Spare Change

making a difference with social marketing
by Nedra Kline Weinreich


This post will be somewhat of a Twitter inside baseball topic - not what I usually write about - so if you are not interested in Twitter arcana, you might want to skip this one.

Those of us on Twitter could not have missed the uproar that happened a couple of weeks ago when Twitter management decided to make a "small settings update" to its service by eliminating an option they said was "undesirable and confusing." This change removed the option to see the one side of the conversations people you follow are having with people you don't. Now you can only see these "half conversations" (called @replies) if you follow both people. Sounds like a small thing, but those of us who had chosen to see all @replies are now missing out on interesting conversations, resources and the opportunity to discover new people.

Fairly quickly, word spread across Twitter about the change and a revolt took place as people started tagging their protests with "#fixreplies," which became the top trending topic on Twitter for a few days. After first seeming just clueless about how people use their service, Twitter offered a non-solution posing as a fix and then flat-out said they will not be bringing the option back for technical reasons. The reason from their post:
Even though only 3% of all Twitter accounts ever changed this setting away from the default, it was causing a strain and impacting other parts of the system.
Okay, given the millions of new users that have come on board in the past month or two in the wake of Oprah and Ashton Kutcher's Twitter publicity stunts, it makes sense that the system is strained. But, having been on Twitter since around the end of 2007, I found it hard to believe that only 3% of the other users had touched their @reply settings. And given the extent of the outcry, either this was a very vocal 3% or a lot of people were jumping on the protest bandwagon even though the change did not affect them at all.

More likely, this was a disingenuous statistic chosen by Twitter to make their point, but that does not give the whole story. I suspect that they are counting 3% of anyone who has ever created an account on Twitter - including those who try it out for a day and never come back. A recent Nielsen study found that 60% of those who sign up do not return the following month (though this statistic does not take into account the many who sign up at Twitter.com but actively use TweetDeck or another client application). What if they looked at the percentage of active Twitter users (the people who should actually matter) -- particularly those who have been on the service for a while? Would the percentage change?

This question nagged at me for a while until I decided to do a quick survey to see if my suspicions were right. I created a four-question survey, which asked the following questions:
  1. How long have you been actively using Twitter?
  2. How many people do you follow on Twitter?
  3. Before Twitter took away the option, how was your @Replies option set?
  4. How has the loss of the @Replies option affected your Twitter experience?
I sent out a tweet asking people to complete the survey and to retweet it (repost in Twitter parlance) to their followers as well. My objective was to send it far and wide on Twitter so that it was not just my own Twitter followers responding, but a wide swath of users across the service. The result was that people who were following my account retweeted the post 28 times, with a subsequent total of 118 retweets dispersed around different social circles. I ended up with 402 total responses to the survey.

I will be the first to admit that this sample may not necessarily be statistically representative of all active Twitter users (though if it were, the sample size gives us a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level). Respondents were not chosen randomly, and the people who decided to participate may be more likely to have a strong opinion on the topic. Nonetheless, I think it may be helpful to take a look at the results because this segment of Twitter user has been strongly impacted by the change. (The results for each question can be seen here. I'm happy to share my full statistical analyses as well if you'd like to see them.)

Most respondents had been actively using Twitter for 3-12 months (40%), with 36% on for more than a year and 24% for less than three months. I figured that the longer someone had been using Twitter, the more likely they are to have played around with the options to see what they prefer rather than leaving the default of only seeing @replies when they follow both people.

A vast majority (63%) follow between 50-500 people on Twitter. Next is 501-5000 follows at 24%, fewer than 50 with 12%, and only 2% follow more than 5000. I hypothesized that those who were following more people would probably not notice much of a change in their cluttered feed.

Now, the kicker here is that before the option was taken away, 63% of the respondents had chosen to show all @replies for the people they followed -- much higher than the 3% cited by Twitter. Those who had the default selected - to show only @replies between people they follow - were 19%, plus another 17% who said that they didn't know what option was selected (and presumably hadn't changed the default), for a total of 36%. And only 1% had chosen the option not to see any @replies unless directed at them.

Finally, 57% said that the loss of the @replies option had affected their Twitter experience for the worse. These were presumably those who had the option taken away from them, but could also be people who did not want to see all @replies for people who started making their replies visible to everyone, such as by putting a character before the "@" symbol or embedding the @reply name within or at the end of the tweet. Only 5% said their experience was better and 39% reported no change (close to the 36% who were already set at the default option).

