Analytic Activism is a book about how advocacy organizations can make better decisions in the digital age.
I wrote the book because it seemed like something was missing from the conversation about digital advocacy and activism. Most of the research on digital advocacy is focused on the new types of speech we now see online. Between the hashtags, the Facebook groups, the online petitions, the blog posts, and the constant emails, there’s just an overwhelming amount of advocacy communication online today. Focusing on all that speech inevitably spirals into the “clicktivism” debate, where we shout back and forth about what these new types of speech are good for. The answer, of course, is “it depends.” Some online petitions are powerful; others are pointless. Some social media campaigns are empowering; others are dispiriting. Telling the difference between effective and ineffective online campaigning requires expanding our frame of reference.
Communication isn’t just about speech. It’s also about listening. And, through analytics and a culture of testing, some of the best advocacy and activist organizations are transforming how they listen to their supporters online. Analytic Activism documents how nonprofits are using analytics to listen, experiment, learn, and thrive in the digital era. It also highlights the challenges and pitfalls of digital listening, delving into the dangerous ways that your data can lead you astray.
In this blog post, I want to discuss two big themes from chapter 1 of the book. The first theme focuses on the interaction between advocacy tactics and the broader media environment. I call it the “Media Theory of Movement Power.” The second theme contextualizes the use of analytics within organizations, challenging the mythology that has arisen around “Big Data” and data wizards. Listening through data doesn’t give you omniscient insight into how to win advocacy campaigns (and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something!). Digital listening just gives you a new set of tools and processes to help confront hard strategic questions.
The Media Theory of Movement Power
(pages 5-11 of chapter 1)
The power of any advocacy or activist tactic has always been determined in part by how it aligns with the broader media system. Think about the iconic advocacy/activist tactics of the industrial broadcast era: A march is just a long, crowded walk on a noisy day unless media organizations are there to cover it. A press release is just a piece of paper in the absence of media organizations. We develop public engagement and pressure tactics with the intent of seeing them amplified through the media.
The trick here is that the media system is radically changing in the digital age. It isn’t just that you can now reach large audiences without the help of the mainstream media (that’s technically true, but generally overstated.). The bigger shift is occurring in how the broader news ecology operates. A Twitter trending hashtag or viral video can put a topic on the media agenda, creating a spiral of attention that spreads your message far beyond its traditional audience. Facebook’s newsfeed now acts as a major gatekeeper for news and information, leaving both news organizations and advocacy groups to guess what content will be algorithmically rewarded with a wide reach.
There is a longstanding habit of inertial selection of advocacy tactics. We use the same tactics today that we used last year. We use them because we know that they work. We know that they work because we went through a long period of trial-and-error in the past to determine that they work. The Media Theory of Movement Power forces us to break this habit. Successful movement tactics from years past were successful because of how well they fit a media environment that no longer exists! Today’s hybrid media environment is still in flux. Digital media today is, in important ways, different even from digital media five or ten years ago, and media organizations are in a constant struggle to adapt to their changing circumstances.
The advocacy organizations that flourish in today’s communications environment will be the ones that reject tactics-through-inertia. They’ll be the ones that think creatively about what today’s mix of digital and mainstream media will amplify or dampen.
The Myth of the Data Wizards
(pages 13-18 of chapter 1)
There are two conflicting stories that you’ll often hear about decision-making in the age of Big Data. One of them is a myth, but sounds great in a pitch meeting or a TED Talk. The other is real, but a little frustrating.
Here’s the myth: we’ve been told repeatedly that, in the age of Big Data, there is some set of data scientists who, through a combination of engineering and statistical insights, can develop omniscient insights into any aspect of society. These are the data wizards who supposedly dominate Silicon Valley and “disrupt” everything they touch. The grand appeal of the data wizards is that by “trusting the data,” you can bypass a lot of the hard, messy strategic work that goes into advocacy campaigning.
As one example, after the 2016 election stories circulated online about how Donald Trump’s digital consultants, Cambridge Analytica, psychographically profiled the entire electorate, then supposedly delivered precision-microtargeted propaganda to swing the election. That’s an elegant story of data wizards manipulating the public. But it turns out that Cambridge Analytica didn’t actually use psychographics in the election. What they actually did was far more mundane – the same type of modeling and segmentation that the Obama campaign deployed in 2008 and 2012.
Data wizardry is a dangerous myth, because analytics can either be used to thoughtfully improve how you make strategic and tactical decisions or it can be used to avoid making decisions. The promise of the data wizards is that you can bypass the hard choices by just “trusting the data.” That’s a bad idea (I explain why in chapters 5 and 6 of the book, and it’ll be the subject of a future blog post).
The reality of analytic activism is both more mundane and more promising. The best advocacy nonprofits have built a culture of testing that encourages constant measurement and small-scale experiments to see what resonates in the changing media environment. Those nonprofits stay aware of what their data doesn’t tell them, and they draw from a range of data sources rather than blindly “trusting the data.” They also think hard about how they are measuring supporter feedback, and about how they use analytics as “strategic objects” to help their leaders make more effective decisions.
Data and analytics aren’t magic and they aren’t a panacea. But they do provide new ways to listen to your supporters. The organizations that succeed in today’s digital environment aren’t the ones with the most social media content or the funniest memes. They’re the ones that do the best job of listening, and use that listening to adapt.