Facebook v Email for Grassroots Organizing

graphic by ilyse kazar, CC share-alike

graphic by ilyse kazar, CC share-alike

Some of us, and I include myself in this critique, spend so much time with phone in hand or in front of laptop screens, reading Facebook notifications rolling in and posting and sharing on our profiles and in groups and on pages … we start to think of Facebook as an automatically great place to reach an audience and promote events, causes and campaigns.

Not. To this day, as 90s as it sounds, email is the best way to reach people with informational content, though “doubling up” with Facebook page or group posts, and Facebook events, is also a good idea. If you wish to share a comment on today’s news with your group, do it on Facebook.

But if you need to advise of an unfolding situation or report on the progress of an effort, complete with background information, links to external resources, upcoming important dates, and especially if you wish to engage your group or supporters to take action, email is the medium to use.

[Twitter, SMS and other limited-length instant messaging platforms are not considered here; the focus for this post will be the need to convey more than a few dozen characters, in a durable, engaging and effective format. SMS in particular can play a huge role in organizing, but for quite different purposes than email.]

Discoverability and Durability

Facebook messages slide by, or, to be more exact, plummet downwards like a leaking submarine, in the news stream of fans and friends. This problem is the key reason why Facebook  is not an effective way to seek assistance nor to promote events nor, most especially, to keep group efforts organized and rolling forward. If a fan or group member does not log in for a couple of hours or a couple of days, from their standpoint (depending to some extent on how they have set their notifications) your post might as well never have happened. (There are some exceptions among groups that have a short-term passion to address an urgent situation with time-critical news, and whose members are more likely to be logged into Facebook — e.g., Occupy Sandy Relief NYC.)

So, unless fans and friends deliberately visit a Facebook page, chances are slim that when they happen to scan their feed your post will be on their screen. And your post may not even enter their streams to begin with due to recent changes in how the Facebook platform decides whether to give your post some exposure. Begging your members or fans to add your page to their “Interests” lists to increase chances of your messages being noticed is just lame and ineffective, sounds desperate, and dilutes your published content.

Further, the Facebook platform to date has not provided a way for users to bookmark posts, nor to search for posts, nor to create any sort of “scrapbook” of content which they might want to save and refer back to in a week or a month or a year. (Don’t try to tell me Timeline is efficient in this regard!)

Email, on the other hand — while users do suffer from inbox overload and, therefore, a somewhat similar submarine effect as Facebook — is displayed in email clients as a neat, easy-to-scan, searchable and sortable list of message subjects. Email will be delivered to all your recipients without a for-profit algorithm intervening and prejudicially deciding whether your recipient will see it. And, on the recipient’s side, there are various ways within every email client to star a message, or tag it for follow-up, or set up filters to move it to (or deliberately file it in) a special folder, or even turn it into a task or calendar entry.

Numbers

While Facebook currently boasts something like a billion users worldwide, the percentage of internet-using adults who have Facebook accounts varies by country. In the United States, according to Facebook’s own report prior to the IPO, Facebook account holders represent only about 60 percent of the internet-using population. And fewer, 126 million as of December 2011, of U.S. Facebook users log in on any given day. (N.B.: This does not mean they log in every day.) There are around 240 million internet users in the U.S., so on a daily basis roughly half of them might log into Facebook. (And, depending on when you post to your group or page, and when your members or fans log in, the chances, again, of actually reaching them are quite slim.)

Contrast this with email habits:  The number of email users is hard to come by, perhaps because there are folks who have multiple email addresses. But I believe it’s a safe bet to say that just about anyone with internet access uses email. ExactTarget, an email and interactive marketing provider, conducted a widely-quoted survey in 2012 to assess channel preferences and habits of a scientifically-selected study group. While of the studies I have seen focus on for-profit brand promotion, grassroots organizing is not that far off from business marketing: You want people to notice your message, to read/watch/listen to your message, to be convinced by the content, to share the content, and to take action.

And according to ExactTarget’s survey results, email was the clear winner, by a long shot, when it comes to how frequently users interact with various means of digital communication:

channel-frequency

And I suspect that the frequency of email checking will not be declining any time soon, especially given that smartphones have for a while now been outselling PCs and thus our email is, more and more, right there in our pocket or hand.