I also ran some chi-square stats to see how these variables affected each other and created some nifty charts at Chartle.net. Here's what I found (only reporting the statistically significant correlations at p<.05): The number of people that respondents were following on Twitter correlated with how long they had been on the service, at the highest and lowest following numbers. But most people - no matter how long they had been on - were comfortably in the 50-500 range.

Users who had been on Twitter for a longer time were more likely to choose the "show all @replies" option, with 72.2% of old-timers who had been on for at least a year and 65.2% of those on 3-12 months. Still, almost half (46.3%) of the newbies on for less than three months also selected that option.

Not surprisingly, given that time on Twitter and number following are correlated, the more people a respondent followed, the more likely they were to select the "show all @replies" option (<50=41.7%, 500="64.1%," 5000="72.6%),"
The quality of respondents' experience on Twitter after the policy change, as you would expect, depended on which @reply option they had selected before all defaulted to showing only mutual @replies. For those with the "show all" option, 78.2% said their experience is worse, the direct opposite of the other two options (show only mutual=72.9%, show none=75.0%). The correlation between number following and quality of current experience on Twitter also mirrors the distribution of @replies option selected.

***

So what does this all mean? Even if this sample is not representative of all Twitter users, it does represent a substantial segment of users who are not as happy with their experience on the site since the option was taken away. Twitter would be smart to pay attention to this group, which is not only comprised of crotchety old-timers and "power users." To avoid losing these disgruntled users, Twitter needs to come up with a way to bring back seeing all @replies in a way that they can live with. At the very least, Twitter needs to be honest about the percentage of its actual active users (not including abandoned accounts) who were using the "show all @replies" option. Whether it's closer to 3% or 63%, by dismissing those who were upset by the #fixreplies kerfuffle as a tiny group of whiners, Twitter increased user dissatisfaction and the likelihood of defection should a service come along that works harder to meet its users' needs.

UPDATE (6/1/09):
New research
that has just come out from Harvard from a random sample of 300,000 Twitter users in May 2009 shows that the top 10% of Twitter users account for over 90% of tweets. And the median number of lifetime tweets per Twitter users is one. So there is a huge difference between the typical Twitter account and an active Twitter account.

This backs up my survey findings that many more active Twitter users were affected by the recent @replies option change than Twitter was willing to admit. To say that only 3% of users had selected the "see all @replies" option was extremely deceptive when it turns out that 90% or so of the total Twitter accounts are not even being actively used. Those who do use their accounts tend to opt to see all @replies. Twitter should not be able to so easily dismiss this loud, vocal majority.


Image Credit: monettenriquez
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Many of you know that human trafficking and modern-day slavery are the issues I care most about and have volunteered the most time and energy. That's why I was honored to be approached for a guest post by author Ron Soodalter, who has just written a book with Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, called The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. Though awareness is becoming more widespread, far too many people still believe that this is not an issue in the US. Awareness is the first step toward action, so though this post is not specifically about social marketing, I hope that may be the next step we can take together.

A Blight on the Nation: Slavery in Today’s America
by Ron Soodalter

The American humorist Will Rogers once said, “It ain’t that we’re so dumb; it’s just that what we know ain’t so.”

Certain things we know to be true. We know that the South kept slaves, and the North fought a righteous war of liberation. We know that the slave trade was legal right up to the Civil War. We know that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves, and that the United States has been slavery-free ever since. These things we know – and none of it is true.

On the other hand, most of us do not know that slavery not only exists throughout the world today; it flourishes. Slavery is legal nowhere, yet it is practiced everywhere. With an estimated 27 million people in bondage worldwide, it is the second or third most lucrative criminal enterprise of our time, after drugs, and maybe guns. More than twice as many people are in bondage in the world today as were taken in chains during the entire 350 years of the African Slave Trade. In seeking to place blame, we’re tempted to point to the “emerging nations” as the culprits, whereas in fact slavery exists in such “civilized” countries as England, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, China…and the United States. Most Americans are clueless that slavery is alive and more than well right here, thriving in the dark, and practiced in many forms in places you’d least expect.

