Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing Chip Giller from grist.org give a talk at the Packard Foundation about their social media strategy and how they used measurement. The talk was so insightful that I’m sharing what I learned. I’m curious to hear from all of you if you’ve developed a ladder of engagement and how it guides your social media integrated strategy – and measurement approach.
Chip Giller launched grist.org in 1999 to counter the stereotype that all environmentalists were either dour doomsayers or holier-than-thou tree-huggers. Says Giller, “Environmentalists will lecture you much about how the polar bears on the Arctic ice cap are so hopeless that you’ll want to jump off the iceberg yourself or ignore the issue. Trust me — I know them well because I used to be one.” Giller, a journalist, established the Seattle-based nonprofit as a destination news web site for environmental news, reports and opinion with a wry sense of humor.
grist.org has succeeded in connecting with a younger audience that not only reads its content but is also inspired to take action. Says Giller, “We avoid the sign the petition type of actions, what we’re after is getting people to change their behavior and thus creating a more environmentally just society.” grist.org’s combination of entertaining content and environmental reporting – dubbed the “The Daily Show of the environmental movement.” They have inspired a whole new generation of environmentalists who don’t take themselves so seriously while creating on the ground change.
grist.org’s mission is to communicate what is going on in the movement around climate and sustainability to a broader audience of people who may not consider themselves environmentalists, help them understand how those issued relate to their everyday lives, and move those people to action.
grist.org is a data-informed organization that uses a ladder of engagement not only to guide its content and social media integration strategy, but uses measurement at each rung of the ladder to ensure that they are getting results. Says Giller, “Our theory of change is engaging users around content that shows how being green can reshape our world can empower personal behavior change and ultimately impact society at large. We’re getting results because a large percentage of our readers have told us that they have taken action based on reading grist.org content.”
grist.org’s ladder of engagement is elegantly simple and illustrates how their audience makes this journey from passive consumers of information to sustainable living champions. The steps include reading, commenting, and sharing stories of personal behavior change. grist.org does not consider page views the holy grail of success for their social media, but an indicator of success at the bottom rung of the ladder. They’re after societal change. If they aren’t successful, the consequences are dire. Or as Giller says, “The planet will get it.”
grist.org’s key results are:
- Footprint: The reach of their activities, both online and offline
- Engagement: Readers engage with their content
- Individual Behavior Change: Impact on users behaviors, purchase decisions, and daily lives that are in line with sustainability
- Societal Change: Impact on society, policy discussions, and conversations that advance sustainable practices.
Giller says that regardless of the topic, they are always thinking in incremental steps of engagement and start with a simple question, “How can we inspire people to take action and change – and use social media as part of this strategy?” Take for example their coverage on food that is devoured by a devoted flock of foodies. That content is some of the site’s top content and people spend longer reading it. Food and climate change are related, but most people don’t associate the two. Readers may come to the site looking for recipes for grass-fed beef, but grist.org’s strategy is to lead them from how to prepare a tasty meal to a broader conversation on policy about nitrogen pollution or sustainable agricultural practices.
Erika Croxton, grist.org development director, says. “We view our social media channels as a fun on ramp to our ladder of engagement. Once we’ve hooked them, we engage with our community until they own the idea and run with it. It means we have to be nimble and responsive.”
For example, they know from their survey research, real-time monitoring, and content analysis of comments on their posts that a lot of people care deeply about environment issues, but don’t self-identify as “environmentalists.” As part of a recent engagement tactic, they crowd sourced terms from people in their network – getting over 250 suggestions. The one that resonated was “Climate Hawks.” Says Erika, “We hatched an idea to host Twitter chats about this using a hashtag #climatehawk and point people over to their content. What’s happened now is that we at least 100 people a week using this hashtag without us pushing it, the mainstream media has adopted it and it attracting many new readers to our site. Someone is even selling bumper stickers with the phrase.”
grist.org has been experimenting with Twitter Chats and fun hashtags to attract people to their content, but also empower them to advocate for on-the-ground change. For example, they launched a series of Twitter Chats called “Bikenomics: Make Cities More Bike Friendly” using the hashtag #bikenomics. The idea is that biking to work is not only is good for the environment but can also help local economies. Among other changes, it requires encouraging employers to have more bike friendly policies. Not only did the Twitter chats help grist.org connect with new readers who were passionate about this idea, but the series helped inspire action from readers who reported on surveys that they encouraged employers to establish bike friendly policies like “bike to work days” or install bike racks.
