kanter explores overcoming these barriers.

Social networking – it’s not just for kids. It’s one thing for your daughter to use Facebook to keep up with her friends from college, but what if you created a social networking page for a personality that represented your cause? That’s exactly what the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) did, with its MySpace campaign with Sunny the Seal, which was designed to draw attention to the Canadian Seal Hunt. The bulletins feature allowed the HSUS staff to send chatty communiques to Sunny’s friends and spread the campaign virally. The campaign attracted 500 new mailing list sign-ups and traffic to ProtectSeals.org shot up by 50%. One important thing driven home by this example – is that when you launch a campaign, it’s important to plan out the project, allocate staff time, and benchmark your results. HSUS did all with success.

Specialized social networks like Digg.com, which allow users to rank, submit, and categorize breaking news also offer opportunities for organizations. My acquaintance Jonathan Colman with the Nature Conservancy uses Digg effectively to engage people who are already online in conservation efforts. The success of a Facebook application, Causes, at raising money for nonprofits through social networks and the rise of Care2 as a viable social network offer glimpses of future potential. At the same time, the struggles of Change.org to draw people to a new social network, drive home a critical point that organizations need to hear. Don’t think you have to build your own social networking area and be prepared if you do. Go where people already are.

Useful advice in the “Strategic Considerations” section helps organizers think through setting up shop in the social networking realm. Social networking is about conversation and affiliation. The essay following this chapter by Danah Boyd says that authentic connection is needed to propel meaningful encounters. For those who ignore social networking or dismiss it as a fad, Rigby offers a scary prediction, “…the concepts that underpin social networking are becoming the trends shaping the Internet, commerce, and social life online and offline.”

Video and photo sharing invite supporters to embrace and share a cause. While the oft-posted video of the infamous George Allen “macaca” incident opens this chapter and may seem like old news, nonprofits are just beginning to realize the persuasive power of video and photo sharing. Oxfam International’s YouTube site and use of the bulletins feature to inform supporters is touted. Its “Big Heads” campaign for the G-8 summit in 2007 reported news, and did not persuade any of the summit’s leaders to change anything, but did earn a lot of media ink. Rigby takes Oxfam to task for not engaging site users more in sharing videos, and then moves into political examples, such as Ned LaMont’s 2006 senate campaign, which gave supporters a creative platform while undergirding messages issued from the campaign. At the same time, Hillary Clinton is excoriated for her initial wooden and staged video conversations on her own website, but is later praised for using YouTube to select a campaign theme song.

Contests that invite supporters to submit their own videos and photos are an effective and popular way to engage supporters – with examples from the Nature Conservancy, the March of Dimes, Creative Commons, and Jumpstart Ford offering fodder for readers. Oxfam’s use of video and photo-sharing in tandem to draw attention to the low prices paid by Starbucks to Ethiopian farmers built pressure for change and motivated 96,000 people to contact Starbucks, which eventually resolved the dispute. Rigby rightly points out that our view of images is becoming more fluid. We no longer expect for images and videos to be canned and professionally produced pieces. As a society, we are embracing imagery as part of conversation.

Mobile phones rally texters for change and pry open their privacy. With rock stars like Bono using text messaging to recruit 250,000 people to fight AIDS in Africa, and groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare using them to gather people opposed to seal-hunting, there are a multitude of successful nonprofit examples to look to for guidance. The San Francisco Department of Public Health even used text messaging to deliver sexual health information. Rigby himself has done extensive work with text messaging campaigns, which shows in this chapter and its multitude of ideas for using cell phones for fundraising and crowd mobilization. A key nugget valuable to anyone seeking the bottom line, research work Rigby was involved with for the 2006 elections, revealed that text reminders increased a person’s likelihood to vote by four to five percentage points. Who knows how text messaging reminders can impact other types of actions?

The essays that follow this chapter are intriguing. Seth Godin’s entertaining yet far-too-short essay on permission politicking makes a key point: If people don’t want to deal with you, they can easily ignore you online. This is not a medium that works well with a megaphone mentality. Godin equates supporter acquisition to dating: people have to give their permission to join your email list. In another essay, labor organizer Zack Exley points out that web 2.0 tools are not a silver bullet. There is no text messaging evangelist or sledgehammer approach that can replace good bona fide outreach technique.

Wikis catalog data – where anyone can become a librarian! Nature’s 2005 test pronouncing that Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica had the same level of accuracy ushered in the credibility of wikis, but wikis had already made their mark with Halo players seeking to swap game tricks and Transformer fans bent on documentation. Wikis can support vibrant communities when they are maintained well with a host of contributors and a “wiki gardener” to oversee its growth. Rigby advises organizations to consider carefully the time commitment involved with a wiki, as well as its compatibility with an organization’s culture.

Maps – never fight with your spouse again about directions – explore the world together virtually instead. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum used Google maps to draw attention to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, but they’re not the only nonprofit organization using online mapping tools. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger used mapping to help young people find healthy and free meals in their neighborhoods. The maps show not only where healthy food can be found, but also where gaps are in services for families. Rigby takes them to task for not making their work more available to mobile phone users, as lower-income families are among the least likely people to own personal computers.

The destruction caused by mountain top mining, is showcased in graphic detail by ILoveMountains, which uses maps, videos and text to share the stories of communities devastated by destructive mining and environmental change. If you’re interested in using mapping technology, Google Earth offers a “Global Awareness” program that worked with both the Darfurand ILoveMountains projects. Rigby points out that while the technology is free, it does come at a cost: the loss of privacy.

Virtual worlds may be sparsely populated, but can generate a splash. You may not know someone who visits the much over-hyped Second Life or the safety-savvy Club Penguin, but these online communities offer interaction in real time within rich visual environments. Rigby urges readers to not discount virtual worlds as fads populated with computer geeks, but asks us to consider the possibilities they offer. In spite of their smaller population reach, Rigby and other experts point out that opening a virtual outpost can trigger significant press coverage.

Virtual worlds can also be used to create immersive educational experiences. Youth attending a Global Leadership Summer Camp with Global Kids, attended an intense three-week workshop in Teen Second Life that included addresses on child sex trafficking by MIT professor Harry Jenkins and Mia Farrow. The virtual maze campers created educated peers and raised money for the Polaris Project. Rigby points out that managing a successful virtual world presents calls for a hefty commitment to marketing and maintenance, as well as serious strategic thinking.

In his conclusion for Mobilizing Generation 2.0: A Practical Guide to Using Web 2.0 Technologies to Recruit, Organize and Engage Youth, Rigby asks nonprofits to rethink how they are using web 2.0 tools. Taking a traditional advertisement and re-purposing it in a web 2.0 environment does not work, because no one can listen. The key lesson to take away from this book is that web 2.0 is about engagement with members, donors, and supporters. It may mean loosening control, inviting fervent fans to the table, allowing others to share a piece in building a brand, and re-thinking how we operate. It’s truly about reaching people where they are, with the technology they are comfortable with.

This review was originally published on Charity Channel in August 2008.

Mobilizing Generation 2.0: A Practical Guideto Using Web 2.0 Technologies to Recruit,Organize and Engage Youth

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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