As a student of history, I’d always assumed that slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment. Some years back, I had written nearly an entire book on the pre-Civil War slave trade when I stumbled on an account of slavery – in present-day America! My first response - a common one, as it turns out - was denial: “No way. Slavery has had no place here since the time of Lincoln.”

Only after extensive research did I discover that slavery has always existed on this continent, from the days of its European discovery right up to the present day. Christopher Columbus enslaved the Taino Indians, setting a precedent that was followed by every European power to claim land in the New World. Slavery became the social and economic order. After the Civil War, and for decades right up to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, planters practiced a form of debt bondage known as peonage, binding workers and their families to the land in an unending cycle of slavery. For over sixty years, our own government has enabled worker abuse and slavery through the mismanagement of its “guest worker” program. And now, with the global population more than tripled since World War II, and with national borders collapsing around the world, people - in their desperate quest for a way to survive – have become easy targets for human traffickers. And once again, America is a prime destination.

So how many slaves are we talking about? According to a U.S. State Department study, some 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States from at least 35 countries and enslaved each year. Some victims are smuggled into the United States across the Mexican and Canadian borders; others arrive at our major airports daily, carrying either real or forged papers. The old slave ship of the 1800s has been replaced by the 747. Victims come here from Africa, Asia, India, Latin America, and the former Soviet Republic. Overwhelmingly, they come on the promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosper in America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support or send for their families. In order to afford the journey, they fork over their life savings, and go into debt to people who make promises they have no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when they arrive they find bondage. They can be found – or more accurately, not found – in all 50 states, working as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory laborers, gardeners, restaurant and construction workers, and victims of sexual exploitation. These people do not represent a class of poorly paid employees, working at jobs they might not like. They exist specifically to work, they are unable to leave, and are forced to live under the constant threat and reality of violence. By definition, they are slaves. Today, we call it human trafficking, but make no mistake: It is the slave trade.

Nor are native-born Americans immune from slavers; many are stolen or enticed from the streets of their own cities and towns. Some sources, including the federal government, estimate in the hundreds of thousands the number of U.S. citizens – primarily children – at risk of being caught in slavery annually. Although these figures may be inflated, the precise number of slaves in the United States, whether trafficked in from other countries or enslaved from our own population, is simply not known. The simple truth is, we’re looking at a crime that lives in the shadows; it’s hard to count what you can’t find.

What is particularly infuriating is the fact that this is a crime that, as a rule, goes unpunished. For the moment, let’s accept the government’s estimate of about 17,000 foreign nationals trafficked into slavery in the United States per year; coincidentally there are also about 17,000 people murdered in the US each year. The national success rate in solving murder cases is about 70%; around 11,000 murders are “cleared” annually. But according to the US government’s own numbers, the annual percentage of trafficking and slavery cases solved is less than 1%. In 2007, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division obtained 103 convictions for human trafficking, with an average sentence of 9 years.

And to further complicate matters, when they are rescued, survivors often deny their situation. There are several reasons for this: the language barrier, a deep sense of shame, fear for their lives and those of their families in their country of origin, and a sense of obligation to pay their debt. In addition, the traffickers program them to fear the police and immigration officials. And in some instances, they come to identify with their keepers.

We don’t yet know how President Obama will respond to the human trafficking crisis; it’s too soon to tell. But we do know that the response under the Bush Administration was inadequate on any number of levels. In a speech on trafficking, Bush once stated, “We're beginning to make good, substantial progress. The message is getting out: We’re serious. And when we catch you, you’ll find out we’re serious. We’re staying on the hunt.” Strong words. But the unvarnished truth is, with less than 1% of the bad guys apprehended, and less than 1% of the victims freed, it sounds a lot more like spin than fact; meanwhile, the flow of human “product” into America continues practically unchecked.

This is the kind of knowledge you can’t “unlearn”; the only question is, what do you do with the information once you have it? It’s a question we must all address for ourselves. We tend to think of our America as the country where slavery has no place; the dire truth is, we are pretty far from freedom, and it will take a lot of work and dedication – by the government, and by us - to make it so.
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It's been a while since I've done one of my Tip Jar round-ups of interesting links and pieces of information here on Spare Change. If you follow my Twitter feed (@Nedra) or links I bookmark on Delicious, you may have seen these and many other useful items already; in fact, I see so many great resources every day that it's hard to pick just a few to share.