Another example comes from grist.org’s food and sustainable agriculture coverage sparked by commentary about an article in the New York Times that younger farmers are more likely to shun industrial farming techniques and embrace more sustainable practices. The problem is that average age of farmers is rising, not dropping – and to encourage a sustainable food system, there needs to be more policy support and programs direct at younger farmers.
The readers, mostly foodies interested organic foods, brought the discussion onto Twitter with a fun hashtag #hipsterfarmerbands that was linked back to the articles. Readers suggested humorous names for these bands like – “Radicchiohead” and “Lady Bah Bah.” The tag trended on Twitter, capturing the attention of many new visitors to the site to read and to take action on changing federal policy about supporting younger farmers. Says Erika, once something like this gets started, it takes a life of its own.
Says Giller, “We’ve discovered that integrating social media and properly tending to it and measuring and learning from it, is an effective way for attracting new readers, getting readers to engage with our content, and inspiring action – whether policy change or behavior change.”
The grist.org uses a combination of tools to measure along the ladder of engagement, including Google Analytics, surveys, and real-time monitoring tools. Say Giller, “Our whole team reviews Google Analytics, like sipping fine wine.” We analyze the content that users spend the most time, referral traffic, and other key metrics over time. This helps inform decisions about content topics.
The editorial team, particularly the writers, use real-time monitoring, which is described as “crack.” The team is careful not to do “drive-by” analysis, but balance real-time monitoring with other data sources to make editorial decisions. Says Giller, “Our content often plays off of breaking news, so real-time analysis can be really valuable in editorial choices.”
For example, in August, 2011, when an freak Earthquake hit the east coast, they shared photo of some lawn chairs being turned over with the headline, “Earthquake Damage.” Not only did the photo gets shared and liked by thousands and thousands, it generated mainstream media attention and even word of mouth from prominent climate scientists. Using the real-time data, they quickly followed up with a series of articles highlighting scientific information about how extreme weather instances are tied to climate change.
grist.org has created an engagement index based on commenting, sharing, and clicks – what people are doing with their content . They use this metric to guide decisions about engagement tactics, particularly through social media channels. Perhaps more critical is how they measure impact, including taking action, changing behavior, and participating in policy discussions. They have regular surveys on the site as well as an in-depth annual reader survey that include questions such as “How has our work impacted your daily life?”
The questions are about behavior change to sustainable practices – have they switched from buying bottled water or are they buying more locally sourced produced. grist.org also asks about whether a story has inspired them to pursue an issue by contacting a company or local official. They know from the research that 10% of readers have not taken an action and anecdotally know that those readers consist of people who say, “I’m already so green, I can’t get any greener.”
Giller acknowledges the huge challenge of measuring societal impact, noting, “We can’t really prove cause and effect and to be honest, it is mostly qualitative data. We look at the company we keep, who is asking to be interviewed, how we are able to help drive the conversation about sustainable practices and climate change to people who are not aware of the policy issues and educate them.”
grist.org has garnered considerable insight from its approach of measuring along the ladder about what works. Giller shares, “Our content has to meet people where they’re at – so roughly 70% is introductory level to the issues. We also know that facts alone do not drive behavior change, that it is more important to see those changes modeled in your peer community – whatever that it is. We find shine a light on readers who do make changes – and that inspires others.”
Says Giller, “We have embraced intelligent decision-making, not excessive data collection. There’s so much data we could collect, but it potentially could be a morass. We pay attention to these only 6 key indicators.” The data informs their editorial decisions and choices for social media tactics so they are on track for moving people up the rungs of the ladder – from passive readers to green consumers and ultimately to a more sustainable planet.
Does your organization measure along the ladder of engagement? What do you measure? How? More importantly, what insights has it generated to help you improve your strategy and results?