Preference and conversion rate

Apart from the simple number of users and frequency of use, email has another distinct advantage over Facebook: user preference, which translates into the most successful results.

ExactTarget’s study found that when receiving “permission-based communications” (which is what you’re doing when you email a group of volunteers, as much as when a brand emails a promotional message to customers), overwhelmingly people prefer to receive your message via email rather than on Facebook or other social platforms:

channel-preferences

And the conversion rate is higher with email — people are more likely to purchase when they open an email than when they view a Facebook post or ad.

conversion

It seems a safe extrapolation that purchase conversion is akin to donating, clicking through a web link, signing up to volunteer, and other actions you wish to motivate when you are organizing grassroots efforts.

Personalization and Metrics

Emails sent via tools such as Mailchimp and Constant Contact can be easily personalized with merged data (“Dear Mergatroid” rather than “Dear friend”) and segmented into groups targeted for particular types of email, or groups selected for their apparent tolerance of frequent information based upon their open and click-through rates. In the world of grassroots organizing, you can send out an email only to those who have volunteered to help out on direct action days in their specific neighborhood, without cluttering the inboxes or news feed of every one of your members. You can make a targeted appeal for help to those who have ticked a checkbox for a special interest, and so on.

On Facebook, a critical piece of information to a subgroup of your fans or members is far less likely to be seen than if you send them a targeted email, and will clutter the stream of persons who may have a general interest in your cause, or a different special interest, making them less likely to click through to your page.

Privacy

For many reasons, your members and supporters may hesitate to become visible fans of your Facebook page. They may have privacy concerns overall with regard to Facebook usage. They may wish to interact with other members/fans but not “in front of the whole group” (or whole world). By using email as your channel for newsletters and being sure to check the reply-to address, and by setting up private email lists for group discussions, you can facilitate an atmosphere of increased privacy.

Building a list of your supporters

So you have 538 Likes on your Facebook page and things are lively. But do you really know who these people are? Do you know how to contact them directly? On the other hand, when you build a subscriber list to email newsletters and discussion lists, you have, at the very least, everyone’s email address. You can build a sign-up form for further info such as phone and address, or you can request additional profile information after folks sign up.

But, keep all channels open

In ExactTarget’s study, the huge advantage of email with regard to recipient preference and campaign effectiveness holds only in connection with permission-based (i.e., opt-in) communications. For example, on a scale of 1 (“completely unacceptable”) to 5 (“completely acceptable”), for “regular status updates or statements on an account you maintain with a company” respondents rated email at 4.1 and Facebook at 2.4.

But what about reaching potential members and supporters who have not yet opted in? In the survey, for message from “companies with whom you regularly conduct business, but have not asked for ongoing information” and for messages from “companies with whom you regularly conduct business, but have not asked for ongoing information,” email still holds an edge, but barely, with only a 2.8-to-2.1 lead for the former, and 2.1-to-1.9 lead for the latter. And, for reasons of common decency, never mind anti-spam laws, emailing folks who have not asked for your information is a lousy, intrusive practice.

You need your supporters to help you recruit more supporters. Back in the day, this meant (and to some extent still does mean) talking it up in the barber shop and on the park bench. Today this increasingly means sharing your content via digital communications. The survey found that email ranks highest overall as the means for people sharing content to friends and family, but — especially in younger age groups, which may indicate a trend line — Facebook makes a strong showing as the preferred way to share.

sharing

So do not delete the Facebook page (or the Tumblr, or the Twitter account, either)! Instead, keep your stream lively with  punchy posts and photos, interact with your Facebook fans, and for those fans and their friends to whom they may share items on your page, integrate a sign-up form (or a link to a form) for your email newsletter and/or discussion list.

Email is still king, but only for willing subjects. Email is private, but your cause also needs a public face. So keep all channels open.

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About ilyse kazar

Ilyse Kazar is a planeteer. She is also a writer, small-org consultant, solutions architect, community organizer, animal lover, eternal student, and amateur artist. She lives and works in the Lower East Side NYC.
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