Happy Mother's Day to all of you who are blessed to have the world's best and hardest job!
  • Show your support for the effort spearheaded by Craig Lefebvre to finally get a professional social marketing association off the ground. Join the 100 or so people who have signed it so far by adding your name to the ePetition that lays out the process by which this organization will be formed. I've written about the need for a professional association, which has been a long time coming. Kudos to Craig and the others who took the reins to make this happen!
  • The CDC's 3rd annual National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media will be happening in Atlanta, GA, August 11-13. I'm on the planning committee, and am very excited about the quality of the sessions we are going to be offering. Bill Novelli has just been confirmed as a keynote speaker, and we'll be featuring other high-level speakers yet to be announced. Like last year, I will be offering one of the pre-conference half day workshops, this time on building a social media strategy. CDC eHealth Marketing staff will be conducting an introductory-level social media workshop as well. I hope to see you at the conference!
  • Thanks to Andre Blackman of Pulse + Signal, I found the healthGAMERS blog that focuses on games designed to promote health. Some games focus on education, some are geared toward motivating behavior change, and others actually require healthy activities to occur as part of the game. Andre writes about the Stop Swine Flu game that makes it easy for kids to visualize how easily germs spread. If you are interested in learning more about this field, the Games for Health Conference will be happening June 11-12 in Boston.
  • Speaking of flu, Advertising Age published an excellent article offering ten things marketers can learn from the CDC's response to the H1N1 flu outbreak. These lessons include items like: empower those who want to help others, make search simple and accessible, syndicate the message and more. The CDC has done many things right in its communications efforts, and even though the efforts are still evolving, we can learn from and improve upon what we do.
  • If you work for a marketing firm, you may be able to relate to the episodes of a new comedy web series called Groupthink. The short videos follow a pair of friends as they start their firm, invent new buzzwords, and conduct focus groups for wacky products.
  • If you want to use storytelling to get your messages out in an effective way online, A Storied Career blog (another new favorite of mine) posted an excellent round-up of a dozen web-based storytelling tools. I would also add to these a site that my 11-year old son uses regularly called Bitstrips, which makes it incredibly easy to create professional-looking comics.
  • Gennefer Snowfield (@gennefer) interviewed me about social marketing on the TriplePundit blog. It's a general introduction to social marketing and its relationship to cause marketing. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Photo Credit: Dain Sandoval
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The tiny H1N1 virus pictured above (the influenza formerly known as "Swine")* has brought me back to this blog after a long hiatus. As those of you who have read this blog for a while know, I have written quite a bit about pandemic preparedness from a social marketing perspective both here at Spare Change and as an invited blogger on the HHS Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog in 2007.

At that time, a pandemic seemed like a far-off risk, though we knew it was more a question of 'when' than 'if.' Since then, HHS and CDC have been working hard to increase preparedness at the national, state and local levels. From the rapid and effective response we've seen so far, it appears that they have done good work in that arena. Health departments and school districts in the US, and especially in Mexico City, have been quick to identify cases, isolate them and implement social distancing measures to keep people away from each other.

But I'd hoped we would have been further along prior to a pandemic in the areas of public awareness and preparedness. I'm currently involved in the social media piece of a CDC contract that is building grassroots coalitions to increase pandemic preparedness at the community level. As you can imagine, this project has been refocused to be H1N1-specific, and the timeline has been greatly accelerated. Our biggest concern, up until a week or so ago, was 'how do we get people to understand what a pandemic is and why they should care?' Suddenly, awareness is no longer an issue. But that also means that we are dealing with many other challenges that did not previously exist.

I believe that the CDC and WHO have done an excellent job of getting information out about the virus, its victims and how to prevent the spread of the flu. They are providing straightforward facts without hype and avoiding alarmism in their communications. The social media team has been especially innovative in providing online tools and maintaining an active presence on various online social media sites.

Unfortunately the 24-hour news machine, which by its nature needs to be constantly fed with new information, different angles on the same story, and attention-grabbing visuals, sank its teeth into the pandemic story and ran with it. Constant stories about new victims, pictures of people wearing masks, and ridiculous overreactions like that of Egypt, which slaughtered all of the country's 300,000 pigs, overwhelmed the public. Even Vice President Joe Biden put his foot in his mouth and said that he advised his family to stay off airplanes and subways, going far beyond any recommendations given by the government and adding to the sense of panic (he later backtracked).

A backlash has been building against the perceived hysteria, which has created its own new problems. People with the sniffles are flooding emergency rooms and demanding to be screened for H1N1. Tamiflu and Purell are flying off the shelves. People are wearing masks when going out in public, even though the masks are designed more for preventing a sick person from spreading their illness rather than protection from the other direction. The result is that many people are afraid and are growing weary of having their guard up with no perceived benefit.

Luckily, it appears that for now, this H1N1 virus may not be the Big One. It's too early to know whether it will mutate and come back in a more virulent form, as the 1918 influenza virus did. And it's impossible to know what might have happened with it had precautions not been imposed from the very beginning. Greg Dworkin of the Flu Wiki does an excellent job of explaining how seemingly drastic measures at the beginning of a pandemic can make all the difference in the outcomes. But prevention gets no respect. It's really hard to get excited about something that didn't happen. Many people don't understand that the public health system has to act on the potential threat, not waiting to see how bad it will get before intervening. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Whichever way the body count goes, the government would not win with its critics. It will either be accused of overhyping the threat or it will be accused of not being prepared enough. Michael Coston captured this Catch-22 well in his post "Predicting the Unpredictable":
The more successful they are in containing this outbreak, or in mitigating its effects, the more criticism they will receive in the press for over-blowing the threat.
And when this pandemic comes and goes without too much incident, particularly in the US, people may become complacent the next time we find ourselves facing a nasty virus. The government is seen as the bureaucrats who cried wolf and important recommendations may be ignored.

So what do we need to be doing to take this situation into account as we develop our communication efforts around pandemic preparedness? I have some recommendations:
  • We may have a window of opportunity for individuals and families to begin the process of gathering the supplies they would need in the case of an extended severe pandemic to survive at home sheltering in place. I think that HHS did a good thing by not emphasizing the need to stockpile food while we were in the thick of the beginning of the outbreak, thereby avoiding panic and shortages. But once the danger has passed, messages about slowly but steadily building up a supply of food, water and medical supplies must begin. (Here is an excellent pdf guide to pandemic preparedness and response.)
  • Complacency is a real danger. Messages should make the point that a severe pandemic remains a real possibility and that prevention measures kept this H1N1 virus in check. Parallels with the 1918 influenza virus, which started out relatively mild but returned in a second wave in a more virulent form, may illustrate the possible risks. In any case, the same good hygiene habits that prevent the spread of H1N1 will benefit people by keeping away seasonal flu as well and should be continued.
  • We must take care not to use fear-based messaging and imagery because this can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness -- not useful emotions when trying to get people to take action. Messages should emphasize how being prepared puts you in control. During turbulent times, giving people steps they can take to prevent or mitigate problems makes them feel empowered and capable. That's what we need!
  • Government agencies need to avoid any perceptions that their decisions are being made based on politics rather than science. In chatting with an acquaintance who was at NIH during the 1976 Swine flu epidemic, I learned that he strongly advised against proceeding with making the vaccine public because of safety concerns. He was overruled in favor of political considerations; 25 people died and hundreds of others were paralyzed from the faulty vaccine. While some conspiracy theorists will find nefarious motivations in any government actions, don't give reasonable people cause to doubt the basis of your policies.
  • Emphasize that being prepared for a pandemic will benefit them for many other types of disasters as well. Many of the same recommendations for food, water and medical supplies apply for regional hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. It never hurts to be prepared, and often helps.
  • Continue to use social media to monitor what people are saying about pandemic flu-related issues. This can give you an idea of incorrect information or rumors that are being passed around, or the questions that keep coming up that need to be answered.
  • The government needs to be proactive about getting its messages out, beyond the news media. Television ads, entertainment education outreach, radio and outdoor media all could be used effectively to motivate people to prepare for another pandemic episode. Social media efforts can be expanded from primarily news coverage to help people learn more about preparedness activities.
  • The tone of the information needs to continue to be straightforward and factual, but emotionally appealing to various audiences. Right now the messages are very general, but they should be tailored to different key groups. If only we had a C. Everett Koop-style figure -- or at least a Surgeon General!
This will be a challenge. But on the bright side, we have a higher level of pandemic awareness than I ever thought possible. We need to take full advantage of this window of opportunity.


*Thanks to Michael Coston for that very cute name!


Image credit: CDC Influenza Laboratory
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